Cappuccino etiquette

The unwritten rules that any Italian knows (and that make you look like a Milanese).

It is not written anywhere, but everyone knows it: cappuccino is only imbibed in the morning. Not for a meal, for a snack and certainly never after dinner. There are no ifs, ands, or buts, that’s just the way it is.

It is not a rule of etiquette, you will not find it in the manuals of the perfect Italian and perhaps not even on travel guides but if you eat pizza with a cappuccino or if you order a latte in a trattoria you will be looked at with a single glance: foreigners! Cappuccino is a good morning ritual, it is ordered strictly for breakfast, it is not ordered after 11 and never at the restaurant. You can only find it at the bar and it always has the same size (small, very small compared to abroad). At least in the way of drinking it we are open to a certain flexibility – which in cities like Milan borders on madness.

125 ml: Always small

If abroad the versions of coffee and milk-based drinks range from Australian flat white to frappuccino, in Italy they are more conservative. The cappuccino is made with whole cow’s milk according to a scientific formula: 125 grams of milk and 25 grams of espresso. First the coffee and then the milk, whisk until they become a dense and soft foam. Needless to ask for it big or small, there is only one cup but it can be folded into a latte macchiato, which is served instead in a glass of about 200 ml and is without foam –  comparable to the american “milk”. 

Always stirred 

In places with an experienced bartender, the cup arrives resting on the saucer, with the handle facing right, and the teaspoon on the same side. Once served, the cappuccino is best had without sugar, or just a bit, and stirred. Like espresso which must always be mixed, even if sugar is not added, to amalgamate the flavors, the connoisseur’s gesture is also replicated in the cappucino. Clockwise or counterclockwise? Neither. It always mixes from top to bottom, or vice versa.

A bit of etiquette

The rules of etiquette which apply are similar to the traditions of tea time. For us, the spoon cannot be licked and after a couple of turns in the cup it rests on the saucer – we don’t lick it, we don’t suck it, we don’t use it to collect the foam from the bottom of the cup. Even if at home we can afford to dip cakes and biscuits in cappuccino, at the bar (and in public) it is better to avoid: sorry, the brioche does not “puccia” (Italian dialect for dip). When we drink it by bringing the cup to our mouth, we never (never!) lift our little finger like a foxtail. Not very chic and very upbeat.

 Pick a good one

Coffee is one of the main elements, but a good cappuccino is made of milk, which must be skilfully whipped. The milk froth must be thick, without bubbles, and remain firm in the cup to hide the liquid underneath. To make it you need good milk, and it is a thorny quest. Be wary of long-life milk, with that characteristic “cooked” flavor and see if the tetrapack or bottle behind the counter is fresh milk – a great guarantee of quality for the entire bar. Some bars today also offer the alternative of soy, rice, almonds and very few oat, practically no one offers the choice between whole or semi-skimmed milk, and there is a reason: skim milk doesn’t froth.

Little variety? Do it Milanese

The variety of options in Italy seem limited compared to the thousand formats, ingredients, syrups and options written on the Starbucks billboards. But it is only an appearance because in reality in cities like Milan, everyone has their whims in terms of cappuccino and coffee and orders their variant: hot macchiato, cold macchiato, very hot, lukewarm, frothed (without foam!), with cocoa, with cinnamon … I even heard someone order “white”, aka without coffee inside! Just look at the counter of a bar in the morning, it is a continuous flow of requests for unofficial specials. If you do ask for a slight variation from the official cappuccino, the barista will give you a look, smile falsely, maybe even make a joke, turn around cursing you and the group of colleagues who managed to order five different varieties of cappuccino, but he will please everyone and treat you as a true Milanese. You are now safe. Mission accomplished. You, now, no longer live under the tourists umbrella.