The Only Time You Should Drink A Cappuccino In Italy

An iced coffee for breakfast. A latte with lunch. A cappuccino after dinner. For most Americans, the time of day we drink our coffee has little to do with the recipe, as long as we get our caffeine fix. When dining out in Italy, however, if one is to properly observe the customs of the culture, a frothy cappuccino is only meant to be enjoyed during breakfast. And since it was conceived in the country, this combination of rich espresso and foamy milk isn't just a beverage, it's an institution that, to a local, is reserved for morning hours only.

The cappuccino is a common cafe order created by layering one shot of espresso, steamed milk, and frothed milk in equal amounts. Unlike other parts of the world where this particular concoction can be enjoyed at any hour, Italians strictly adhere to drinking them before 11 a.m. The reason? They believe the milk-based beverage is too heavy to be paired with the heartier meals one might enjoy in other parts of the day. 

The tradition and its ongoing legacy

From aperitvos, which open up the appetite, to digestivos, meant to be sipped after a large meal, Italians have very particular notions about proper digestion. The idea of reserving a cappuccino exclusively for the morning hours is linked to the belief that milk can cause indigestion beyond this time, and beyond a certain amount. Therefore, the thinking goes, something as dairy-forward as a cappuccino should only be drunk on an empty stomach or, at most, paired with a sweet treat.

Though there's not a comprehensive body of data to line up with this thinking, a mix of basic facts holds up to this homespun wisdom decently well. The first is that, according to a study in the National Library of Medicine, about 65% of adults are lactose intolerant, for whom this can lead to issues, no matter when the dairy is consumed. Dr. James Marion, a gastroenterologist at Mount Sinai Hospital, shared his thoughts on the matter with The Cut, saying "If someone has a big meal and then has whole milk, whether it's in a cappuccino, which has a decent amount of milk, or a glass of milk, chances are they're going to have some gas." So no matter if you're ordering from a local coffee shop or a Starbucks, it's uncommon — and sometimes even frowned upon — to order a cappuccino in Italy too far beyond the dawn.

The proper way to order coffee in Italy

What we think of as cafes are referred to as bars in Italy, and in the morning, it's typical to see locals enjoying a foam-filled cup of coffee there, alongside a fresh pastry or a slice of biscotti. If you're not a cappuccino drinker, you can always go for the classic caffè normale, a single shot of espresso that packs a punch. 

Some words to the wise: ordering a "latte," without the caffè prefix, will only get you strange looks and a cup of hot milk. Also, drip coffee isn't a common offering in most European countries. If you want something more mild, opt for a caffè mericano (espresso with hot water), but beware of the potential side-eye from the barista. Italians are known for their reverence for culinary traditions and the practice of savoring espresso or a cappuccino with breakfast is no exception. At the end of the day — or the beginning, in this case — order whatever you like (particularly when in Rome, as the saying goes), but keep in mind the Italians do know a little something about our favorite bean drink.