Coffee is so integrated into Italian culture and its rites are so precise that foreigners often have difficulty understanding how to order the national drink. Here is a brief guideline.
Milk in the Morning
One should really only drink cappuccino, caffé latte, or any other form of coffee with milk in the morning, usually before 11 a.m. and never after lunch or dinner. Italians cringe at the thought of hot milk hitting a full stomach. If you must break this rule, at least try to apologize to the barista.
Keep it Simple
Don’t mess around with coffee. Ordering a mint Frappuccino in Italy is like ordering a single malt whiskey with lemonade and a swizel stick in a Glasgow pub. There are one or two exceptions to this rule. In Naples, you can order a caffé alla nocciola, which is a frothy espresso with hazelnut cream. In Milan, you can impress the locals by asking for a Marocchino, a sort of upside-down cappuccino, served in a small glass sprinkled first with cocoa powder, then hit with a blob of frothed milk, then spiked with a shot of espresso.
But never say ‘espresso’
If you don’t want to immediately be spotted as a tourist, don’t use the word ‘espresso.’ Espresso is the default setting. Therefore a single espresso is simply known as a coffee.
You can order a double if you wish, but know that this is not a common Italian practice. Italians drink a lot of coffee, but they do so in small, constant doses.
The Neighborhood Bar versus those at the airport or train station
If you go to the local bar, call out your order in a strong, confident voice, even if the barista has his back to you. After you drink the coffee, pay at the register. But if you are in a train station, for example, and the barista yells “ticket,” you have to pay before you drink.
Don’t sit at a table unless you have a good reason. Otherwise, you will pay a service charge. Coffee is a pleasurable drug, but nonetheless a drug and should be consumed in one hit, while standing.
The Right Temperature
You should expect the coffee to arrive at a temperature at which it can be downed immediately. If you prefer to burn your lips or your tongue, or you like to blow the foam from your cappuccino in an attempt to cool it down, ask for a caffé bollente (boiling).
Caffé, cappuccino, and caffé latte are the Holy Trinity in this world. But there are a few acceptable variations. Caffé macchiato or latte macchiato is an espresso with a dash of milk or a hot milk with a dash of coffee (morning only); caffé corretto (corrected), originally the Italian builder’s early morning pick-me-up, is an espresso with a slug of brandy or grappa; and caffé freddo or cappuccino (iced) – but, beware, it usually comes pre-sugared. You can also ask for a caffé lungo (long) or ristretto / corto (short) if you want more or less water in your coffee.