Looking for an alternative to the classic espresso? Here are three of the best drinks to try in an Italian bar—and the recipes to make them at home.

A sun-flooded pergola, slender wrought-iron chairs, waiters with their laden trays dancing among the crowd like slim ballerinas. And, steaming on dainty tables, a stream of candid demitasses filled with pitch black espresso.

Little is more exquisitely Italian than a cup of coffee. Italy is, after all, the birthplace of espresso—the machine to make it was invented in the country in 1901.

For years, the drink was purely a preserve of Italy and Italian restaurants. Towards the end of the twentieth century, however, it took the world by storm, causing a number of espresso bars and chains to crop up around the globe.
Foreign espresso bars pushed new flavours and new coffee making styles. Throughout this taste revolution, Italy remained in the sidelines, a bastion of espresso conservatism—so much so that this year’s winner of the World Barista Championship, which awards global espresso-making excellence, hails from the United Kingdom. The Italian representative didn’t even make it to the final round of the competition.

So is Italy losing its magic touch with coffee? Not really. Ask any Italian, and they’ll tell you that no espresso in the world matches those served in Italy. And they are not all driven by chauvinism. The truth is, Italian taste is different.

‘International’ espresso is often the basis for original, very milky drinks, occasionally enriched with syrups. By contrast, Italian espresso—a blend of coffees from different origins of the Arabica and, often, Robusta varieties—is either served neat or as the basis for altogether more sober drinks than its international counterpart. Foreign baristas are often appreciated for their creativity, Italian ones for their skills in serving a traditional cup—so much so that the recipes for the two most important espresso drinks, espresso itself and cappuccino, are specified to the finest detail and certified.

As a result, Italian espresso drinks are the liquid equivalent of Italian cuisine—dependable, straightforward, and delicious in their simplicity. Shame that, beyond the world renown cappuccino, they can be hard to order at an Italian bar (unless you already know what they are and how they are called) because Italians do not believe in plastering their cafés’ walls, or their table menus, with coffee drink descriptions.

But fear not—here is the lowdown on the very best Italian espresso drinks, so you too can order them like a local, together with the recipes to make them at home. If you like real, proper Italian food, you are very likely to enjoy them.

Corretto

This is the drink of choice for cold days and hardy men. It is a classic Italian espresso which is ‘corrected’ with a spirit shot. Patrons usually tell the barista what they want in their corretto, but the ever popular grappa is the barista’s default.

A corretto’s base espresso should be prepared by a qualified barista following the certified Italian recipe, which goes into such detail as to specify the temperature of the water and pressure settings to be used in the espresso machine.

Failing that, though, you can try and replicate it at home as follows. Use 7g of freshly ground Italian espresso blend and let your coffee percolate for 25 seconds—that’s crucial to extract all the pleasant flavours from the coffee and none of the bad ones.

You should end up with 25ml of coffee at 67C, which you should serve in a 50ml or 100ml white ceramic cup. Once the espresso is ready, add to it a shot of good quality grappa (you can also use brandy or sambuca). Don’t be tempted to use a lower quality one with the excuse that ‘it’s just going into coffee’ because you’ll taste the difference.

Alternatively, you can make the coffee with an Italian Moka (using freshly drawn water and one tablespoon of freshly ground coffee per cup) and ‘correct’ it with your spirits of choice. Strictly speaking, this is not an espresso corretto (the Moka does not make an espresso coffee, only a very strong one) but it is delicious nonetheless. Perfect after lunch or supper.

Marocchino

The name could at first appear a misnomer. Marocchino means Moroccan in Italian, and this espresso drink certainly doesn’t come from the North-African country.

Delve deeper, though, and you discover that marocchino is actually named after a type of Moroccan leather that was once popular in Italian hat-making. That’s because the perfect marocchino echoes the soft brown tone of that special leather.

So what gives a marocchino its unusual hue? A blend of espresso, frothed milk and cocoa powder. The espresso is made (preferably following the certified method, see above) and poured in a demitasse-size glass with a metal handle. Then cocoa is sprinkled on it (although some baristas sprinkle cocoa on the empty glass and pour espresso over it). After that, frothed milk is added to fill the cup, and topped with some more cocoa.

The marocchino was originally invented in Turin and, to this day, it is more popular in Northern Italy than in the South.

Caffé latte

Caffé latte is the mother of all the lattes in the world. But unlike the British and American versions, which call for 1/3 coffee and 2/3 milk and foam, the Italian one requires 25ml espresso and enough milk to fill a 160ml glass (or, depending on the area, a 250ml cup).

The milk is rigorously hot but not frothy, and is poured on the cup on top of the coffee. Caffé latte, which is essentially a foam-less cappuccino, is the Italian breakfast drink par excellence and, when made at home (with Moka-brewed coffee rather than proper espresso) is often even more intensely coffee-flavoured than the one served at the bar. And while the bar version is commonly served in a glass with a metal handle, the homemade one usually finds its way in a ceramic cup (not a mug).

Caffé latte should not be confused with latte macchiato, which is a glassful of hot, frothed milk over which an espresso is poured, or with a macchiato, which is an espresso with a drop of hot milk (macchiato caldo) or cold milk (macchiato freddo).

Find out how to make a true Italian cappuccino

Everyone knows what cappuccino is, but do you know how to make it? The classic recipe calls for 1/3 espresso, 1/3 steamed milk and 1/3 foam. However, Italy has recently certified a cappuccino recipe that goes into more detail—here it is.

A true Italian cappuccino is made with 25ml espresso and 125ml frothed milk. A hundred millilitres of cold (3-5C) fresh milk with at least 3.2% protein and 3.5% fat content must be frothed to 125ml, reaching a temperature of 55C. It then needs to be poured over 25ml certified Italian espresso in a white 160ml cup.

The end result should be “white with a brown border, and should have an intense aroma with hints of flowers and fruit under the stronger scents of milk, toast (cereals and caramel), chocolate (cocoa and vanilla) and dried fruit.”

Other interesting coffee drinks served in Italian bars

  • Doppio—that’s simply a double espresso

  • Ristretto—an espresso with less water than usual

  • Lungo—an espresso with more water than usual

  • Caffé con panna—an espresso topped by whipped cream

  • Freddo—iced coffee made with espresso

  • Americano—an espresso with added hot water

cappucino photo by