Looking for some traditional Italian drinks? Italy is famed for its culinary prowess, not only for incredible cuisine and globally-beloved pizzas and pasta dishes, but also for its beverages. From Italian wines to Italian-style espresso, Italians take their drink as seriously as they take their food; producing drinks based on quality, a mix of both tradition and invention, topped with a healthy dose of true Italian passion.
Guide to the Most Popular Italian Drinks
This guide to the most popular Italian drinks showcases just a few of the best, describing each drink, its origin story, and how or when Italians drink it – under categories such as coffee, wine, spirits and liqueurs, and cocktails. Here are the top traditional Italian beverages.
Coffee Italian Drinks
Think of a non-alcoholic Italian drink and your mind will surely turn straight to coffee, though truly this is an imported beverage. Coffee beans were first introduced to Italy in the 16th century, but it was when Milanese inventor Luigi Bezzera forced pressurized water through coffee powder to produce a concentrated espresso shot in 1901 that Italian-style coffee was born.
Italians are fiercely proud of their coffee culture. Coffee is brewed at home, often using a stove-top Moka pot; or taken stood up at the bar of a café. In fact, there were zero Starbucks branches in Italy until mid-2018, when the first Italian Starbucks opened in Milan.
Here’s a quick guide to the most common types of Italian coffee, though there are plenty of other varieties, especially in different regions of Italy:
Or, quite simply, “caffé” (coffee), as this is the standard Italian coffee and drank throughout the day in Italy. At a café, this may be served with sugar or a biscotto on the side for dunking. Drink it while it’s hot. If you’re looking for an extra helping of energy in the morning, order “un caffé doppio” (a double shot).
Side note: If drinking stood up at the bar of a café, it’s not uncommon for customers to pay for a “caffé sospeso” (suspended coffee), which is paying in advance for a cup to be given to someone else as an anonymous act of charity. This tradition has roots in Naples, where the coffee would go to someone who couldn’t afford it.
A caffé macchiato is coffee “marked” by milk; it’s an espresso with a dollop of hot milk, served in an espresso cup. The strength is somewhere between espresso and cappuccino. Italians will drink this throughout the day.
Conversely a latte macchiato is milk “marked” by coffee and involves the opposite proportions; steamed milk with a splash of espresso. Only usually consumed at breakfast (see below for other milky coffees, such as cappuccino and caffé latte) and never after a main meal.
Inspired by American drip coffee, Italian cafés will often offer an Americano, which is an espresso diluted with lots of hot water. Note that unlike many other parts of the world, an Italian Americano is not served with milk and you may get a confused look for asking for milk on the side.
The Americano is not to be confused with the caffé lungo (long coffee), which is an espresso with hot water, but not as big or diluted as an Americano.
Perhaps one of the most famous and beloved coffees all over the world, the cappuccino is a classic. The Italians consider the cappuccino to consist of three parts in equal measure: espresso, steamed milk and foam. Due to the amount of milk, many Italians drink a cappuccino as a full breakfast and would rarely order it after 11am, though as a tourist, you’re not likely to be refused one if you order it later.
Be mindful of just ordering a “latte” in Italian, as this simply means “milk,” so remember to specify“caffé latte.” It will come as a third espresso and two thirds heated milk, maybe with a little foam. Similar to a cappuccino, Italians would drink a caffé latte at breakfast time and rarely after 11am.
A caffé corretto is a coffee “corrected” with alcohol, usually a shot of grappa, sambuca, or cognac.
Wine Italian Drinks
Vino is produced in every region of Italy and the nation is the world’s largest and oldest producer of wine. A guide to notable Italian wines would involve a whole other post in itself, from Chianti wines to Vin Santo dessert wine, therefore just one signature drink has been chosen under this category:
Prosecco comes from Friuli Venezia Giulia, in the Veneto region, and is noted for its crisp, light, fruity and flowery flavor. There are three types of Prosecco wine: Prosecco Spumante (sparkling), Prosecco Frizzante (semi-sparkling), and Prosecco Tranquillo (still). In 2019, the Prosecco hills were recognized as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. A glass of this bubbly makes for a great aperitif (see below) before a meal.
Spirits & Liqueurs Italian Drinks
To understand the wide range of different spirits and liqueurs produced in Italy, one must first understand terms such as aperitivo and digestivo.
Aperitivo is usually a pre-dinner drink enjoyed in the evening after work, when many bars will offer complimentary snacks with a light and dry drink, which supposedly prepares the body’s metabolism for dinner (which is usually taken very late in Italy) and whet the appetite. Martini, Cinzano, Campari and Aperol are all brands of aperitifs and are often used as ingredients in pre-dinner cocktails.
As you may guess from the name, digestivo is the opposite; a drink taken after a meal to help aid digestion.
Here are a few of the most famous spirits and liqueurs enjoyed in Italy, which are used as ingredients in famous Italian cocktails (see below for details), or served as a digestif after meals. Grappa, amaro, amaretto and sambuca are all popular Italian digestifs.
Campari is Italy’s national drink. A bright red color, Campari is flavored with herbs, spices, fruits and alcohol, providing a unique quinine bitter taste that takes many drinkers some getting used to. It is usually served on ice with soda. The drink has a history that dates back to the 1800s and the province of Novara, where it was formulated by Gaspare Campari at Gaspare’s small bar in Milan.
Many places in Italy claim to be the originators of limoncello, a sweet lemon liqueur typically served as a digestif, though it was trademarked by Massimo Canale of Capri in 1988.
To make limoncello, lemon zest is infused in a neutral spirit, then mixed with sugar and water, rested, then filtered. The drink is a vivid yellow, served chilled and has a sweet citrus flavor. Limoncello can be used in cocktails and is sometimes incorporated into desserts.
Distilled from fermented pomace (solid components of grapes left after the juice has been pressed), grappa varieties vary in taste and character, and are a popular digestif taken after a meal. Grappa bianca is aged in stainless steel, while golden grappa is aged in large barrels.
Vermouth, or vermut, is aromatized, fortified wine and must legally have an alcohol content of at least 15.5% for red or 18% for dry vermouth. Vermouth is said to have been developed from wormwood wine and the first official vermouth was made in Turin by Antonio Benedetto Carpano, in 1786 using botanicals including wormwood. Later, it was Joseph Noilly who invented the French-style dry vermouth.
Although Italians and many other Europeans enjoy vermouth straight as an aperitif, elsewhere it is more commonly used as an ingredient in cocktails, including the Manhattan, the Martini and the Negroni.
Amaretto (and Disaronno)
Amaretto is a sweet Italian liqueur flavored with almonds and is often used synonymously with the name of the most famous brand of amaretto, Disaronno.
Confusingly, Disaronno infuses apricot kernel essential oils alongside 17 other herbs and fruits in a secret recipe that dates back to 1525, but doesn’t actually contain almonds or any other nuts for that matter – yet it has a bittersweet almond taste.
Disaronno is also unusual in that it is drank as an aperitif, a digestif, a standalone drink, in coffee, in cocktails and in many dessert recipes, including the classic Italian dessert, tiramisu.
Amaro is an aromatized liqueur and can be bitter, sweet, or dry. Amari (plural) are created by infusing different aromatic ingredients in alcohol, then syrup is added and the product is distilled. Herbs, roots, leaves, barks, flower and spices are all used in various Amari, often chosen for their digestive properties, as Amari is usually consumed at the end of a meal as a digestif. The alcohol content is generally between 27% and 42%.
Cocktails Italian Drinks
Also known as a Campari-Orange, a Garibaldi is made with an ounce (30ml) of Campari and three ounces (90ml) of freshly-squeezed orange juice, served with ice and a garnish of a slice of orange.
The cocktail was invented in Novara, the same homeland province of Campari, and is named for Guiseppe Garibaldi, an Italian general who contributed to the unification of Italy. The Campari of the north and oranges of the south represent a unified nation.
Aperol was originally concocted by Austrians, who occupied Venice during the 1800s, and it was better known as the Veneziano. Then, in the 1919, the Barbieri brothers added orange, rhubarb and gentian, then diluted this with sparkling water.
Often simply called a Spritz, an Aperol Spritz consists of three parts prosecco, two parts Aperol, a splash of soda water, ice and a piece of orange. It’s one of the most popular cocktails in Italy, especially for aperitivo.
A more modern cocktail creation, the Hugo is a refreshing twist on the Spritz, invented by bartender Roland Gruber of Zeno Wine & Cocktail Bar in the Trentino-Alto Adige, in 2005. Ideal for summer, the Hugo’s ingredients are one part elderflower concentrate, three parts prosecco or non-sweet brut sparkling wine, ice, fresh mint and a wedge of lemon or lime, squeezed.
In 1948, Guiseppe Cipriani of Harry’s Bar in Venice held an exhibition in honor of the 15th-century artist, Giovanni Bellini. The cocktail he served for the occasion was a hit and the high society art lovers who attended quickly spread the word, and the Bellini’s popularity grew.
The Bellini’s soft pink hue was apparently the inspiration, as it was meant to resemble the monk’s attire in one of Bellini’s artworks. To make a Bellini, put a tablespoon of white peach puree at the bottom of a flute glass, then fill with prosecco.
No, this isn’t the American-style coffee making a second entry into this list of popular Italian drinks, but a cocktail of the same name. The cocktail was previously called Milano-Torino (Milan-Turin) due to its mix of Campari (from Milan) and Vermouth (from Turin), but this was changed in the 1930s to commemorate Primo Carnera’s boxing victory in New York. Or, if you believe another version of the story, it was because Americans couldn’t get enough of it!
The Americano is also believed to be the father of the Negroni (see below), as it’s made with Campari and red Vermouth, served on ice with a slice of lemon. You may also be interested to know that the Americano was the first drink that James Bond ever ordered in the famous book series by Ian Fleming.
Named for Count Camillo Negroni, a traveler who was living in Florence in the 1920s, the story goes that he returned to London after his travels and requested that his favorite drink (see above) be served with gin and flamed orange peel in place of a lemon. Hence, the Negroni was born: one part gin, one part Campari and one part red Vermouth, garnished with orange.
Other Traditional Italian Drinks
The above is just a limited selection of some of the most popular Italian drinks, enjoyed all over Italy and many of them enjoyed around Europe too, and beyond. If you have tried an Italian drink that isn’t on this list, if you’ve learned something new about one of your favorite Italian beverages, or if you have some fun facts about the Italian drink scene, let us know in the comments below.