Last updated on October 26th, 2023
I fell in love with the cappuccino when I first came to Italy just as many foreigners do.
But what is it that makes the Italian cappuccino so easy to drink?
Let’s go behind the scenes of the cappuccino in Italy, so the next time you find yourself here in Italy you’ll be confident ordering one. I will cover:
- What exactly a cappuccino is and its origins
- When to drink a cappuccino in Italy
- When not to drink a cappuccino and why
- How to order a cappuccino in Italy
- The different kinds of cappuccino in Italy
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What is a Cappuccino?
The Italian cappuccino (pronounced kahp-poo-chee-noh – plural cappuccini) that we all know and love dates back to the early 20th-century, when the espresso machine first came to fame. The origins of cappuccino, however, can be traced back to Vienna, Austria, where we see it mentioned as a ‘Kapuziner’ as early as the 1700s.
Kapuziner is a reference to the Kapuzin or Capuchin friars who wore brown, hooded robes – similar to the brown shade of this milk-based coffee. Capuchin means ‘hood’ in Italian and the domed, white foam top and ring-of-gold froth (crema in Italian) that forms at the top resembles exactly that! So, the name cappuccino (translating to “little hat” in English) was given to this ever more popular coffee.
So what exactly makes a cappuccino a cappuccino? It’s pretty simple on paper but hard to execute well.
A cappuccino in Italy is a mixture of espresso, steamed milk and frothed milk in equal parts.
And why is a cappuccino difficult to make well? Milk needs to be frothed just right, forming the correct amount of bubbles and air and heated to an exact temperature that, when poured correctly into the espresso, mixes partially so about ½ of the milk is combined with the espresso and the other ½ remains on top in a frothy, sweet mound.
When you order a cappuccino in Italy, the barista will heat the milk through a ‘steam wand’ attached to the espresso machine. The trick is to create just the right amount of tiny bubbles which in turn gives plenty of volume and lightness to the milk. A typical Italian cappuccino is served in a ceramic cup holding about 150-180 ml (5-6 fluid ounces) that is ideally hot out of the dishwasher.
Fact: Italian cappuccini are served warm, not hot as many Americans are used to. You will not have to wait for it to cool down but rather drink it quickly before it gets cold!
The cappuccino didn’t gain popularity in America until about 2000 when coffee shops started making them to suit American taste and lifestyle. Bigger versions (as big as 20 oz!) were invented, often made with a different ratio of milk to coffee and the addition of chocolate. Nowadays, many coffee shops make an effort to serve the real Italian cappuccino in ceramic cups (they retain the heat well).
When to Drink a Cappuccino in Italy
Italians drink cappuccini either for breakfast with a sweet pastry or as a mid morning pick-me-up or snack. While some Italians make them at home, most will make something more similar to a caffè latte at home and have a cappuccino at a bar primarily because they are hard to replicate without a fancy espresso machine.
Fact: You will rarely see an Italian drinking a cappuccino (or any other milk-based coffee drink) after around 11:30/12:00!
Cappuccini are great on their own (I like them mid-morning by themselves as a snack) but they are even better with a sweet treat.
Breakfast items to eat with a cappuccino at a bar:
- Brioche (also known as cornetto in Southern Italy ) vuota – plain pastry
- Brioche con marmellata – pastry with jam
- Brioche con cioccolato – with chocolate
- Brioche con crema – with pastry cream
- Crostata – Italian pie
- Girella – circle pastry with cream or raisins
- Ciambella (bombolone) – donut
- Sfogliatina – crispy pastry with various fillings
And don’t miss our detailed article explaining how Italians eat breakfast.
Why Italians Won’t Drink a Cappuccino After Breakfast
Unlike Americans and other Europeans, Italians won’t be caught dead drinking a cappuccino after around 12:00 pm. Most Italians find it not only a good way to ruin your meal but that it also hinders good digestion.
Milk is, in fact, harder to digest than other foods because of the lactose (takes more energy and time) so it is no wonder Italians opt for other options.
So what should you order instead so as not to stick out like a sore thumb while in Italy? If you want a coffee drink you should opt for a simple espresso, caffè or caffè macchiato (espresso with a drop of milk).
If you are looking for something a bit stronger but with no caffeine then try a digestivo or digestif such as grappa, an amaro or limoncello.
How to Order a Cappuccino in Italy
- You will first need to order and pay for your cappuccino at the cash register: Vorrei un cappuccino, per favore (I would like a cappuccino please). Hang on to your receipt.
- Put your receipt on the counter and say what you have ordered once you make eye contact with the barista. If you are having trouble try saying Mi scusi which should get their attention. Then proceed by saying your order: un cappuccino, per favore.
- Fix your coffee as you like it with sugar that you will find on the counter. If you don’t see it, kindly ask Posso avere un po’ di zucchero? (may I please have some sugar?).
- If you would like to sit down, choose your table
- Italians drink their cappuccini fairly quickly because it isn’t very hot to begin with.
- Say goodbye and thank you before leaving, Grazie, arrivederci.
Be sure to read How To Order Coffee in Italy – Step-by-Step + Tips and Coffee in Italy – Types & How to Order + Printable Coffee Checklist! for a full rundown!
And if you’re heading to Firenze, check out our picks for the Best Coffee in Florence!
Types of Cappuccini
Before you fall in love with the traditional cappuccino recipe, check out all the varieties Italy has come up with:
(pronounced cah-poo-chee-noh kee-ar-oh in Italian) A cappuccino made with more hot milk and less milk foam.
(pronounced cah-poo-chee-noh scoo-roh in Italian) A cappuccino made with less milk and more espresso.
(pronounced cah-poo-chee-noh seh-coh in Italian) A cappuccino made with just frothed milk and espresso, no hot milk.
Cappuccino con cacao
(pronounced cah-poo-chee-no cohn cah-cow in Italian) Your basic cappuccino kicked up a notch with simple sprinkling of cocoa powder to finish it off.
(pronounced moh-kah-chee-noh in Italian) The ultimate sweet treat for cappuccino lovers. A small amount of hot chocolate is added to the classic cappuccino and sometimes drizzled with chocolate commonly served in the mountains or up north in the winter months.
For a comprehensive list of Italian coffee beverages be sure to check out 46 Ways to Drink Coffee in Italy + Pronunciations
Learn More: Read about the 40+ Ways to Drink Coffee in Italy!
Italian Cappuccino FAQ
Every bar and restaurant will have some kind of dairy-free milk substitute whether it be latte di soia (soy milk), latte di avena (oat milk) or latte di mandorla (almond milk).
Yes, you may and Italians do too but what you will never see are Italians drinking coffee as they walk or do something else. Drinking coffee in Italy is a way to take a break and unwind for 5 minutes. They take their coffee to go, stop what they are doing, drink it and fully enjoy it, and then get back to work.
The price varies a lot depending on whether you are paying for table service or not. Typically the counter price is anywhere from euro 1.30-1.50 and the service price for when you choose to sit a table is between 3.50-5.50
Some baristas will make your coffee with a design on top but it is not a “thing” like it is in other parts of Europe or in America. At the end of the day Italians are very traditional and like their cappuccino as it was originally made with a white top with a golden brown coffee ring around it.
Personal preference. Some people do and some people don’t. There is no rule.
Yes! You should specifically ask for a cappuccino con cacao.
Cappuccino along with caffè latte are usually a child’s first introduction to coffee because the sweetness of the milk mellows out the coffee. Children are usually introduced to coffee between 10-13 years of age.