The sad news arrived this week that Italy is truly, finally getting its first Starbucks — which seems like the perfect time to talk about coffee in Italy. You know, Italian coffee in Italy. What it is. How to order it. What the various kinds (macchiato, lungo, cappuccino, mamma mia!) really mean. And, naturally, where to find the best coffee in Rome (and beyond).
But first, let’s get one thing out of the way: what coffee in Italy is not.
How to know your coffee isn’t Italian-style
Italian coffee is not something you would mistake on the first sip for a weirdly hot milkshake. It does not require 10 minutes of you patiently waiting for a barista to make it only to then grab it to go and rush out the door with it in your hand as if, at that precise moment, the urgency of your situation suddenly became apparent. It is not served in a cup so large it could be mistaken for an army barracks stock pot.
And it does not in any way taste like peppermint, spiced pumpkin or like what would happen if you burned butter, added it to raw bitter greens, then boiled the two together. (Yes: that last point means properly-done espresso, from good-quality beans, does not have that burned, bitter taste that you get from a mug of classic Starbucks roast).<p?
Got it? Good!
Okay, fine, but what’s the big deal with Italian coffee, anyway?
For one thing, because Italians invented coffee culture. No, they weren’t the first to harvest—or brew—the beans. But they were the first in Europe to open a coffee house (Venice, 1629), to invent the espresso machine (Turin, 1884) and to come up with the macchinetta (the stovetop percolator first produced by Bialetti, still the leading creator of the moka, in 1933).
Or, as the owner of Caffè Sant’Eustachio in Rome once put it to me years ago, when I asked him why he thought not a single Starbucks had opened in Rome:
“Macchiatto, espresso, cappuccino — these are all Italian names. Why would we buy the American version of these drinks when we’re the ones who invented them?”
You’ve convinced me. So what do I need to know about having coffee in Italy?
First, that if you look — or ask — for a cafe, you might wind up a little confused. What we would call cafes, Italians call bars. A caffè is the coffee itself. Once you’ve got that figured out, you’ll notice there’s one on pretty much every street corner.
Second, that oh-so-European-seeming tradition of lingering with your coffee (and, let’s be honest, a cigarette) at a table on a piazza, watching the world go by? Yeah, no. Not in Italy, generally speaking.
Italians will have coffee four or five times a day—but they’ll pop into a bar and drink it standing up at the counter. It’s a 30-second process, not a two-hour one. If you want to linger like a local on a piazza, wait for your evening aperitivo. (More on that coming soon).
Which is also why, especially in touristic areas, you’ll be charged a different price for sitting down with your coffee than if you drink it at the bar. Sometimes way different. And it’s why, when you sit down, you’ll probably notice it’s just tourists sitting around you.
Note that, the farther you get from a touristic center, the less this applies. In the real mom-and-pop places frequented just by locals, you can pay for your coffee and then bring it over to sit with at one of their tables without anyone getting mad at you for not paying.
Rule of thumb: If you walk into a bar and someone asks you if you want to sit like they’re going to serve you, then know you’ll be charged a higher price. If no one asks you if you want to sit, and there are empty tables with people casually sitting here and there with their papers, then you’re probably fine to pay for your coffee, get it at the counter, and bring it to sit down.
Wait, I pay for my coffee before drinking it?
Yes! At traditional bars, the way it works is this way: Go to the cash register, say what you want (including any extras, like a cornetto), and pay there. Cash only — don’t even ask about credit. Take your receipt to the counter and hand it to the barista, who will whip it up for you on the spot.
Note that an espresso usually costs €0.80, maybe €0.90 in a touristic area. If you’re paying €1 or more, you’re probably in a tourist trap. Or in Venice.
What kind of coffee can I order?
You may not have the myriad flavor shot/vegan/low-fat options that result in orders like “triple venti no-foam half-sweet caramel macchiato, please”. (Thank God). But you do have a lot of options.
Just remember that they may not mean what you think. One of my favorite stories about coffee in Italy was from a tourist I met who told me, a little sheepishly, that when she first arrived in Italy, she was really excited to order coffee for the first time. Since she thought she knew the lingo thanks to all those Starbucks menus, she proudly ordered a “latte.” The server looked at her funny. “Caldo o freddo?”, he asked. (Hot or cold?). “Caldo, of course!” she said. He disappeared for a moment, returned, and handed her exactly what she’d asked for: a cup of hot milk.
Caffè: This literally means “coffee.” But in Rome, that means an espresso: a single shot of coffee, no water or milk added. Sometimes, the barista will double-check to make sure, asking, “Espresso?” or “Caffè normale?” (“normal coffee?”). This, by the way, is pretty much the only acceptable coffee to drink after noon in Rome, and definitely after meals.
Cappuccino: Espresso topped with hot, foamed milk.
Caffè americano: It’s rare to find American-style filter coffee here. Instead, the closest most cafés can get, and what they call an “americano,” is an espresso with hot water added.
Caffè lungo: A “long” coffee, i.e. a coffee with more water. It’s different than an americano, because the difference actually happens at the espresso machine: While the espresso is being pulled, the process is slowed down, so there’s twice as much water involved.
Caffè macchiato: A “spotted” coffee—meaning spotted with a splash of milk. The barista might ask, “Latte caldo o freddo?”, asking whether you want the milk hot or cold.
Latte macchiato: “Spotted” milk—in this case, milk “spotted” with coffee.
Caffè corretto: This is a fun one! It’s a “corrected” coffee, meaning corrected… with alcohol.
Caffè shakerato: The closest thing to a Starbucks frappuccino you’ll find—and a favorite in the hot summer months—this is coffee “shaken up” with ice and sugar.
What are the best places for coffee in Italy (especially Rome)?
The best coffee I’ve ever had in Italy was at Caffe Mexico, in Naples. (My runner-up: Gran Caffe Gambrinus, also in Naples).
In fact, I may be biased (and particularly pro-Naples), but I find that the further south in Italy you go, the better the coffee gets. And yes, this means that it gets worse and waterier the further north you go… especially once you’ve skipped over the border to France. But, like I said, I’m biased. Note that espresso is served very hot—and the cup is hot, too—as per tradition here.
In Rome, it’s usually all but impossible to find a place that serves both good coffee and great pastries (it tends to be one or the other: 99% of bars in Rome serve cornetti and other pastries that are mass-produced and frozen, just heated up and dusted with some powdered sugar to make them look “fresh”). Then there’s Cafe Barberini in Testaccio. Good coffee, plus Barberini makes its own pastries fresh. And those of you with Starbucks-style dietary requirements can get soy milk—a rarity in Rome.
Then there are the institutions: Sant’Eustachio il Caffè near the Pantheon, which is always completely rammed with both locals and tourists; Tazza d’Oro, also near the Pantheon, same story; and Sciascia Caffe in Prati, near the Vatican, which serves the best coffee of them all.
Which are your favorite spots for coffee in Italy? Let me know in the comments!
If you liked this post, you’ll love The Revealed Rome Handbook: Tips and Tricks for Exploring the Eternal City, available for purchase on Amazon or through my site here! I’m also free for one-on-one consulting sessions to help plan your Italy trip.