It’s pretty hard to have a bad coffee in Rome. Now, which coffee to get?
The below will give you a good idea of most of the types of coffees Italians drink. There are in fact many, many variations that include the type and size of cup or glass, and the type of milk (foamed/not foamed; boiling/hot/not hot; soy; full fat or low fat) and more (cacao on top; whipped cream on top.) But anyway, here is a start:
Caffe/Espresso – A caffe, or espresso is just a single shot of coffee, with very little water. The taste is intense and slightly bitter but true coffee aficionados say the only way to drink it is just like this, no sugar added. (photo above left.)
Cappucino – Espresso with hot milk and milk foam. I always ask for “latte scremato” which is really “latte parzialmente scremato” which is low-fat milk. They often don’t have it or are out of it. But I try. You will never (at least at the time of this writing) find completely non-fat milk in a bar. It is available only at the supermarket, and even then, they sell it in tiny containers, presumably because they cannot imagine anyone would want to drink much of it. (photo above right.)
Caffe ristretto – this is an espresso that is stopped before the water has finished dripping. So the coffee is thicker and even more intense.
Caffe lungo – this is the opposite of ristretto: they let the water keep dripping even longer than normal, to make it more liquidy and give it a slightly less intense flavor.
Caffe corretto – This is a less common coffee in Rome than it is in the north of Italy. It’s an espresso with a shot of alcohol. Many northern Italians have one in the morning, presumably to warm up! But you can absolutely ask for this in Rome and they will know what you mean.
Caffe macchiato – Macchiato means “stained”, so a caffee macchiato is literally “stained coffee”, i.e. an espresso with a drop of milk. Usually the bartender will ask if you want it “macchiato caldo” or “freddo”, which means, with hot or cold milk.
Caffe schiumato – Many Italians don’t even know this but I learned it once and get this all the time. It means, espresso with foamed milk. So there is more milk and foam than in a caffe macchiato, and less milk than in a cappuccino. It’s like a mini-cappuccino. And it always costs the same as a plain caffe. To me it is the perfect afternoon drink. Not too filling and not too harsh.
Caffe latte – This is absolutely a morning drink. Caffe latte means coffee with a lot of hot milk (unless you ask for a caffe latte freddo, or cold.)
Latte macchiato – Here again is the word “macchiato”, so in this case, it means the milk is “stained”, i.e. with just a drop of coffee. Unlike a caffe latte, which has a shot of espresso and lots of milk, a latte macchiato is a lot of milk with a drop of espresso, so it’s a very slightly off white color.
Marrocchino – Ah this is another one of my favorites, especially when I want to not-so-secretly turn my coffee experience into a kind of dessert or chocolate fix. There are many variations to the marrocchino but the idea is that it’s usually served in a small glass, with a bit of foamed milk and then plenty of chocolate, either put in first as a liquid at the bottom, or poured in on top, or just heavily sprinkled on top as a powder. Some places make it with lots of chocolate syrup so taste it first before you add sugar. Here's a photo:
Caffe Americano – an espresso with lots of hot water added.
Caffe Hag – decaf espresso. Called Hag because that is the standard brand of decaf espresso sold in Italy. It is pronounced “aaag.”
Rome can get really humid and hot in the summer. And it can seem off-putting to think about having a coffee, especially something hot like a cappuccino, when it’s sweltering outside. But there are a number of wonderful cold coffee drinks to be had:
Caffe freddo – There are two kinds of caffe freddo: The kind that is premade and the kind that is made on the spot. To make the pre-made kind: They make lots and lots of espresso, add a bunch of sugar and mix it up, and then put it in a plastic container with a spigot, and you can see it when you go into the bar. It’s usually next to another container that has “the freddo”, or cold tea, hopefully also home-made.
Caffe shakerato – this is the kind of iced coffee I prefer. It’s made on the spot. They make a fresh espresso, put it in a shaker, like a martini shaker, with a few ice cubs and some sugar, and then “shake it up”, which is why it’s called “shakerato”, because they took part of the name from the English phrase. Then they pour it into a martini glass! It’s not only divine but it’s gorgeous too!
Granita di caffe – this is a really special coffee drink and you cannot always find it. It takes a place that has the facilities to make it, such as a gelateria. It’s like “caffe freddo” but much yummier, in my opinion. They make a lot of espresso, add sugar and then stick it in the freezer. Then they keep stirring it until it turns to ice crystals. So what makes a granita di caffe so delicious is that the ice crystals are made from coffee! You can order it with whipped cream on top too.
Latte – This is not actually a misnomer. Latte means “milk.” Literally, milk. In other parts of the world, some people have taken to calling a “caffe latte” simply a latte. But if you ask for a latte in Rome, you will get a glass of milk.
Mocha – This is not a coffee drink you will find in Rome or anywhere else in Italy to my knowledge. What we think of as a mix of hot chocolate and coffee doesn’t exist here. But a “moka” is the type of coffee pot used to make an espresso, usually at home, so if you ask an Italian for a “mocha”, they will think you want them to use their little coffee pot to make you an espresso.
Substitutions and Additions
Orzo – A caffe d’orzo is not a coffee, but a drink of malt, like Ovaltine. Most people ask for it “in tazza grande”, in a large cup, because it is usually made with more water so it’s a bigger drink.
Soia – My husband loves to get cappuccino di soia. This is cappuccino with soy milk instead of dairy milk. Almost all bars will do this for you.
Ginseng – Ginseng coffee took hold a few years ago, and now you can find it everywhere.
Coffee’d sugar –Some bars have, sitting on the counter, a bowl of coffee’d sugar (I don’t know if that is a word but how else to describe it?) It is sugar that has been imbued with coffee. It’s like a whipped coffee/sugar blend. Dollop some into your coffee, and your drink will taste not only sweet but even more coffee-esque.
Do you want to make a pot of Italian espresso at home? If you have a Bialetti moka maker or similar, you can have Italian coffee at home, like the Romans do. Here's how.
Italian Coffee Habits
This hilarious video (made by Italian Bruno Bozzetto) highlights a lot of differences between Italians and other Europeans. At 3:39 minutes you can watch how Italians have turned ordering coffee into an art form.
Maybe you have heard that Italians don’t drink cappuccino after 11am. It’s not quite true. Many Italians I know drink cappuccino in the afternoon, just never ever directly after a meal. In fact, a hot cappuccino on a blustery winter afternoon does just the trick for warming you up!
Many Italians drink some kind of coffee or hot drink (maybe hot chocolate, or “orzo” which is malt, kind of like Ovaltine), in the morning for breakfast. Even if they have one at home before leaving for work, there will inevitably be the 9am coffee break. This is a time for the second real wakeup coffee, and a chance for a little schmoozing with friends, co-workers or even the barman. Walk into any bar in Rome between 9 and 9:30am and you will be hard pressed to find an inch of space at the counter.
After lunch or dinner, many Italians will ask for a “caffe”, wherever they ate, whether at a restaurant, tavola calda or bar. This is just a way to end the meal and is almost always a simple espresso, never a cappuccino.
A cappuccino is full of hot, whole-fat milk. Even if you ask for, and can get, low-fat milk for your cappuccino, it is still a lot of hot milk. A drink of hot milk is really filling, so for Italians, the idea of having something so filling after a meal is unappealing.
In the mid-late afternoon, some Italians will stop by a Rome cafe for an afternoon “caffe.” This is often just from habit, but also is a way of conducting a social or work event. “Let’s go get a coffee” is a common way to say, “let’s go finalize this deal” or, “let’s go talk about this issue.”
You are visiting Rome, and you want to take home a souvenir, or perhaps a gift for someone. A great idea is to bring some whole coffee beans, or better yet, chocolate covered coffee beans! (I always make sure my dad has a stash in the freezer.) If you get a small bag, it doesn’t weigh much, it won’t break in your luggage and, as a plus, your luggage will smell divine when you get home!
To get fresh-roasted coffee in Rome, you should find what is called a “torrefazione.” This is a coffee-roaster.
An excellent option is Trombetta, which is right next to Termini station on via Marsala.
Another is Castroni, which has several outposts around Rome. Castroni is a coffee bar, torrefazione and also a sort of gourmet grocery store. They sell all kinds of special food products which can also be great gifts or souvenirs. In fact, many of us expats go there to get our cranberry juice, karo syrup and other very hard to find American or British products.
A well-known and excellent choice is also Tazza D’Oro, which is near the Pantheon.
And their competitor, Caffe Sant'Eustacchio, is also a torrefazione, and a great place to get some gifts.
This is just an aside, because it’s not quite about drinking Rome coffee. I think the coffee culture in Naples is fascinating and worth sharing, because nobody is more serious about their coffee than the Napoletani.
In Naples, when you go into a bar, you will see the coffee cups sitting upside down in boiling water. So when they serve you the coffee, you will have the hottest cup possible. They always ask if you want it “dolce” or not, i.e. with the sugar already in it. You are meant to drink it without sugar but they will deign to give it to you if you must have it.
Then, when they serve you coffee, it always comes with a small glass of water. You must drink this FIRST and never ever after the coffee. It is considered that if you drink water after you drink coffee, you completely ruin the whole experience.