Ordering Coffee in an Italian Cafe (or how not to cry into your cappuccino)

I’ve always thought that I’m open to experiencing new things, meeting new people and going new places.  My open attitude toward coffee was just another example of how I was eager to try and embrace new things, new routines.  Or so I thought.  I’m slowly realizing that I like a very specific type of coffee.  I like my espresso drinks dense, with whole milk.  I want to linger over my cup and relax.  This doesn’t translate in Italian. Whenever I told anyone I was going to Italy one of the first things they said to me was ‘think of all the great coffee you’ll be having!’

I understand that it’s supposed to be difficult to find a bad cup of coffee in Italy, but I believe this statement comes from people who are used to American filter coffee from Starbucks and Greek diners.  For a girl who quite likes the dense New York ristretto (think 9th Street Espresso), Italian coffee takes some getting used to.  Luckily, I packed a bag of Gimme!’s  leftist blend in my suitcase to ease New York coffee withdrawals.

My first Italian coffee was at Sant Ambroeus in Milan.  I know, there are two Sant Ambroeuses in New York.  I should have gone somewhere else, but I was tired, barely coherent.  Trying to find somewhere else to drink a caffè  wasn’t going to happen.  So, I decided to go in and test my luck with a classic cappuccino.  Anyone who travels to Italy hears the warning to not order a cappuccino past eleven.  The bartender (proper term?) will give you a weird look.  Put up with the stare if that’s the drink you want!

Of course, knowing how to order can help to ameliorate the brutta figura ambiance of ordering a cappuccino post-breakfast.  While I thought I new how the bar worked, I was surprised to find out that I was clueless.  At Sant Ambroeus, you paid first and then went to the bar with your receipt.  After getting nearly every part of the ordering experience incorrect, I received my cappuccino and a pity smile from the barista.

My cappuccino, drunk standing up to my chagrin, was forgettable.  Actually, it tasted sort of like the one I had at Sant Ambroeus in New York (I think).  It was thin and light with that unmistakeable Italian coffee flavor.  I was nonplussed, but excited to have finally gotten my nerves up to have an Italian coffee.  The most interesting point about the coffee was the little chocolate served alongside it.

For my only breakfast in Milan I went to Pastamadre after reading about it in AFAR magazine.  I’m grateful that I stumbled across a place because I would have had a very difficult time deciding where to breakfast without advice.  Choosing a bar in Italy is confusing because it’s difficult to discern what kind of experience you’ll be having before you go in.  Are they nice?  Do students go there?  Can I eat slowly and stay once I’m done?  It’s exhausting.

Luckily, Pastamadre was a place where people sat at tables relaxing once their meal was finished.  Most of the customers were enjoying their drinks and cornetti at tables instead of at a bar.  I ordered a cappuccino (it’s pretty much the only drink I can think of when asked what I’d like) and a cornetto con marmallata.  Normally, I would order a plain one; however, I didn’t know how to describe that in Italian (vuoto).

Both were quite good.  I’m not the biggest fan of orange marmalade, but it actually really helped to give extra depth to the flavor here.  One thing that surprised me was that people were actually ordering cornetti con crema.  It sounds to me like having a doughnut for breakfast!

Again, the way to order, pay and eat was confusing. Luckily, after standing in the doorway awkwardly for a few moments, I sat down and sorted out my breakfast.

I stayed for quite some time.  As far as Italian cafes go, it was lovely.  Generic wooden tables, big windows, humming with people who tended to eat their breakfast sitting instead of standing.  I drank my nondescript coffee, ate my cornetto and wrote in my notebook about how my new life in Italy was proceeding.

Ultimately, I’ll take the Italian cafe.  We may not become best friends in the course of the year.  I may spend more than my share of time complaining about how I miss New York coffee.  It wouldn’t be fair not to give the Italian cafe, and their oh-so-strange way of doing things, a chance.

So, where do I order?

Do you enjoy trying new cultural foodie experiences or do you prefer to stick with your tried and true favorites?


9 thoughts on “Ordering Coffee in an Italian Cafe (or how not to cry into your cappuccino)

  1. Katie

    I love tasting things from other countries and cultures, especially when those things involve coffee! But it’s not always a success. I went to the Seattle Greek Festival a couple of weeks ago, and after eating a LOT of tasty Greek food, I ordered some Greek coffee. As it turns out, I really don’t love Greek coffee! Hopefully someday soon I’ll get to visit Italy and give real Italian coffee a try!

    1. Emilia Post author

      The Greek Festival sounds super fun, especially tasting the coffee! I’d love to try some one day, not that I’d want to drink it every day. Although I can certainly imagine that coffee would be a bit meh after amazing greek food. I certainly hope you do get to go to Italy soon and try some coffee. Even if it’s not my personal favorite, I’d definitely say it’s something to taste if you’re a coffee fan! 🙂

  2. Laurence Madill

    I’d love to go to Italy and try out all the cafes to see how their coffee compares to ours in the UK. I’m a barista for a company that brands itself as ‘The Italian Coffee Co’. I’ve served Italian customers and they have been impressed with the coffee, but I’m not going to be connived until I’ve tried for myself.

    1. Emilia Post author

      Coffee in the UK isn’t too bad on the whole, your random cup will most definitely be better than the equivalent in America! That’s pretty cool that some Italian customers have been impressed by your coffee as well. I hope you get the chance to go to Italy soon to try some Italian coffee for yourself. Right now, I’m wondering if the coffee differs by region. Do Florentines have better coffee than say the Milanese? After all, that’s where they make the lauded La Marzocco! 🙂

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  4. vineet

    Thanks for sharing this information. I watched a video on YouTube. In this video we will see some conversations that will show us how to talk in English when you are at a cafe. What words and phrases would you use if you went to a cafe and wanted to order coffee? This video is very interesting. For watching this video please click on this link:

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