Recently, my Italian professor shared with me an article titled, “20 Signs You’ve Been Living In Italy Too Long.” There were quite a few signs that really got me laughing (I’m looking at you #3 and #18), but there was none quite so right as #1: “Coffee Is Espresso: Once upon a time your morning jolt was a steaming hot mug of coffee, with cream or milk. No longer. Once you’ve gone to the dark side of coffee, you cannot come back.” Truer words were never spoken.
I’ve found that my coffee tastes have shifted quite dramatically in the past few years and none so much as the exclusion of milk in my coffee. These days, I only welcome milk when prepared for a cappuccino or caffè macchiato, and only then when in Italy. (If you can recommend a place to get a good cappuccino or caffè macchiato in the States, I'm all ears.)
These days, when I’m stateside, I find the nearest Starbucks, ask for the largest, darkest roast they have, and keep it black. No latte-ing, no frapp-ing, no syrups, just black. (Author’s note: being raised in New Jersey means that nothing, no matter how long I stay in Italy and am affected by their Italian ways, will keep me from a cup of coffee at a diner. Watered down and burnt? Thank you, waitress from my childhood, I’ll have another.)
However, when I’m not sucking down coffee-flavored sentimentality, I do like a proper coffee. And I admit that these Italians know what the heck they’re doing. So, should you have the opportunity to travel to Italy, learn from the following list and get yourself a proper cup of coffee, e buona giornata!
Caffè and Espresso — They both mean espresso.
Technically, caffè means “coffee” in Italian. That said, coffee is espresso for Italians, so if you go to the bar to order a coffee and simply say “Un caffè,” you’ll be served the Italians’ darkest, strongest brew in a very small cup (called “demitasse”), known the world-round as an espresso. Typically an espresso is only about 1 oz.. Think of it like a shot of coffee, with or without a touch of sugar (your choice).
Caffè Americano — Our reputation precedes us.
Though they haven’t come around to the idea of taking your coffee to go in a gigantic paper cup or your prized insulated mug, Italians have recognized that Americans love their coffee, if only, sometimes, a bit weaker than Italians. That’s why, if you’re not up for the espresso or a cappuccino, and you’re really missing your large(-ish) cup of coffee, order un caffè americano. Typically, a caffè americano is about 4–5 oz. and is made by adding hot water to an espresso. (Note: this is no watered-down diner coffee. Though less intense than an espresso, it’ll still be stronger than what you might be used to in the States.)
Cappuccino — For the love of frothy milk.
If you’ve never had a cappuccino, and you can orchestrate a trip, let your first cappuccino experience happen in Italy. I’d had cappuccinos (plural cappuccini in Italian) plenty of times in other countries but Italians seem to have the knack for frothing the milk juuuuust right and getting the espresso at just the right temperature so that immediately upon serving it’s ready for your delectation. I’m a fan of adding a bit of brown sugar to my cappuccino and, if I’m hungry, a brioche con cioccolatto (like a puffy, chocolate-filled croissant AKA heaven in your mouth). Something to keep in mind about the Italians and their cappuccini — they only have them for breakfast. If you order one after lunch or at the end of your meal, for example, they’ll usually make a face like they stepped in something unpleasant. For Italians, the idea of having frothed milk at the end of a meal or later in the day is like ordering a cup of indigestion. That said, you can order a cappuccino after, let’s say, 11 AM and they will make it for you, just expect some resistance. If you don’t want to ruffle any Italian feathers but you really want a cappuccino, follow my lead and cheat by ordering what’s next on my list.
Caffè macchiato — For the love of frothy milk (and Italian approval).
The caffè macchiato is like a miniature cappuccino — it’s an espresso topped with a touch of that frothy milk we all (read: this author) love. It’s served in a demitasse cup similar to a typical espresso and you can order this little bit of love at any time of day. That means that come the end of your Italian dinner, you can have a cheater’s cappuccino and the Italians will be none the wiser.
Caffè con panna — That’s cream, not bread, my friends.
If you’ve taken any Spanish classes or frequented an Au Bon Pain, it would be a fair leap to see caffè con panna on the menu and think you’re going to get some coffee and toast, perhaps. Know that, in Italy, that’s not the case. Though there is a very similar word in Italian for “bread” (pane), a caffè con panna is an espresso topped with sweet whipped cream. It’s delicious so you should definitely try it. Just don’t expect any bread.
Caffè latte — Use your words.
If you’ve caught on, coffee, for Italians, starts with an espresso and then it’s modified. Here, an espresso is modified with hot milk, or latte in Italian. Something to be aware of: in coffee bars or Starbucks in the States, you might be able to throw out “I’ll have a latte” and everyone knows what you mean. In Italy, if you respond to their question of "Che cosa prendi?" (essentially, "What are you having?") with “Latte,” you’re getting a glass of milk. Yes, just a glass of milk. Be sure you throw caffè in front of that latte response and you’ll be golden.
Caffe corretto — For us proper folk.
It would seem that at some point in history, some Italian thought that coffee, as it was being served, just wasn’t cutting it. It needed something else. And that something was alcohol, specifically Italian digestives like grappa or after-dinner drinks like cognac. If you need an extra kick, go ahead and order a caffè corretto (literally "correct/proper coffee"), an espresso with a splash of your preferred alcohol. Really, go ahead. It’s clearly the correct thing to do.