Caffè Cultura 101: Understanding Coffee in Italy

Earlier this week Boston.com informed me that a local coffee giant, Dunkin Donuts, has launched a macchiato. Pumpkin-flavored of course to kick off the first day of fall. The truth is, Dunkin's macchiato couldn't be any further from the real thing and grandpa Giuseppe is probably rolling in his grave. I actually really enjoy macchiatos and it's sort of annoying when I visit a local independent coffee shop and they have to explain to me each time I order one that it comes in a 4-ounce cup (uh, yeah I know, thanks....) But they do have good reason for asking-- most of us Americans don't know espresso. When you're in Italy, espresso is all you get and not any of the drip brew coffee that we are so familiar with. So to make sure you're not surprised or disappointed when you order your coffee in Italy, here's a little explanation of what's what.

  • un caffè - a single shot of espresso served in a demitasse cup

  • un caffè doppio (or doppio) - a double shot of espresso served in a slightly larger cup

  • un caffè macchiato - a single shot of espresso with a drop of steamed milk

  • un cappuccino - equal parts espresso and steamed milk topped with foam

  • un caffè latte - equal parts espresso and steamed milk served in a large clear glass(Note: make sure you say "caffè latte" and not simply "latte" or else you'll end up with a glass of milk!)

  • un caffè americano - a shot of espresso diluted with hot water

A few facts and tips:

  1. All of the above items can be decaf if you'd like, just specify "decaffeinato."
  2. Sugar is given to you with your coffee for you to add as you please.
  3. VERY IMPORTANT: Italians don't order milk in their coffee after 11am. Unless you want to stick out like a tourist, stick with the shots of espresso for a midday pick-me-up.
  4. The price of your coffee will depend on where you consume it. Cheapest is at the bar (il banco) and most expensive will be sitting outside. Cafès often charge double and sometimes triple for the same drink to sit at a table. I actually recommend having your coffee at the bar because it is a great way to try to fit in with the locals. But to warn you, the bar is not for lingerers. Have your coffee and go. It's called espresso for a reason.
  5. Espresso is stronger than American coffee, yes, but because the usual serving size is much smaller than a cup o'joe, you're actually consuming less caffeine.
  6. Espresso is not a different type of coffee per say, it's more like a different method of extracting coffee.

There's nothing like having espresso in Italy so I encourage you to try it even if you're not sure you will like it. The good thing is it's over quickly (a shot is only 1 ounce!) and it will give you that perfect level of energy you need for exploring.

Love espresso and want to become a barista at home? Well, that La Marzocco machine you see in all the cafès costs a pretty penny. They are the Ferrari's of espresso machines, the cheapest costing around $4500 and the industrial machine will run you about $23,000! But hey, they're all made by hand in Florence so I guess you get what you pay for. Luckily there are some other great (cheaper) brands out there that make a pretty tasty cappuccino, Breville to name one.

Now get out there and enjoy your Italian coffee! And please please please don't say eXpresso. It's eSpresso. Arrivederci!

Caffè Macchiato at Milk Bar in Brooklyn NY
Caffè Macchiato at Milk Bar in Brooklyn NY
Homemade Caffè Macchiato...just need to work on my latte art!

Homemade Caffè Macchiato...just need to work on my latte art!