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Tips for Ordering Coffee in Italy

 

A Survival Guide to the Piedmontese Café Culture

 

Far removed from the bottomless “Cup of Joe” Americans have come to expect, the caffè savored in Piedmont, Italy is truly an uplifting experience, rich with intense and harmonious flavors.  Considered an art form among the Piedmontese, their perfect cup of espresso practically warrants a trip to the region in itself.  Turin, the capital city, is particularly serious about its café culture, as it is home to the café life and Lavazza, the internationally acclaimed coffee roasting company which has fed locals’ caffeine habits since its opening in 1885. 

 

In a city like Turin, where you can revel in a tempting cappuccino amidst the baroque splendor of a historic coffee house, how can you avoid a serious faux pas in coffee-drinking etiquette?  Allow us to be your guide…

 

Fundamental characteristics of Italian coffee

 

Espresso, Espresso, Espresso

One of the first differences you’ll note is that all coffee in Italy is espresso, or “caffè.”  Ask for an American-style drip coffee and the barista (barman) will look at you horrified.  The closest you can get is aptly named Caffè Americano – a watered down version of espresso which will clearly mark you as a tourist.  Even in their homes, Italians would never offer instant coffee, instead typically relying on a classic Moka stovetop espresso machine.

 

The Threshold for Taste and Temperature

When your coffee shows up “tiepido” (tepid), don’t send it back!  The Italians have discovered that this is the perfect temperature for maximizing the coffee’s flavor.  By using hot – not boiling – water, the “crema,” or rich burnished golden foam that forms atop the espresso, will preserve the coffee’s aroma without bitterness.  Likewise, the milk is heated solely with steam, creating a “schiuma,” or thick, rich foam which complements the espresso’s “crema.”  If you must have that caffè piping hot, ask for it “molto caldo” (“very hot,” pronounced mol-to kahl-do), but brace yourself for a sigh from the barista and an espresso that fails to meet the region’s highest standards.

 

Exquisite Coffee in its Purest Form

Great coffee doesn’t need any additives.  You won’t find Italians adding lemon or salt to lift the taste of their coffee, or flavors such as French vanilla or hazelnut to make it more tempting.  The Piedmontese coffee simply stands alone.  Period. 

 


Heading to the local bar

 

In Piedmont, as in the rest of Italy, a café doubles as a bar serving alcoholic beverages and food, and can also function as a pasticceria (selling cakes), latteria (serving dairy products) or gelateria (offering gelato or ice cream). 

 

 

It’s all in the timing

Although cafés’ numerous treats are available throughout the day, Italian etiquette requires that you only indulge at specific times.  For example, cappuccinos are a favorite breakfast of Italians but should never be ordered after 11am, and ordering one at the end of a meal would evoke contempt or simply pity.  Caffè (espresso) is another favored breakfast choice, and is frequently paired with a brioche (croissant).  Italians never drink coffee during any meal except for breakfast, although they may opt for a basic caffè at the conclusion of a meal. 

 

Navigating the bar menu 

 

Following is a dictionary of the most popular drinks, and tips for enjoying them to the fullest.

 

Caffè (literally “coffee,” pronounced kah-fe)

  1. Espresso - a small cup of very strong coffee, topped with dense, caramel-colored foam called “crema”
  2. TIP: To customize your espresso:

- Add sweet whipped cream by ordering caffè con panna (pronounced pah-nah)

- Add sugar by ordering caffè con zucchero (pronounced zu-kero)

 

Caffè corretto (pronounced kah-fe ko-re-to)

1.      Espresso "corrected" with a drop of spirits, usually grappa but you can specify cognac or another liquor

2.      TIP: Even if you don’t usually add sugar to your caffè, it is a great way of rounding out the flavor of an espresso.

3.      NOTE: No one except for manual laborers and old men order caffè correto before dinner.

 

Cappuccino (pronounced kah-pu-chee-no)

  1. Espresso topped with thick, foamy steamed milk (called “schiuma”) and frequently dusted with bitter cocoa
  2. TIP: Many Italians refer to the drink as “cappuccio” (plural – “cappucci”)
  3. HISTORY: The cappuccino’s name literally means “little hood” or “little monk,” referring to the Capuchin monks, whose robes matched the color of the milky brown coffee.

 


Bicerìn (pronounced bi-che-rin)

  1. Traditional warm drink consisting of dense hot cocoa, espresso and cream, artfully layered in a small glass
  2. NOTE: Piedmontese for “bicchierino” (small glass), this elegant infusion became popular in the 19th-century Turin cafes and is a “must try” for any visitor.
  3. HISTORY: To ensure all social classes could revel in this staple morning pick-me-up, the price of the beloved beverage was fixed at 15 cents for over 50 years (from the mid 19th century until 1913).

 

Marocchino (pronounced mah-ro-chee-no)

  1. Similar to a Bicerìn but made with less chocolate and foamed milk instead of whipped cream.
  2. TIP: If you feel too sinful with the Bicerìn (although we promise, it’s worth it), this is a slightly less calorific version.

 

Caffè lungo (literally “long coffee,” pronounced kah-fe loon-go)

* Also referred to as Caffè doppio (meaning “double” and pronounced kah-fe dop-yo) or Caffè americano (literally “American coffee” and pronounced kah-fe ah-me-ri-kah-no)

1.      Very diluted espresso in a large cup, resembling a strong version of American-style coffee

2.      TIP: This coffee is usually only ordered by tourists

3.      NOTE: This coffee is frequently more bitter and higher in caffeine than a standard caffè.

 

Caffè macchiato (pronounced kah-fe mahk-yah-to)

  1. Espresso "stained" with a drop of steamed milk
  2. TIP: There are 2 ways to order this drink:

- “macchiato caldo” (pronounced kahl-do) with a bit of hot, foamed milk

- “macchiato freddo” (pronounced fred-o) with a drop of cold milk

 

Latte macchiato (pronounced lah-te mahk-yah-to)

1.  The reverse of a caffè macchiato, this is a tall glass of warmed milk “stained” with a 

     shot of espresso

 

Caffè latte (pronounced kah-fe lah-te)

  1. Espresso with hot milk (similar to a cappuccino but with more milk and less foam), typically served in a tall glass 
  2. TIP: Don’t abbreviate your request and ask for a “latte”…unless you want a (usually hot) glass of milk or a latte macchiato (described above)! 

 

Caffè freddo (pronounced kah-fe fred-o)

1.      Iced coffee, composed of a shot of espresso with ice cubes whipped up.

2.      NOTE: This drink is typically served with a large amount of sugar, and is popular during the summer months.

 


Caffè decaffeinato (pronounced kah-fe de-kah-fe-e-na-to)

  1. Decaffeinated coffee, available virtually everywhere
  2. NOTE: Decaffeinated coffee is frequently referred to as Caffè Hag (or simply Hag) – the brand name of Italy’s most popular variety.

 

Caffè ristretto (literally meaning “restricted coffee,” pronounced kah-fe ri-stre-to)

  1. Made from the “real essence” of the coffee bean (the first trickle of coffee that comes from the machine while making an espresso), this drink has a very concentrated, yet not bitter, flavor
  2. NOTE: Surprisingly, this drink has less caffeine than an espresso.