Starbucks is an amazing place. I enjoy a tall non-fat vanilla latte every now and then, and it is so reassuring to know I am going to have a consistent experience whether I am in London or in Singapore! Coming from Italy makes me appreciate Starbucks in its attempt to create a coffee culture worldwide, but I resent Starbucks’ vocabulary, as it stole a lot of its lingo from the Italian coffee tradition. It is in fact pieced together in a way that many of the coffee drink names would not be recognized in Italy! So, here’s a brief description of what to expect from the Italian “bar” (equivalent to café)’s menu.
When you order a caffe’ in Italy, it’s always an espresso. It is served in the small, traditional espresso cup, and there’s no “to go” cups available anywhere. Caffe’ is enjoyed standing at the bar counter, or maybe sitting at a table, but take a look at the environment: some bars will have seating service, in which case if you sit down, you must order the coffee from the waiter, and service fees will be charged. If there’s no waiter service, then it’s safe for you to carry your coffee from the counter to a table. You will see the large majority of patrons drink their coffee at the counter: a coffee is a short break in the day, and enjoyed as such .
There are a few variations on coffee in Italy. There are either single or double “plugs” for the coffee machine, which contain either one dose of coffee or two. A bar where multiple patrons order at the same time will have multiple double plugs running and your coffee will be the quantity of water that drips through one of the plugs. It takes between 5 and 10 seconds of dripping in ideal conditions to create a good cup of coffee (assuming the coffee in the plug is the right amount, not too tightly pressed, the water is the right temperature, etc.). You can ask for a caffe’ ristretto, which is a “short” one, where the cup is removed before the “normal” course, and you would have a smaller amount of coffee, or you could order a caffe’ lungo, a “long” one, where the water is kept on running after the natural stopping point. If you’d like a caffe’ doppio, a double, your cup will collect the output from both plugs at the same time, making your coffee much stronger. If you like your coffee really long, or Americano, they will put it in a cappuccino cup, brew coffee as usual, and then add hot water. A caffe’ macchiato, or “stained” coffee, can be either macchiato caldo (hot) or freddo (cold): this refers to a very small amount of either steamed or cold milk (the milk that “stains the coffee), added to your espresso. In case of a macchiato caldo, you will also have milk foam in your cup. Finally, a popular end of meal variation on coffee is caffe’ corretto, a coffee “corrected” with a shot of liquor. The typical alcohol added is grappa, but amaretto, sambuca, whiskey are all common variations.
Cappuccino is a very consistent offering in Italian bars, and possibly the most beloved of bar drinks . A shot of coffee and steamed milk with a lot of foam, it is the typical drink Italians enjoy for breakfast. As we mentioned in the cappuccino etiquette article, cappuccino is a “stand alone” drink, enjoyed outside of meals and thus not often served in restaurants, but rather in bars. Latte Macchiato (“stained” milk) is what we usually call a tall skinny glass of warm milk with just a splash of coffee. It is the closest beverage to what is referred to as a Starbucks “latte”.
After years and years of coffee menu invariability (elaborations on the traditional Italian coffee that were considered nothing short of blasphemous!), some new drinks have started affirming themselves in the traditional Italian bars. If you like to venture, many bars have started serving some alternative coffee-like drinks in the past twenty years, the most popular of which are Caffe’ d’Orzo (barley coffee) and Caffe’ di Cereali (cereal coffee). These caffeine-free beverages can be served as shot drinks, similar to espresso, or in a cappuccino cup, in which case they more closely resemble the Americano incarnation of espresso – long and watery. Cereal coffee tends to have a very bitter finish, whereas barley coffee is a bit smoother. Many venues will serve either one or the other, and use the name interchangeably. Other variations on the coffee theme include Caffe’ con Panna (coffee with whipped cream): a shot of espresso served in the traditional cup with the addition of – not surprisingly – whipped cream, and other drinks like the Marocchino and the Monte Bianco. (Description to follow, these are very new drinks!)
The Starbucks Vocabulary Explained
To wrap up, here are a few misconceptions you should be aware of if you want to order a beverage using Starbucks-like vocabulary in an Italian café…
Latte – in Italian “latte” means milk. If you order a latte, you are going to be served a glass of steamed milk, with nothing else in it!
Macchiato – as we mentioned above, means “stained”, so the first logical question would be whether you want a latte macchiato (milk stained with coffee) or a caffe’ macchiato (coffee stained with milk). In the first case, you will get something similar to what Starbucks simply calls “Latte”. If you order the latter, you will get a typical cup of espresso with a drop of milk.
Mocha or Moka – in Italian, moka is the stovetop coffee maker every respectable household owns. Starbucks really worked hard to represent our language on its menu!! You cannot go into a bar in Italy and order a mocha – there is no such thing!!
Low fat, nonfat, skim, skinny latte – don’t even try ordering these in Italy. Milk is milk, and the best bars will serve a freshly delivered locally sourced product. Low fat? Nonfat? Probably not available. Order an espresso if you don’t want the fat!
Vanilla Latte – another no-no. Italians don’t adulterate their coffee drinks with any syrups. We will add sugar, but no artificial flavors in our coffee, please!
Frappuccino – if after this you still want a “frappuccino” (termed by Starbucks), you may not want to travel to Italy because you will not find anything you like there…
Filed under: Culinary Culture