Many claim that espresso is the Italian drink. And like everything the Italians do, the preparation of this sacred drink should not be taken lightly. That's why when you travel to Italy, you must have un caffè. What is it about this tiny cup of coffee that makes everyone go wild? Let's explore how coffee became what it is today and some of the dos and don'ts of ordering espresso in Italy.
Coffee traces its roots back to ancient Ethiopia, where it's said that a man named Kaldi discovered the berry. After feeding them to his goats, they became so energetic they didn't sleep. He shared his discovery with the local monastery's Abbott, who then prepared a drink with the berry and reported similar findings. Word of this magical berry spread fast, reaching the Arabian Peninsula in the 15th century, and Europe in the 17th century.
Coffee houses were frequented for all sorts of social activities in early European history. Coffee replaced common breakfast drinks (beer and wine), and people began noticing that they were more alert and energized for the day's work. In the mid 18th century, coffee made its way to New Amsterdam (aka New York). Like in Europe, coffee houses bloomed, and coffee closely followed tea as the favored drink. The defining moment for coffee in America? You guessed it: The Boston Tea Party.
Guide and Rules for Ordering Coffee in Italy
1) Cappuccino is only for breakfast. The barista will make you a cappuccino at any time of day, but if you want to blend it with the locals, be sure to order yours before noon. Why? I'm not exactly sure... it's an Italian thing.
2) If you ask for a coffee, you will get espresso. "Un caffè" translates to "an espresso." Here's how to order un caffè:
- Caffè: Espresso
- Caffè doppio: Double shot of espresso
- Caffè ristretto: Espresso with less hot water
- Caffè americano: Espresso with added hot water
- Caffè macchiato: Espresso with a drop of steamed milk (this usually costs that same as a caffè)
- Caffè con panna: Espresso topped with whipped cream
- Caffè corretto: Espresso with a drop of liquor, such as sambuca
- Caffè latte: Espresso with steamed milk. Warning: if you ask for a "latte," you will get a glass of milk because latte means milk
- Caffè shakerato: Great for hot summer days, this cool drink is espresso with sugar and ice, shaken like a martini and poured into a chilled glass
- Cappuccino: My personal favorite, and Italy's signature drink, is espresso with the perfect ratio of steamed milk to espresso
- Caffè marocchino: Caffè Americano with a drop of steamed milk and topped with a dash of cocoa powder
- Caffè d'orzo: Not exactly a caffè, the orzo is an Italian coffee substitute made from barley, and therefore caffeine-free. It has an earthy, mild, bitter taste
- Caffè corretto: A coffee with whiskey–literally means "corrected coffee." You will see lots of the older men in the bars drinking these early in the morning.
--> Fun fact: To protect the standard of the espresso and cappuccino, there's an association called the Istituto Nazionale Espresso Italiano. They hold an annual championship to see who can make the best espresso and cappuccino.
3) There is (usually) no such thing as drip or flavored coffee. When in Italy, do as the Italians do. Embrace new flavors and try new things. But, if you're really craving your pumpkin spice macchiato extra extra with a shot of espresso, try a caffè shakerato (see #2), which is sometimes made with chocolate syrup.
4) A "café" in English is called a "bar" in Italy. No, we don't have a drinking problem. We have a coffee problem. Voted on by our team, here are our favorite Italian cafés:
- Caffè Gilli, Florence
- Bianchi Café and Cycles, Milan
- Rivoire, Florence
- Caffè al Bicerin, Turin
- La Pasqualina, Bergamo
5) Payment is made before or after you order, it depends. At rest stops, I have usually had to pay, get a receipt, then head to the bar. If you have table service, the bill will come at the end. My rule is that if you see receipts laid out on the counter, it usually means you have to pay beforehand.
6) Don't expect fancy designs with your microfoam. Leaf? Dragon? Heart? Not in Italy.
Make Your Own Espresso
There are many ways to make your own real Italian espresso at home, from Nespresso machines to commercial barista bars. But none do it better than Italian-made Bialetti. This two-part cast aluminum espresso pot was invented in the 1930s, and is now found in nine out of 10 Italian homes— including mine! It comes in many sizes, from 1 cup to an astounding 18 cups. That's a lot of espresso, but is there really such a thing as too much coffee? I'll let you decide...
Jacopo's Italian Coffee Lesson
If you are lucky enough to join Ciclismo Classico guide Jacopo Montobbio on a tour, he gives an excellent coffee lesson––super fun! He's our coffee expert. Jacopo normally leads our Savor Sardinia, Piedmont and all Tuscany tours.
Join us for fantastic foodie-inspired cycling vacations that include olive oil samplings, cooking lessons, wine tastings, and of course, plenty of authentic Italian caffè.