Italian Cappuccino and the 11 am Rule: the Ultimate Truth

Everywhere you look on the Internet, you’ll find the supposed holy commandment of the Italian coffee culture: never drink cappuccino after 11 am. But is there such a rule in real life or is it just a slogan born on the Internet where messages must be concise and catchy? The truth, as always, is in between.

Italian Cappuccino 11 am rule

When I started to read about the infamous “11 am rule”, I must confess it, I began to question my own existence. It looked such a truth set in stone for everybody that I started to doubt what I was actually seeing around me (which was almost the opposite). Was I living in an alternative universe, perhaps?!

Almost hopelessly, I began searching the Internet thoroughly to understand if there was, somewhere, a dissenting voice. I remember that at a certain point I found a long thread focused on Italian coffee culture and “the rule”, where a couple of tourists stated that they actually saw Italians having cappuccino in the afternoon (OMG!!) and that it was clear my compatriots were fundamentally hypocrites “secretly enjoying breaking the rule” (LOL). This specific conversation continued with tourists contributing with their own personal experiences, until a couple of Italians joined telling it was actually ridicule for them thinking about people checking the watch in order to understand if they were “allowed” to have a cappuccino or not (yay, finally!)

After then I remember having a conversation with some of my local friends – all agreeing with me that “the rule” was nonsense – and then forgetting about it. Until three/four weeks ago, when I posted about milk-based drinks on Instagram and having a couple of people from Southern Italy telling me that “the rule” has a part of truth in their corner of the world. A doubt popped into my mind: was it a “regional” thing, perhaps? So I decided: it was time to discover the truth!

What I did was running a survey to finally understand the habits concerning this beverage all over the country. I used various social media – in the specific Instagram, Twitter and Tumblr – to ask Italian people if they “follow the rule” or do what they want, asking them to specify their region when possible. I was able to interview just a cross-section of course, but the people were from all over the country and I consider these results quite telling (and probably very surprising for many of you).

italian habits, cappuccino

69% of Italians declares that they don’t have cappuccino just in the morning.

Before delving into the question and better understand these results and as consequence the local customs, it’s necessary to explain some ground rules, with the help of the words of some interviewees.

Rather than a question of time, it’s a question of purpose

As several people who took this survey pointed out, it looks like foreign people seem not to understand that, in Italy, the different coffee-based drinks have a different function according to the time of the day.

There are three moments of the day, in which coffe-based beverages are drunk:

  • The Breakfast: other than “waking up” the person, it must guarantee a certain amount of calories and this is when cappuccino plays an important role. The milk contained in the beverage, along with pastries, fette biscottate or biscuits, gives the supply of nutrients one needs to start the day.
  • The Coffee Break: it can take place in the morning, between breakfast and lunch, and in the afternoon. It has the purpose to give you a flap of energy or “darsi una svegliata” as we say in Italian, so an espresso or a macchiato are usually the chosen beverages;
  • At the End of the Meal: the drink of choice is, again, an espresso, which has both the purpose of waking up the person deterring the effects of the abbiocco, typical of a rich Italian meal and to “help the digestion” by stimulating the gastric secretion.

As Sofia from Milan points out, the coffee at the end of the meal does not correspond to the cappuccino: “The two things are not interchangeable, since they have two different functions”. In fact, as previously stated, coffee is supposed to give you a flap of energy, whereas the cappuccino has a nutrient function the first lacks.

Sofia, as a matter of fact, continues stating that for her “a milk-based beverage containing coffee corresponds to a small meal”, a statement that, I feel, represents well what most Italians think. That’s also where this sort of misunderstanding about the 11 am rule comes from: being cappuccino “a meal for itself”,  it functions greatly as breakfast and it doesn’t make much sense drinking it from, let’s say, 11 am till 3 pm, a time slot so close to, or coinciding with, the lunch. Several interviewees do in fact mention 11 am – 3 pm as a “grey area” for cappuccino.

An absolute NO-NO is drinking it during the actual meal (lunch and dinner) and many point it out as the “real rule”. This does not mean, though, that the cappuccino is not to be ordered in the afternoon as a snack ( “small meal”, remember?) and this seems to be an habit especially in Northern Italy.

Geography Matters

When explaining Italian customs to foreign people, Italians are sometimes the first to incorrectly assume that a behaviour typical in one’s area is to be considered “Italian”. We should know better, given the diversity of our country, but sometimes we do fall into that trap. According to this survey, if we consider only those who declared their location,  the cappuccino drunk only during breakfast seems to be a Southern practice. In Northern Italy it’s not uncommon to also have it in the afternoon as a “snack”, whereas Central Italy seems to be some sort of “limbo” concerning this matter.

when italians drink cappuccino

Several people, especially from Veneto and Piedmont, mentioned it can be consumed with something sweet, like a slice of cake. An interviewee reported that in Liguria it can be consumed with baked goods, and even salty products like fugassa are allowed.

Climate Matters

As a factor influencing the decision when ordering a cappuccino, the climate seems to play an important role. Several people from Northern Italy say that it depends on how cold it is outside and that cappuccino sounds like a good remedy against the freezing temperatures. Even if in her area it’s uncommon for customers to order cappuccino in the afternoon, Giulia from Sardinia admits that she would gladly drink it, especially during the winter, for “the sheer pleasure of sipping a good hot cappuccino”.

Italians and their Issue with Digestion

As you could understand from what previously stated, cappuccino is often perceived as a small meal for itself. Many tourists also report being told by Italians that it’s not good to drink it during or after a meal, because “it messes up with the digestion as it contains milk”. This statement often creates confusion among foreigners and there are even those who dismiss it as a quirk or even as hypocrisy, as they’ve seen us having gelato (which contains milk) after lunch or dinner.

First of all, let’s explain this thing about the gelato. Along with sorbetto, it is especially used during long, traditional meals between primi piatti and secondi piatti or just before dessert to help the digestion because it is cold. It’s true they both contain milk, but their cold temperature stimulates the stomach’s contractions and the gastric secretion. The consumed quantities are usually limited (1/2 scoops, you’ll never see people having an entire ice cream sundae at the end of a meal) and the recommended flavours are fruit-based (fruit-flavoured gelato contains no or less milk).

Now, let’s go back to the Italians’s issue with digestion. What’s wrong with Italians and milk, are we just drama queens? In this specific instance and almost always when talking about food, it seems like we have a point.

Thanks to the book “Le Bugie nel Carrello” of the chemist, science writer and popular Italian youtuber Dario Bressanini, I made an interesting discovery. I found out that only 35% of the adults are able to digest lactose. Thanks to a genetic alteration happened to their ancestors, this part of humankind was able to obtain the so-called persistence of the lactase, the enzyme that allows infants and children to convert the lactose into simple sugars. According to a study, lactase persistence is very common in the Northern part of Europe (Scandinavia and UK reach even 96%) and it tends to diminish as you move South, reaching just the 15% in Sardinia. That’s quite the difference.

So, is this why we complain we can’t digest milk? Most probably. Concerning cappuccino, things get even trickier. I’ve not found scientific articles focused on it, but, apparently, the combination of coffee and steaming milk produces caseine tannate, a mix very hard to digest. So yeah guys, have pity of our poor Italian stomachs, we are not paranoid.

In Conclusion

So, let’s sum up all we have said:

  • There’s no such “fixed time rule” concerning cappuccino, but 11am – 3pm does seem like “a grey area”;
  • If in Southern Italy people seem to drink cappuccino only during breakfast, in Northern Italy people can have it as a “snack” in the afternoon. Central Italy seems to be some sort of “limbo” between the two;
  • Cappuccino in the afternoon is the chosen beverage depending on how cold it is outside. It’s uncommon to consume it during the summer;
  • The “real” rule seems to be “never drink cappuccino during lunch or dinner”.

Having said that, people, you can listen to these “suggestions”, but, in the end, just do what you want. If you order a cappuccino with your pasta, I will probably cringe, but I swear I won’t call the police.

Have you ever had Italian cappuccino and religiously respected the 11 am rule? Let me know in a comment!


31 thoughts on “Italian Cappuccino and the 11 am Rule: the Ultimate Truth

  1. Oh, you did a proper analysis, brava! 🙂 I’m not surprised by your results. I have my two mornings Turkish style coffees (I bring my coffee from Slovenia) with milk and I’m good for the rest of the day. I never drink an espresso after a meal because I must have some sort of milk or cream in my coffee and I know it’s a no-no (That is, here in Italy. I had a lot of cappuccinos after my meals all my life before coming here). I must also report that my amore (from Rome) now also puts milk in his espresso since he has known me, but only at home. 😀 You are right, Italy is long and varied and people do things differently here and there and in between.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. To be honest it’s a cappuccino or a caffelatte, which contain more milk, that are not drunken after a meal… it’s not uncommon to have a macchiato, it’s just an espresso with a tiny bit of milk after all 😉 I have been a barista and I have worked in a restaurant and I can tell you that Italians who do not enjoy plain espresso have it all the time after lunch or dinner 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

    1. Personally I can drink it even at 9pm without consequences, haha! I only have to pay attention to coffe made with the pod machine, which is quite strong. I don’t have said machine (not very eco-friendly imo), but if you go to visit people, they always offer it to you!

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Ha, ha – this is a priceless piece of research! Complimenti! Your impressive study clearly shows that tourists can’t simply observe behavior and then make up a rule. The key is to be able to understand the culture. As for your question, I don’t drink coffee, so I’m in a whole other category! But who would drink a cappuccino with a meal? For me, I would compare it with drinking hot chocolate with pasta. Mammamia! Not going to happen.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. But it does happen! I’ve been a waitress in a touristic area and I tell you…you see all sorts of things, haha!

      Thank you, this “rule” reached the point that, when I told foreign people that in Italy we do not actually check the watch to drink cappuccino, they did not believe me! Professor Google knows better than locals! Jokes aside, it was interesting also for me to research this thing and have a better understanding of the habits all around the country 😀

      Liked by 1 person

    2. tinastable

      Brava Sara! Very good article! Before I lived here, I had read many an article and seen travel shows stating over and over this hard “rule”. Since living here however, my experience has been different. I was shocked the first time I saw an Italian have a cappuccio at noon! Who knew!🤣


  3. I often eat lunch later in the day, and usually fairly light, so if I’m out and about around midday and I’m feeling a little hungry, but don’t want lunch, I’ll have a cappuccino and a pastry. I try to avoid too much caffeine, though, both for sleep and anxiety. But a cappuccino and pastry on a terrace on a nice day is lovely.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. When I first got to Italy, my husband’s company gave us an “Italian living guide” that said that cappuccino is not usually served in bars after 11 A.M. Perhaps it’s a “bar rule”? Hehe. One time I tried to order a cappuccino after 11 and the bartender told me that they don’t serve it anymore. Great post, Sara! I love what you said about some Italians secretly breaking the rule. 🙂 #dolcevitabloggers

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I’ve been a barista and a waitress and I can guarantee there’s not such a “rule” in bars 😀 (At least in Northern and Central Italy). It’s just that it was formerly something we used for breakfast, but, with time and especially in Northern Italy, it became Attraversosomething also to be consumed in the afternoon. As for the brochure, as I said, it really depends on the area of Italy we are talking about. In Southern Italy they tend to be more strict about cappuccino, but it seems weird to me this is happening in Siena! Being a big touristic city, they are probably “banging on” this famous Internet rule :/
      Un bacio!

      Liked by 1 person

  5. pittoresca

    What a cool post! 🙂 I looove cappuccino, but I actually prefer it in the afternoon for a coffee break 🙂 I did not even know such a “rule” existed 😀

    Best wishes from Switzerland ❤

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Sara!! What can I say about this post. Your in-depth analysis has blown me….We should have thought of doing this aeons back 😉😉 bravissima!! As far as the rule is concerned I know that milk is particularly not liked to be drunk after lunch/dinner. My friends from the North once begged me not to order a cappuccino after I had had gnocchi. They didn’t realize I was cold and I needed it. I ended up having an espresso 😉🤔 I guess their reason was not just the digestion but also the people around 😭 anyhow, I love cappuccino any time of the day. In Italy I prefer macchiato too. I’ve never had a good macchiato here in Delhi. We are a tea drinking nation and we’re still catching up on making good coffee. Anyway, brava on this post again! Un abbraccio xz

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Ciao cara Ishita, grazie mille ❤ Hehe, your friends from the North had a point, I’m afraid ;P Gnocchi di patate are very heavy on the stomach. When I eat them, I don’t usually eat anything else afterwards. I would die mixing them with cappuccino, tea sounds like a better option for me to warm up and digest 😀 Un abbraccio a te!

      Liked by 1 person

  7. I just moved to Puglia, and I’ll be honest – I drink cappuccinos any time of day. I’m sure the baristas think I’m a bit nuts, but it tastes so good! I need to get my own espresso machine so that I can drink my shame behind closed doors, but until then, I do what I do.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Ciao, welcome to the group of the #DolcevitaBloggers! And you’re right to do what you want! Too bad home coffee machines don’t usually have the device to make the foam 😦


  8. Impressive fact finding mission Sara! In Puglia, it is not common for adults to drink milk other than in the morning, and it is mostly tourists who drink cappuccino after ‘morning’, except for the occasional cappuccino in the late afternoon on a cold day. Purtroppo, I am one of those lactose intolerant Italians, so I rarely have cappuccino anyways. Sometimes I have an espressino (marocchino in the rest of the country) as it is like a baby sized mocha cappuccino! The real ‘rule’ then is that milk is not consumed with or right after meals (except by children). That would ruin the wonderful meal you just had! Most restaurants outside of touristy areas don’t serve cappuccino period, only bars do. Great discussion. Grazie, Cristina

    Liked by 1 person

  9. Sara, I was so curious to read your post on this very “controversial” subject. When I was a “tourist” in Italy, I made a point to only have it in the morning because I was scared of being judged by now that I live here, I have it whenever I want. I particularly love it as an afternoon snack and I don’t think that I should deprive myself of the joy of a cappuccino for anyone else’s reasons that, so it seems, may or may not even exist. Thanks for all the info!!! Loved all the infographics in this post too!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Grazie Jasmine! Well, I guess you’ve seen yourself Italians drinking it even in the afternoon sometimes, right? 😉 In Northern Italy it’s not that weird and, right, one should do what one wants in the end!


      1. mammaprada

        Love this and all the comments. My Husband has become very British now and likes to have it whenever he wants because it’s no one else’s business! Lol! I’ve gone the other way I can’t digest anything if I have it after a meal so I’m indirectly following the 11am rule! Argh! 🙂


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