Start by never asking for latte, unless you want a glass of milk. Italians love their coffee and while most of us are familiar with cappuccino and espresso there are at least 30 ways in which Italians individualize their coffee. To preserve our collective sanity, I have cut the list down to the basic variations.
Just Coffee — Un espresso or un caffè normale is the national beverage of Italy. Espresso, meaning quick, is served in a small cup filled to less than half. The crema or coffee foam should be a third of an inch thick and if using sugar, the sugar should slowly seep through the crema without dissipating the foam. Most espresso is drunk standing at the bar and the average cost of a cup in Italy is 1 Euro or less. Sitting at a table costs more. Extravagant exceptions are fancy hotels and famous cafes such as the Florian in St. Mark’s Square in Venice topping the charts at around 5 Euros per cup. Then again, at the Florian you get to sit in Italy’s most renown square, listen to the orchestra play show tunes and watch the world stroll by. Most folks who order a Florian coffee tend to nurse the cup for at least an hour. It may be the best hour of all in Venice and 5 Euros sounds quite fair.
Serious Italians and coffee lovers everywhere may ask for un caffè ristretto or un caffè corto (short shot). This potent brew is served in the same small cup and uses the same amount of coffee as does an espresso. The only difference is that less water is employed resulting is a more concentrated, less bitter coffee flavor. Don’t fret over the caffeine content. There is more caffeine in a cup of American style coffee than in an espresso.
If you are fretting over the caffeine content — as in you need more — order un doppio ristretto. This is a double shot of concentrated espresso. With this potion under your belt there is no need to come home by plane, you can fly right from the bar!
If fretting over caffeine content — as in you need less not more — order un caffè decaffinato (decaffeinated) or try the leading decaf brand by requesting un Caffè Hag. A European Sanka wannabe that sounds much like it tastes. If you dislike coffee, and quite a few younger Italians do, ask for a trendy alternative called orzo. Orzo means barley and that is what it’s made from. I have no clue what orzo tastes like and less desire to find out. However, orzo allows non coffee lovers to share in Italy’s favorite pastime — hanging out at the bar — and that can’t be a bad thing.
For those who crave more liquid in the cup request un caffè lungo (long). It is still served in the little cup and made with the same amount of coffee, however, the cup is more than halfway full. The final option is to breakdown and ask for un caffè Americano. A large cup is filled with espresso broth that tastes nothing like American coffee. Dunkin Donuts, found throughout Europe, tried a few locations in Italy. They eventually packed their tent and left, not before leaving a bunch of young Italians hooked on donuts.
Coffee & Milk — Cappuccino is Italy’s breakfast drink of choice. The word cappuccino means little hood and this coffee is literally an espresso with a frothy, little hood of milk.
Caffelatte, another breakfast drink (coffee and milk), is typically served in this fashion: One large cup, one small pitcher of espresso coffee and a separate pitcher of foamed milk. Mix and and serve yourself.
While it is bad form to order either of the above anytime after noon, it is always the right moment to ask for un caffè macchiato or un marocchino. Caffè Macchiato is an espresso served in a small cup with a dollop of foamy milk. A Marocchino, is a mini cappuccino, with a hint of cocoa, usually served in a small glass.
Coffee Plus — Caffè Corretto means a correct coffee. The only way to correct coffee in Italy is with booze. The choice is yours to ask for un caffè corretto con: whisky, grappa, anice, Fernet Branca. The latter (Fernet) is a horrid, bitter digestive. I’ve seen Italian hunters in countryside bars drink these up at dawn and proceed to run out and shoot at anything that moves.
Italian Coffee Lingo — Now that you know the basics you can mix and match to suit your taste. Don’t worry, Italians do it constantly to stress their individuality. You can order anything in vetro, meaning in a see-through glass. Ask for the milk senza schiuma (without foam) a parte (served on the side) in tazza grande (in a large cup) con latte freddo (with cold milk). So let’s try un caffè doppio ristretto in tazza grande con latte freddo a parte. Got that?
If you need it and don’t see it ask for either zucchero (sugar) or dolcificante (aspartame).