Italian word of the day: ‘Cappuccino’

OK, we expect you already know this particular Italian word. But here's a closer look at its history, plus a quick intro to Italy's coffee culture.

Italian word of the day: 'Cappuccino'
Image: DepositPhotos

A cappuccino is, of course, an espresso-based drink with frothed milk.

Coffee experts might know that the exact ingredients and their quantities vary from country to country: in Italy, the drink is often slightly smaller in volume than elsewhere, made with a 25ml espresso and then equal parts milk and steamed milk, with a total volume of around 150ml.

In other countries, it's usually made of one part espresso, one part milk and one part steamed milk, and in many of the best known coffee chains, the drink is 360ml, more than twice as large as an Italian cappuccino. And recipes might differ slightly, perhaps incorporating whipped cream or cinnamon.

Perhaps not a totally traditional cappuccino, but one of the cutest we've seen. via GIPHY

There are also regional differences in how and when the cappuccino is typically drunk.

In Italy, the cappuccino is first and foremost a breakfast beverage, served with a pastry — the exact kind will depend on the region.

In Rome, a cornetto or brioche (very similar to a croissant) is the perfect accompaniment, in Liguria the savoury focaccia is favoured, while a Neapolitan breakfast might pair a flaky sfogliatelle with coffee. It's totally acceptable (and delicious) to dip your pastry into the frothy cappuccino.

Less acceptable, at least according to sticklers for Italy's seemingly endless rules around food, is ordering a cappuccino after midday. Because of the high volume of milk, it's seen as too heavy for the afternoon, especially directly after a meal, and foreigners are often warned it will mark them out as a tourist. In Italy, it's more common to have your cappuccino or cafe latte as a morning treat, and an espresso at other times during the day. 

In practice, Italians are well aware that coffee culture differs between countries and you're highly unlikely to be told off, so we say order your cappuccino whenever the mood strikes.

As for the origin of the word, it actually predates the cappuccino as we know it today.

Originally, it was used to describe a beverage made of coffee, egg yolks, sugar and cream, and got the name cappuccino (literally meaning 'little Capuchin') because the light brown shade supposedly matched the colour of the long hoods worn by Capuchin monks.

These drinks are believed to have been created in Vienna in the 1800s, where they were known as Kapuziner. Around the start of the 19th century, the modern espresso machine was becoming popular, and the Italian cappuccino was invented, borrowing the name. Early iterations of the drink were a bit of a crossover between the Viennese style and modern Italian style, served with cream and chocolate shavings, and it wasn't until after the Second World War that the cappuccino became more standardized.

A final point: in Italy, the plural of cappuccino is cappuccini, so you'd order due (or tre, or quattro) cappuccini, per favore. But because the word is fully integrated into the English language, it sounds much more natural to use the Anglicized plural 'cappuccinos' if you're ordering in English.

Do you have a favourite Italian word you'd like us to feature? If so, please email our editor Jessica Phelan with your suggestion.

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Italian expression of the day: ‘Per cortesia’

It would only be polite to master the noble art of saying ‘please’ in Italian.

Italian expression of the day: ‘Per cortesia’

It usually doesn’t take long for foreign nationals residing or merely vacationing in the bel paese to realise that Italians have three different ways to express what in the English-speaking world is generally conveyed by means of a simple, unproblematic ‘please’.

Now, more often than not, the trio of expressions available in the Italian language – ‘per cortesia’, ‘per favore’ and ‘per piacere’ – creates a fair deal of confusion as to what form should be used and in what social circumstances.

Unfortunately, there is no official grammar rule on how to juggle the above-mentioned expressions and their use is mostly regulated by unwritten social rules and etiquette. So, to help you familiarise yourselves with the noble art of saying ‘please’ in Italian, here’s a breakdown of what each form is used for and, above all, on what occasions.

Of the three forms used by locals, ‘per cortesia’ is surely the most peculiar. The expression’s literal translation would be something along the lines of ‘as an act of courtesy’ or ‘as a kindness’, though, of course, it is generally rendered into English with the catch-all ‘please’.

According to tacit social rules, ‘per cortesia’ and its kin adverb ‘cortesemente’ are generally employed in formal settings, especially in interactions with people one is not acquainted with or does not know very well. So, for conversations with anyone that you might consider a stranger, this is the go-to expression.

Q: Mi scusi, ci potrebbe portare il conto, per cortesia?

A: Certo, arrivo subito.

Q: Excuse me, could you please get us the bill?

A: Sure, I’ll be right with you.

Q: Mi perdoni il disturbo, Dottor Rossi. Riuscirebbe a mandarmi i documenti in questione entro sera, per cortesia?

A: Certo. Provvedo subito a mandarli.

Q: I’m sorry to disturb you, Dr Rossi. Could you please send me the documents in question by this evening?

A: Sure. I’ll send them right away.

As you can see from the above examples, ‘per cortesia’ is usually placed at the end of a question and it is generally used together with the so-called ‘polite form’ (forma di cortesia), that is by addressing the person you’re communicating with as ‘Lei’ and conjugating verbs in the third person singular. 

The ‘polite form’ is usually scrapped in informal settings and so is ‘per cortesia’. Notably, in ordinary conversations with friends, family or other acquaintances, Italians switch to the use of ‘tu’ (i.e. they address the speaker with verbs in the second person singular) and simultaneously opt for either ‘per favore’ or ‘per piacere’.

The difference in meaning between the two expressions is somewhat negligible, so much so that they are often used interchangeably by most native speakers. 

However, for the sake of nitpicking, while both forms are used to ask something of people one knows very well, ‘per piacere’ is specifically used for fairly urgent and/or dramatic pleas. In other words, when you’re begging someone to do something, ‘per piacere’ is the right expression for the job at hand.

Q: Giampietro, la tua camera è un disastro. Puoi pulirla per piacere? Abbiamo ospiti a cena stasera.

Q: Giampietro, your bedroom is a mess. Can you please tidy up? We’re having people over for dinner tonight.

Q: Lo so che non ti piace come persona ma puoi fare uno sforzo e provare ad essere gentile, per favore?

Q: I know you don’t like her but can you please make an effort and try to be nice?

Q: Mi puoi prestare una penna, per favore? Mi sono dimenticato l’astuccio.

A: Ancora? Neanche per sogno! 

Q: Could you lend me a pen? I forgot to bring my pencil case.

A: Again? No way!

Hopefully, the above scenarios have given you an idea of the (very slight) difference between ‘per favore’ and ‘per piacere’. However, please bear in mind that the former will get the job done in almost any informal conversation, so, when in doubt, go for that and you’ll hardly ever go wrong.

Do you have an Italian word you’d like us to feature? If so, please email us with your suggestion.