You don’t need to be a hard-core foodie to appreciate the culinary offerings in Italy – and you don’t need to spend a fortune to have a truly Italian dining experience every single day. In fact, in most places, it’ll cost you less than €2 total. What am I talking about here? Why, Italian coffee, of course!
The typical Italian breakfast consists of a tiny cup of espresso (or some similarly small espresso drink) and a pastry, consumed in a minute or two while standing at the bar. Luckily, it’s easy for tourists to get into this tradition as well, especially with the help of a few pointers. So here’s my guide for how to order coffee in Italy.
1. Learn the lingo.
You can certainly get by in Italy without speaking Italian, but if you’re stopping at an Italian bar at the same time as the locals in the morning (partly to get your own breakfast and partly to experience the “morning rush”) you don’t want to be holding up the process or slowing down the busy barista. So learning a few coffee-related words before you place your order is a very good idea.
I wrote an article with a long list of Italian coffee vocabulary words on it (plus their pronunciations), including most of the different coffee drinks you could order, so I’d say that’s a good place to start. Don’t be intimidated by the size of the list – for the most part, you’ll pick a coffee drink you like and always order that, so the actual number of words you’ll need to learn is quite small. My order, for instance, is almost always “un marocchino, per favore.” It’s quick and, once you get used to it, easy to remember.
2. Belly up to the bar.
Many people have heard that you’ll pay more for the same order if you sit at a table rather than drink or eat standing at the bar, and for the most part this is true. In some places the prices are the same (especially in smaller towns or less-busy bars), but you often don’t know that until you’re paying your bill, so I suggest you copy the locals and take your breakfast at the bar.
(Of course, if you’ve got kids with you, it’s tougher to fight through the crowd to get to the bar, not to mention the fact that the bar is going to be way too tall for little kids to use as a table, so in this case you’ll probably want to get a table. Most of the time you’ll still order at the bar, however, and be your own waitress, so snag a table and then proceed to the bar to place and pick up your order.)
On a busy morning, or anytime the bar is crowded, you may have to squeeze your way in or wait patiently for your turn, but (as mentioned) it doesn’t take much time to eat breakfast in Italy so you won’t be waiting long. When it’s your turn, the barista will make eye contact with you and may say “prego” (which literally means “please,” but in this case means “you’re up, tell me what you want”), which is when you’ll place your order for what coffee drink you want.
3. Pick your pastry.
Numbers 2 and 3 on this list may need to be reversed, depending on where the bar you’re in keeps their pastries, but assuming you can place your coffee order and step away from your spot at the bar for a moment (or reach the pastries from where you’re standing), you can grab a pastry as they’re making your coffee.
In most Italian bars I’ve been in, the pastry case is self-serve. Some are small and sitting on top of the bar itself, others are bigger cases standing on their own nearby. Either way, if it’s self-serve they all have something in common – there’s a napkin or wax tissue dispenser next to or inside the pastry case. This isn’t to clean up afterwards, this is so you’re not touching the pastries with your hands, period.
Take a napkin or tissue from the dispenser and use it to pick up the pastry you’ve chosen. The different types are almost always labeled on the front of the pastry case, with words like “vuota” (empty) or “marmellata” (jam-filled) or “crema” (cream-filled). By holding the pastry with the napkin as you eat it, you’ll never get any pastry stickiness on your fingers in the first place (but if you do need to wipe your hands after, just grab another napkin when you’re done eating).
4. Just add sugar.
I’ve got an insatiable sweet tooth, but this advice isn’t coming from me – it’s coming from the Italians: coffee needs sugar in it. Even in a tiny cup of espresso, I almost always see Italians putting an entire small packet of sugar into the cup before they drink it.
Sugar packets are typically in bowls or oversized mugs at different points along the bar counter, so you should have one within reach. In some places, you may find one of those glass sugar dispensers with a little metal flap in the lid from which you can pour sugar into your coffee, but the individual sugar packets are much more common.
It doesn’t take long to down an espresso drink in a cup that looks like something you might’ve taken from your daughter’s tea party set, or to eat a flaky pastry that’s at least half made up of air, so it won’t take you long to finish your breakfast once you’ve gotten your pastry and had your coffee delivered to your spot at the bar.
Remember that if you’re sharing the bar with the locals who are stopping only briefly on their way to the office and if space is limited you really don’t want to be dawdling. If you want to sip your cappuccino in a leisurely fashion or nibble a pastry while you flip through the paper or write in your journal, then you need to do that at a table. Otherwise, it’s a quick in-and-out affair at the bar.
6. Pay up.
A quick look around the bar will tell you who you’re going to pay for your breakfast, but the options are usually a stand-alone cashier at one end of the bar or the barista who doubles as your cashier. In either case, you’ll tell them what you had (if it’s not the barista or the bar’s been too busy for them to remember your order), such as “un marocchino e una pasta” (a marocchino and a pastry), and they’ll ring up the total for you.
Let’s say the grand total for your breakfast is €1.80. You can pay with a €2 coin and leave the extra 20c on the counter as a tip, or you can take your change – tipping isn’t required or really expected, although most of the time people do tend to leave the extra (especially when it’s 20c or less). I’ve also seen people put a 10c coin (they’re so tiny as to seem like toy money) on the counter for the barista as they’re ordering their coffee, but whether it’s to ensure quicker service or better coffee I’m not sure. Frankly, I think it’s just a token of a tip given at the front-end rather than the back-end. Pay attention to the locals ordering before you and you’ll see what the protocol is at that bar.
And that’s it!
This whole process, minus the “learning the lingo” stuff, can take as little as 4-5 minutes, and that’s including a minute of waiting for a spot at the bar. It’s the quickest meal you’ll ever have, and it’s absolutely Italian.
Oh, and even non-coffee drinkers can participate in this morning ritual, as every bar has tea and hot chocolate and small bottles of fruit juice (”succo d’arancia” for orange juice, for example) available, too – so your kids can even get into the swing of things! In fact, if the bar isn’t busy why not let them order their own drink for fun.
Have you noticed what’s missing here? There’s no talk of “grande” or “venti” sizes, no “to-go” cups, or “half-caf” anything. Coffee in Italy isn’t simple (looking at a list of all the coffee drinks will tell you that), but it is straightforward, and it’s consumed in small amounts. Italians don’t get gigantic cups of coffee that they nurse for an hour, but they may step out of the office for a quick coffee break (same process as above, only minus the pastry) a couple times during their day. So even if you do breakfast at your hotel or take a table at the bar to linger over breakfast, you can still do the whole “coffee at the bar” routine in the afternoon when you need a pick-me-up.
Just whatever you do, don’t look for a Starbucks. They have not, as of this writing, crossed the Italian border. Thank goodness for small miracles.
About the Author
Jessica Spiegel is a travel writer with the BootsnAll Travel Networkwho is so enamored of Italy that she’s trying to move there. She writes WhyGo Italy, BootsnAll’s Italy travel guide, and is addicted to Twitter. You can find her there as @italylogue.