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More on Enjoying Coffee in Italy

Ricardo

Italy is the home of espresso coffee and drinking it is one of the joys of visiting the country, but there are pitfalls for the uninitiated. For the basics of ordering coffee see Slow Travel Italy - Caffe Menu; for the basics of ordering in Italian see Slow Travel Italy - Caffe Talk; for more guidance on getting what you want - read on.

When you go into a bar and ask for "un caffe", or "un espresso", you will get a tiny shot of very, very strong coffee: much stronger and much smaller than you get when you order an espresso in London or Paris. You should try it, of course, but if you are like me, you will find it a bit too strong, and I drink espresso at home all the time (made with Italian coffee, of course).

So here is the trick for getting a less powerful cup of espresso: simply ask for "un caffe lungo", or "un espresso lungo". You will now get about twice as much water for the same amount of coffee (in the same sized cup) and to my taste it is usually just about right. If you still find it too strong, you can ask for "un caffe molto lungo". Incidentally, this is not a particularly touristy thing to do, a caffe lungo (plural caffe lunghi) is a normally available choice everywhere. I stayed in a hotel last year, where an Italian at the next table asked for "un caffe molto lungo" every morning at breakfast.

When you order "un caffe lungo", you may get a quizzical look and be asked "caffe americano?", which believe me you should avoid (it is what Italians think Americans like). You should say, "No, un espresso lungo, per favore".

Which brand?

There are several major brands of coffee served in bars, cafes and restaurants; Illy, Lavazza, Segafredo and Mocambo are the most common. I'm an Illy man myself, but try them all. It's fun to find out which one you like best.

Al banco? o al tavolo?

Most bars in Italy have a two-price structure. If you drink at the bar, your coffee will probably cost less than half as much as it does when you are waited on at a table. It is often a great pleasure (and well worth the extra) to sit outside in a good location and enjoy your coffee at leisure. But if you just want a quick drink, just go up and order at the bar. They may say, "qui, al banco?" (here, at the bar?), to which you simply reply, "s".

Breakfast Coffee

This brings me to the vexing question of breakfast coffee in Italian hotels. The first time I stayed in a hotel in Italy (the Berchielli, in Florence), I was really looking forward to the breakfast coffee, but here's the surprise: it was absolutely awful. This is not because the Berchielli is a bad hotel, (it's rather good actually), but because many Italian hotels are not very good at filter coffee. I don't know what they use, or where they get if from, but it has been the same at every Italian hotel I have visited.

If you have the same experience, the answer is simple: when they ask you if you want coffee, ask for an espresso, or an espresso lungo, or a cappuccino. What you get then will usually be marvelous and it won't cost any extra!

Cappuccino

I just love to start the day with a simple breakfast of croissants, pastries and, of course, a cup of cappuccino. But if you think you will get a good cup of cappuccino everywhere you go in Italy, you may be in for rude awakening! In some bars and hotels, in some parts of Italy they use long-life (UHT) milk, which gives the drink an unwelcome, different flavour and a very cloying, thick froth.

OK, its all a matter of taste, some people must like this, but my advice is: if you ask for a cappuccino and you see them reach for a carton of long-life milk, it's time to make your excuses and leave! Fresh milk (latte fresco) is absolutely essential for a good cup of cappuccino!


"Ricardo" lives in Surrey, England and is a regular visitor to Italy and France.

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