In case you were wondering, there has never been a single Starbucks anywhere in Italy. One could attribute this to the fact that traditions reign in the bel paese and any perceived attempts to bastardize a real Italian espresso would not be tolerated. Coffee is a huge part of daily life here, and like so many aspects of Italian life, if anything new and foreign is introduced, wary and unwelcoming eyes are widened. At least this was the case when the older folks were in charge, but now the younger generation is slowly taking over (those who haven’t fled Italy in desperation for decent jobs). Shockingly and refreshingly enough, this new generation is not afraid of portable coffee cups and whipped cream on their coffee! They are not only accepting these completely non-Italian habits, but are totally enjoying them.
The traditional Italian way to have a coffee is to grab an espresso at the bar, standing up, while you maybe exchange a couple of words with a friend, and then leave. The American “social coffee drinking,” sitting in front of your laptop and lounging around for hours was never a thing in Italy, until recently when places like Arnold Coffee opened up, and wowed Italians (the younger ones) with the real “American coffee experience”.
Here is a quick impromptu guide to help you order coffee in Italy and to know what to expect in a classic Italian coffee bar (simply called “bar” here).
How to order coffee in Italy
Any time you ask for a simple “coffee” they will bring you a tiny espresso, since the word “caffè” refers to just that. Everyone drinks them at all hours – morning, noon, and night – and there are no unspoken rules about how many times a day you can have one. At the office, for example, colleagues will have one in the morning before starting work, then take a morning break and have another one, then have another one right after lunch… Basically, Italians have espresso in their veins instead of blood. They are always offered after meals when you are at someone’s home or in a restaurant.
You can “adjust” this espresso in various ways:
- If you want it more watery, order a caffè lungo. If you want it less watery, order a caffè ristretto.
- If you want an extra strong one, order a caffè doppio (pretty much 2 ristretti)
- If you want a tiny bit of milk in it, order a caffè macchiato. If you want a lot of milk with just a shot of espresso, order a caffè latte / latte macchiato (its just like a big cappuccino, and is usually more of a breakfast drink)
- If you want plain milk, ask for latte bianco
- If you want your espresso shaken with a bit of ice, ask for a caffè shakerato
- If you want American style drip coffee, ask for a caffè americano
- Cappuccinos are strictly for breakfast. I used to be one of those expats who was terrified of ever ordering one in the afternoon for fear of being publicly shamed after hearing countless stories of how Italians do not drink them after a certain time, it’s tacky, Italians will hate you, etc. Now what do I think? Just order one if you want. I’ve even been around actual Italians who have broken this rule. Nobody died.
- Another thing you need to be aware of is that they do not have hot chocolate as we know and love it. Don’t be frightened when you order a cioccolata calda, and get what appears to be a melted a chocolate bar in a mug.
Those are the basics. Do not expect any frilly drinks with fun sauces like caramel and raspberry. They do not have huge coffee mugs, or to-go cups, and there are no drink sizes – there is one standard size for everything.
A mocha of any kind, caramel macchiato, vanilla latte, and words like “skinny” have no meaning here, although you can order soy milk. Also, they have no trendy iced coffee drinks other than the caffè shakerato. They do have something called a granita al caffè, which is coffee blended with ice if you absolutely need something that tastes like a milkshake. I often do. In fact, I have been searching for something similar to a frappuccino for years now.
My failed attempts at trying to find something that remotely resembles a frappuccino in Italy:
- During my study abroad program in Rome, one our professors highly recommended the bar Tazza d’Oro in Piazza della Rotonda by the Pantheon because of their version of the granita al caffè. It was fantastic and a unique take on an Italian classic, but it was too small, and the American in me kept asking “Where’s the rest of it?”
- A friend and I went to a cafe in Milan and tried to explain that we wanted a drink with blended ice, milk, and coffee. The barista looked at us weird, asked if we were Canadian, and promptly served us two lukewarm granita al caffès in margarita glasses.
- When I was at a bar in Trapani during the summertime, the barista mixed my latte macchiato with a granita al caffè. I didn’t even ask him too, but this guy knew how to please on a hot summer day. The ice was perfectly blended, and it was smooth, creamy, and delicious!!! This was probably the closest I’ve ever gotten.
Other than these experiences, I haven’t found a single place anywhere in Italy that offers a really great blended iced coffee. If anyone else has, please let me know.
Arnold Coffee – A good alternative to appease your Starbucks cravings
Most of the aforementioned drinks that normal Italian bars do not have can be found at Arnold Coffee! You can get a white chocolate mocha, caramel macchiato, and chai latte to name a few, complete with whipped cream on top! The quality and attractiveness of the drinks is not on par with Starbucks, but it’s good enough and you have to appreciate their effort to bring something “new” to Italy. When Arnold opened in Milan in 2009 (they now have it in Florence too), it started drawing in all the younger generations of Italians who are fascinated with American things like senior prom and the infamous “ragazze pon pon.” Yes, that’s what they call cheerleaders here: pon pon girls.
Note: Italian high schools have no extracurricular activities, which may explain their curious fascination. There are no on-campus sports, clubs or dances, and I remember watching a TV show where the host visits an American high school and is dumbfounded by the gym, and how something so amazing was in a normal high school.
Anyway, the idea that a Starbucks would never prosper here has completely shifted in my eyes after seeing how popular this place has gotten. It is always packed, not only with tourists and foreign students, but also with Italians, which is very telling.
They still have to fine-tune this American experience, which you will notice when they display some puzzling behavior. Like when you ask for a cold version of one of their drinks, and all they do is drop some ice cubes in it, and then serve it in the same cup and lid that they use for hot drinks. Or when you order a drink with whipped cream, and they always give it to you without a lid because apparently those plastic dome-shaped ones are hard to come by. Or when you see people poking straws through the hole in the lid to sip their hot drinks.
Main photo: Youssef Amaaou
All others were taken by me unless otherwise credited.