What to Know About Coffee in Italy — And Where to Find the Best Coffee in Rome

Where to find the best coffee in Rome

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 meanAnd, 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?

You mean, why does Italian coffee have such cachet that leading coffee chains worldwide all give their menu items Italian names… no matter how American/British/fill-in-the-blank their drinks really are?
Best coffee in Italy at Naples Caffe Mexico
At the best Italian bars, like Caffe Mexico in Naples, making an espresso is down to a science

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?”

Finally, Italian coffee is really, really good. At least when it’s done the traditional way — and done right. Here’s how it’s supposed to be: using dark beans that have little oil to them, compared to other kinds. Roasting the beans just right. Grinding them only right before the coffee is brewed. And then brewing it for a specific amount of time to mathematical precision with an espresso machine.
The result: a perfectly brewed cup that is rich and full-bodied — but never tastes burned or overly bitter. That’s a proper coffee in Italy. (Or anywhere, for that matter).
Coffee in Italy, sometimes cheerful!
Also, if you’re lucky your cappuccino might be smiling at you, which is sort of the best thing ever

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).

A great spot for coffee in Italy and Rome
Locals having a quick pick-me-up at Rome’s Antico Caffe del Brasile

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.

Some of the best coffee in Italy
A cappuccino in Rome

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.

Best place for coffee and cornetti in Rome
A fresh cornetto from Cafe Barberini in Rome

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!

Also: six of the best trattorias in Rome, the most idyllic island escapes and 11 etiquette mistakes not to make eating in Italy.

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.

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8 comments

  1. Ms. Ruggeri,

    Thanks so much for your website. I have used it extensively to plan six days in Rome (June 2 – June 7) when my wife and I head over for two weeks in Italy and then two weeks in Germany at the end of this month.

    The only reason that I have not purchased your book is because I do not, nor will I, have a Kindle. I am “old school, dawg”. Anyhooo…I mention your site whenever I discuss our upcoming trip with others. You have become Saint Amanda of Ruggeri because of my tendency to start almost every sentence with, “Amanda writes that….”.

    Thanks so much in advance.

    Anthony M. Fischer

    1. That’s so nice to hear, Anthony! Thanks for the kind words. And I hear you on the Kindle. (Though let me know if you’re not too old school for an iPad or iPhone… I have versions for those as well!). Thanks so much again for stopping by and I hope you have a fantastic trip.

  2. Ms. Ruggeri,
    Please indulge one other comment from me. After reading your pleas for people to visit the Galleria Borghese, I did some research to find out why. And when I saw what was there (and these were things I have wanted to see for a loooong time), I booked tickets. Thanks for pointing me in the direction of masterpieces that I probably would have overlooked.

    And yeah…iPads and iPhones just have not found a place in my universe as of yet.

    Thanks for the great website…
    Anthony M. Fischer

  3. Lovely

    Where can I buy good beans in Naples ?

    Can you recommend a place to buy coffee grinder in Naples ?

    Gracia

  4. Amanda,

    I wish I’d read this before I packed my son off to Rome on a school trip. He’s about to turn seventeen and is ready- ready- ready to get a taste of life in the food chain (Italian style). I’m sending him the link to this site, but is there a particular place you might recommend? Thanking you in advance.

  5. Great Post Amanda!

    It’s always a pleasure to read a good post on Italian coffee, as an Italian myself 🙂

    Btw, you just missed my favourite kind of coffee. Whooops!

    I always have my coffee “Ristretto”, which basically is a 3/4 of a Caffè Normale. And I usually have it black.

    I live in Turin, and we use a “hack” to figure out if a cup coffee is good. If your ristretto or normale tastes good without sugar, then the coffee is good enough 🙂

    If it doesn’t taste good without sugar, run away asap!

  6. I’m loving your site, and sharing all of these articles with my husband. We are honeymooning in Italy next week!

    He loves coffee. I’m more of a tea (or hot cocoa) gal. Are these options typically available at the bars as well?

    1. They are, Hailey, though tea options may be very limited. It’s definitely a coffee town! Let me know how you got on, and happy honeymoon!

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