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How to drink Italian coffee

Tuesday, March 25th, 2008

The Tradition

I’ve been living in Tuscany, Italy, for a few years now and one of the habits that I have had picked up is the art of coffee drinking.

Italian coffeeThis may sound simple but as I have found out coffee is no laughing matter when it comes to Italian’s. The way we might say “Would you like to get a drink together?” when you meet an old friend on the street, an Italian would say “Shall we take a coffee together?” All day at work Italian’s spend their time working between espressos and no one shall take that time away from them. I worked with a chef who exactly at 10:30 every morning (just before service) would stop whatever he was doing, even if it wasn’t finished, and go across the street for his second espresso of the day.

In this way I often build up to four or five espresso’s a day. I can get a bit jumpy, but I am on the low side of the coffee drinkers of Italy. Once, while doing a tasting for school I had to drink 5 espressos in an hour. I shook and bounced for the rest of the day feeling like caffeine had been injected straight into my veins. The teacher who gave the demonstration was on his second class of the day. It was his 12th espresso when it was my 5th. He didn’t even bat an eye, though it may have twitched slightly.

Picking a style

Each Italian has his or her own special way of drinking a coffee.

Macchiato: espresso with a splash of milk

Caffè corto: short espresso

Caffè lungo: long espresso

Cappuccino: espresso with steamed milk over top

There is even caffè Americano, you guessed it…watered down espresso.

With sugar, sweetener, or just amaro; black, everything is a decision, a style, part of who you are.

Picking a signature way to drink your coffee is an essential part of jumping into Italian culture. People will remember these things about you.

My husband’s grandmother doesn’t give me a spoon after dinner when it is time for coffee. “You drink yours black,” she says, “so you don’t need a spoon”. Well, alright I think, Heavens forbid I should change my mind for a cup and decide to have a little sugar. I hadn’t been sleeping well after a trip back from the states so I refused a cup of espresso one night after dinner. She starred at me and asked if I was alright? She asked me if I was alright five times before the night was over. “But you always drink coffee.”


There are a few rules that should be followed if you want to drink your coffee without sticking out like a tourist who doesn’t know his or her coffee edict.

  1. Always say ciao, or buongiorno (or buona sera if it is after 2pm) when you enter a coffee shop. Always say ciao and grazie, in that order, to all of the employees when you leave.
  2. Stand at the bar and drink your coffee as fast as possible even if it means creating burn blisters in your throat. It is impolite to sip. Most guide books suggestion you stand at the bars as a way to avoid the table charge, but table charges are not generally high (a euro or two…usually less than a tip would be), and you can sit at a table if you feel like it. But, if you want the true Italian style stand at the bar and chug your coffee.
  3. If you, by some fluke, finish your coffee before anyone else you are with; pay for your coffee and theirs while they are finishing up. Even if they argue, you must insist for some reason or another that it is your time to pay. My husband loves to do this as I stand at the bar trying to choke down the bubbling hot liquid feeling more panicked every second now that he has drunk his coffee, paid, and is quietly waiting for me by the door having already said all of his “ciao grazie’s”. Everyone in the bar looks at me like I have three heads. What? It’s hot. I am building tolerance though, and one of these days I’m going to pay.
  4. Never, under any circumstances order a cappuccino after 11:00am, and most positively never after dinner. Cappucino has milk, and is therefore considered a breakfast food. It is strange to eat breakfast food after dinner. If you simply cannot go without the milk have a macchiato, just a splash of milk to easy the pain.
  5. Never pay more than eighty cents for an espresso. If it costs more switch bars, there is one every three feet so you should be able to find one, and if you can’t find one than switch towns. Coffee is best when it is cheap, strong, and in your own signature style.

Want to drink excellent Italian coffee on your next holiday? Here is a selection of hotels in Italy recommended by Venere‘s users for a breakfast coffee:

Photo mosaic of Italian coffee originally posted by Latente | A pocket full of unexposed film

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About the author

Venere Travel Blog writer fiona lapham

Fiona Lapham is married to an Italian and lives in a small town in Italy just outside of Florence. She has a BA in Anthropology and Writing, and a 2-year degree in culinary arts from The Culinary Institute of Florence. She loves living under the Tuscan sun though she often finds the hilarity, instead of the romance, to be Italy’s most exciting offering.

5 responses to “How to drink Italian coffee”

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  1. mike coyle says:
    March 25th, 2008 at 11:42

    Lovely article. I have lived in Italy for more than 2 years and agree with what you say. However, I always choose a cappuccino, that is my signature drink! I know people think I am wierd but it’s enough to tell them that I’m English. Then all is understood.

  2. Cleo says:
    March 26th, 2008 at 10:47

    I liked your article very much, Fiona. Maybe someone could write down an article about “How to MAKE Italian coffee at home”…I think it could be very useful for all espresso-lovers!

  3. gabriele says:
    June 19th, 2008 at 16:20

    Very good article Fiona, and I think I can say it because I live in Florence and I work in the coffee world (I’m also the teacher of a coffee school…)
    I want to add that I have noticed how some foreign people find difficult to distinguish between Moka and Espresso machine, they suppose to have the same result with both machine.
    Espresso coffee can just be gotten with an espresso machine, and it is the only one that offer the typical hazelnut-nuance cream. It is impossible get the same cream with the Moka machine. Moka is the system normally used in the Italian houses. The cream with a moka machine can just be gotten shaking fast the very first drops of coffee with sugar, it is strange but it works…

    Anyway there is at least a bar in Florence where you can sip a real filter, American coffee, made with the right blend (100% arabica, medium roast) and with the right machine!

  4. jasmin says:
    March 29th, 2011 at 02:32

    wow! i never knew there were so many things to know about drinking coffee in italy. thanks! im planning on going to italy some time and now i wont seem impolite hopefully

  5. Tino says:
    September 6th, 2011 at 13:11

    Thanks for such an interesting article – from someone who loves coffee (especially Italian blends). Whilst in Florence once, I ordered a “caffe” as usual after a meal.
    I notied a group of American tourists on a table near to us who were drinking “Americano” coffee. When the waiter returned with my caffe, I asked him what was an Americano. He didn’t seem very impressed.

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