The cafe is the heart and soul of Italian daily life.
It’s a place where people gather with friends, catch up on the daily news and gossip and, of course, get their daily caffeine fix.
Like most things in Italy, quality is a priority, and there are many rituals surrounding Italy’s complex coffee culture. (For an in-depth perspective, check out this BBC article about Italians and coffee.)
While we won’t be delving quite as deep into Italian coffee culture in this post, we’ll dip our toes into this fascinating aspect of Italian society and give you the vocabulary and phrases you’ll need to successfully participate.
And if this gets you in the mood for some true Italian java, be sure to try out some Italian coffee brands at home!
What You Need to Know About Italian Coffee Culture
Bar vs. café
In the Italian language, there are two words that correspond to the English word “cafe.” Italians use the words “il bar” and “il caffè” to refer to the same type of establishment, which is a place where you can get both coffee and alcoholic beverages.
Most bars/cafes have full bars where you can purchase wine, beer and cocktails in addition to coffee. Italians also tend to use the words “bar” and “cafe” interchangeably. Some places will lean more towards coffee, while also selling pastries and sandwiches as well. Others will focus more on alcoholic drinks and serve savory snacks, but they’ll also serve coffee.
Additionally, the American conception of bars (as in sports bars) and cafes (as in Starbucks) don’t exist in Italy, except in some airports for tourists.
When do Italians go to the bar?
The better question is, “When do Italians not go to the bar?” Italians might go to the bar before they go out to dinner or to the club (this is called aperitivo). Likewise, they may go after the club or dinner to relax before going home.
During the day they may go there to meet up with friends or strike up conversations with neighbors to find out what’s going on in the neighborhood. It’s also a great place to sit with your magazine or newspaper, drink your coffee and find out what’s going on in Italy and the world. Occasionally (and always during the day), people go there for some “me time” to read the paper, a book or listen to an audiobook (with headphones of course).
And though the cup of coffee is small, Italians take the time to savor it, either sitting at a table or standing at the bar. There is no “coffee to go.”
What can you eat at the bar?
Bars in Italy typically don’t serve full meals. Usually, they specialize in coffee, sandwiches and stronger drinks. Some cafes are also pastry shops, or pasticcerie. Cafes are the only places in Italy where you can go out for breakfast, though the only breakfast foods they tend to have are cappuccino and cornetti, Italian croissants that can be plain or filled with custard or chocolate/hazelnut spread.
What cafes serve also differs by region. In southern cities like Napoli and Palermo, you can go to a cafe that serves the most luscious, ricotta, chocolate and rum-filled pastries with coffee. From Rome northward, cafes and pasticcerie are more separated, with the former serving more savory snacks.
Andiamo al Caffè: How to Order Coffee in Italian Like a Local
Vocabulary for Italian coffee
You may recognize some of these words from the Starbucks menu. Be aware that in Italian, coffee drinks tend to be quite traditional. There is no small, medium or large sizes. Coffee doesn’t come with mountains of whipped cream and caramel sauce. In general, Italian coffees are small, very small.
Also, since there are many choices, you should make up your mind before it’s your turn to order. If you don’t have your dictionary app in hand, here’s a list of all the essential Italian bar vocabulary. What follows are the staples that every Italian bar will have:
Espresso — This is the “default” coffee in Italy. If you want to order an espresso, you can simply say that you would like a coffee by saying, “Un caffè per favore.”
Doppio espresso — Two shots of espresso (some claim that this is more for tourists)
Caffè lungo — The more Italian way to order a doppio espresso
Caffè corto — Just a few drips of pure, concentrated caffeine
Caffè Americano — Based on how Americans like their coffee—watery
Cappuccino — Shot of espresso with a bit of milk and a cap (“capuccio”) of milk foam. If you want to do as the Romans do, never order this after 11 a.m.
Caffè macchiato — Meaning “cloudy coffee,” a shot of espresso with a splash of milk and foam
Caffè latte — espresso mixed with warm milk
Caffè corretto — “Correct coffee” or coffee with a shot of liquor, usually grappa. Be sure to ask the bartender which regional liquor they recommend.
Caffè di grano — A type of decaf coffee made with grains and plants like chicory. There’s no actual coffee in it, but it’s a pleasant, warm drink.
Cioccolata calda — This is hot chocolate, and not that powdered junk from the package. Only served in winter, Italian hot chocolate is a true treat that’s closer to hot chocolate pudding. Yum!
Caffè con panna — Coffee with a dollop of whipped cream
Decafinato — Decaf coffee, served as an espresso would be in a little cup
Il tè — Once unheard of, tea is now growing in popularity in Italy
Typical Italian bar snacks
Un panino — A sandwich, usually with cheese and prosciutto (Note: in Italian it doesn’t necessarily mean a toasted sandwich.)
Un tramezzino — A thin sandwich on soft white bread
Le patatine — Potato chips/crisps
Le mentine — Mints
Le caramelle — Candy, this refers to all candy except chocolate
Un cornetto — Italian croissant, they come either plain or filled with chocolate or custard
Le olive — Olives
Le nocciole — Nuts
Other bar vocabulary
La tazza — A cup, usually referring to the small, ceramic (or sometimes glass) espresso cups. Those used for cappuccinos are slightly larger.
Il bicchiere — Glass
When you order an espresso in Italy, you’ll usually be given a small glass of water as well.
Il cucchiaino — Those tiny little spoons they give you to stir your coffee
Il banco — The counter where you place your order (Pro tip: coffee is usually cheaper if you drink it standing at the bar. Many cafes charge extra to bring it to your table.)
Una bottiglia d’acqua liscia/frizzante — A bottle of water without/with bubbles
Lo zucchero — Sugar
Phrases for ordering coffee and snacks
Vorrei un caffè per favore. — I would like a coffee, please. You can also simply say, “Un cafe per favore.”
Mi piacerebbe un panino. — I would like a sandwich.
Che cos’è il caffè speciale del regione? — What is the regional specialty?
If you haven’t read up on Italian regional coffee specialties before your trip, it’s better to ask what the barista recommends.
Phrases you might hear from the barista
Come lo desidera? — How would you like it?
Basta così? — Is that it?
Meaning, is your order finished? You can reply “Si,” or tell the barista what else you want.
Ecco a Lei. — Here you go.
This is said when the barista presents you with your order. This is the time to thank him or her.
Dimmi. — Literally, “Tell me [what you want].”
This is very informal. A barista will probably only say this if you’re a regular at their cafe.
Phrases for going out for coffee
Andiamo al bar/al caffè. — We’re going to the bar/café.
Prendiamo un caffè. — We’re getting some coffee (literally “We’re taking a coffee.”)
Vuoi andare al bar/al caffè? — Do you want to go to the bar/café?
Vuoi un caffè? — Do you want a coffee?
This is typically used between close friends.
Ti piacerebbe un caffè? — Would you like a coffee?
This is more polite but still informal.
A Lei piacerebbe un caffè? — Would you like a coffee?
Use this to sound very formal. It’s more appropriate for situations like business meetings.
Volete un caffè? — Do you (plural) want a coffee?
Vi piacerebbe un caffè? — Would you (plural) like a coffee?
If you’re asked if you would like to go for a coffee, you can reply:
Sì, con piacere. — Yes, with pleasure.
No, grazie. — No thank you (though if you’re invited to a bar you should order something, even if it’s just water).
Next time you travel to Italy, try out some of these phrases at the bar.
There are few better, tastier or more aromatic ways to immerse yourself in Italian culture.
Jesica Versichele is a writer, traveler and pasta aficionado. Having lived in the Abruzzo region for a year, she then tutored Italian language at the university level. Now located in the Netherlands, Jesica blogs about European culture and languages. You can check out her website.
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