No Milk After Fish: The Rules for Ordering Coffee in Italy

It’s hardly a surprise there isn’t a single Starbucks in Italy. Italy is, after all, the spiritual home of coffee. There are whispers of a Starbucks coming to Milan later this year, but as of now it’s just rumour. You may be wondering why this cultural phenomenon that has taken over everywhere else in the world has yet to move in to Italy. The thing is, all-day milky lattes just isn’t the Italy way. Coffee is very important to Italians, a way of life if you will, and the what, when and how make all the difference between having a truly authentic (and cost effective) experience at the bar with the locals or standing out like a tourist and paying a hefty price!

I’d also like to add, before I go into greater detail of what it really means to drink coffee in Italy, that a “café” is actually called a “bar” in this part of the world. Now that you know this, you are ready to place your order—just keep in mind that there are a number of "rules".

Rule #1: stick to simple coffees

No half caffs, double decafs or anything with a twist of lemon here! Frappuccinos and flavoured syrups are not the Italian way. If you want to fit in on your travels, then start with the basics: caffé (see below), cappuccino, caffé latte and caffé macchiato. Ordering any of these is usually a pretty safe bet and you won’t upset anyone, but you’ll definitely want to mind the time of day before placing your order (see rule #3).

Rule #2: don’t ask for an espresso

There is no such thing as an espresso in Italy so don’t ask for one. Espresso is the technical term and caffé (which is just Italian for coffee) is the drink. So if you want a single shot of espresso just ask for a caffé. If you are looking for a double espresso then ask for a caffé lungo. Don’t forget that it is not for sipping so drink it quick—one gulp is best!

Rule #3: cappuccino is for breakfast

That’s right. If you order a cappuccino—or even a latte—after 11am, you won’t get a warm response unless you are a small child. Italians believe that milk after a meal is not good for the digestive system. I learned this lesson the hard way. Many years ago in an empty trattoria in Palermo—in the days when the Sicilian capital was edgy rather than cool— late at night after eating an enormous fish that was served to us unordered, we asked for a cappuccino to finish our meal. The waiter walked off in a huff after shouting, “No milk after fish!”

Rule #4: drink your coffee at the bar

This may seem silly, but I can’t stress enough how important it is to drink your coffee at the bar. It’s much cheaper and if you’re a habitual coffee drinker like me, your wallet will thank you. It actually costs about four times more to sit at a table, and that’s before you leave a tip! Oh, it’s also more fun standing (al banco) in the hustle and bustle of the bar so it’s really a win-win.

Rule #5: no takeaway cups

Unless you’re at the airport, the notion of takeaway coffee just doesn’t exist in Italy, and the bar is unlikely to have takeaway cups. I also learned not to order a takeaway the hard way, as more often than not I’ve been burned by takeaway coffees served in small white plastic cups that are normally only seen by water coolers. Don’t do it!

I hope you feel as enlightened as I did the first time I caught wind of these distinctive rules. I actually enjoy embracing them now because it’s just another eccentricity that makes Italy special. I have to say, though, I’m most excited to “embrace” the newest bit of information I learned about coffee in a recent Italian lesson. My tutor told me all about caffé corretto. This is coffee that is “corrected” by being served with a shot of grappa or other liquor! I’m giving this one a try on my next trip to Italy.

Oh, and we’ve (my Italian tutor and I) also had long conversations about how to make your coffee and what to drink it from given the multitude of different cups in an Italian kitchen—all with their own purpose—but I’ll save that for another post!


Images: Marlene Lee