The cafe macchiato is one of the first Italian espresso beverages. Although it’s somewhat fallen out of favor today, the drink is well worth trying if you like strong espresso with just a dash of milk. Here’s a look at the traditional macchiato to the modern one — and how Starbucks has confused almost everyone.
In This Guide:
- What is a Macchiato?
- What Traditional Macchiato Variations Are Common?
- What is the Proper Way to Drink a Macchiato?
What is a Macchiato?
“Macchiato” is Italian for “marked” or “stained,” and a cafe macchiato thus is a “marked coffee.” It’s essentially an espresso that’s been marked with a dollop of foamed milk.
The Traditional Italian Macchiato
The traditional cafe macchiato comes from Italy, where cafes regularly serve espresso drinks across bars. At an Italian cafe, you’d order your beverage at one place and pick up your drink somewhere else on the bar. Of course, you’d have to be able to distinguish your beverage from others — and that’s where the mark comes in.
Espresso is the standard coffee in Italy, and it’s what you’ll receive if you order “un caffe.” Whether espresso is served with or without milk depends on the patron’s preference. Italians differ on whether they like milk in their coffee, just as coffee drinks everywhere else do.
To understand why caffes with milk are marked, it’s first necessary to understand what traditional Italian espresso is. Italian espresso usually contains a mixture of coffee arabica and coffee robusta beans. The robusta beans have a sharp bitterness, but they increase the crema on the top layer of the espresso — and these two reasons have direct impacts on the macchiato.
Adding a little milk to un caffe is common (although not universal), for the milk offsets some of the robusta beans’ bitterness. Because of the increased crema, however, it’s difficult to see whether a little milk has been added to the espresso.
To make identifying caffes easy, baristas use a dollop of foam to mark the ones that have milk. If you ordered a black caffe, pick up one of the unmarked ones at the bar. If you got a caffe with milk, look for a dollop of foam.
Thus, the traditional Italian macchiato is an espresso that has a little milk in it and a dollop of foam for marking. The espresso can be a single or double shot.
The Modern Espresso Macchiato
Many modern coffee shops have altered the espresso macchiato. They often remove the milk that’s poured into the espresso, making the drink a double shot with a dollop of foamed milk.
Milk isn’t needed as much with modern espresso, because the espresso is usually composed of exclusively coffea arabica beans. It’s not as bitter as traditional Italian espresso and thus, doesn’t need to be cut.
Keeping the dollop of milk stems from the traditional drink, maintaining some continuity with the traditional macchiato and the modern one.
The Latte Art Espresso Macchiato
The latte art trend has caused some baristas to take the macchiato in the exact opposite direction. Rather than removing milk, they add a significant amount of milk in order to create latte art.
For lack of a better name, this is the latte art espresso macchiato. The espresso to milk ratio is usually 1:1, and the dollop on top becomes a thin layer of foam that features a design.
While some might claim to like the 1:1 ratio of this macchiato variation, the primary purpose of this drink is for baristas to show off. Creating art with such little volume is difficult, and accomplishing a beautiful design does demonstrate skill. Aside from being a canvas for latte art, though, this variation serves little purpose.
How to Pronounce Macchiato
Macchiato is pronounced “MOCK-ee-ah-toe.” To order one, simply ask for “a macchiato” and not “an espresso macchiato.”
What Traditional Macchiato Variations Are Common?
A traditional macchiato can be made short or long:
A macchiato made with a short, or ristretto shot. The ristretto shot gives the macchiato a sweeter flavor, which may be desirable to reduce an Italian espresso’s bitterness or to emphasize the sweetness of modern espresso. The drink also has a slightly diluted coffee flavor, due to the reduced espresso volume. Ordering a “short macchiato” is easier than asking for a “ristretto macchiato.”
A macchiato made with a long, or lungo shot. The lungo shot gives the macchiato more bitterness and stronger coffee flavor. Using milk in addition to the foam marking may be preferable. Again, “long macchiato” is easier to say than “lungo macchiato.”
(Note: If you order a short macchiato at Starbucks, you’re likely to receive a macchiato in a short, 8-ounce cup — if not a caramel macchiato in a short cup. A ristretto macchiato must be specified at Starbucks. See below for more on how Starbucks uses macchiato.)
What is a Latte Macchiato?
The latte macchiato uses the same marking concept as an espresso macchiato, but the ingredients are reversed.
The latte macchiato follows the standard latte in terms of espresso, milk and foam. The ratio is approximately a double shot, 8 ounces of steamed milk, and a thin layer of foam.
Rather than pouring the milk over the espresso, however, the latte macchiato pours the espresso into the steamed milk. The milk and foam are marked by the espresso, rather than the other way around.
Adding espresso after the milk is poured creates a layered drink, where the flavor changes from milk to coffee as you enjoy the beverage.
What is a Caramel Macchiato?
Starbucks has confused nearly everyone with the caramel macchiato, which bears little resemblance to the traditional or modern macchiato.
The caramel macchiato is similar to a latte macchiato, except vanilla flavoring is added and caramel sauce is poured on top. The caramel almost completely covers the marking, making layering the only reason to compose the beverage in this way.
What is a Macchiato vs. Latte?
A latte is a double espresso, 8 ounces of steamed milk and a thin layer of foam. The milk is poured over the espresso, giving the beverage a consistent and diluted coffee flavor. This is the same as a latte macchiato, except the milk is poured second rather than the espresso.
A macchiato is a single or double espresso, with just a little milk. The milk may consist of a little steamed milk and a dollop of foam, or it may be only foam on top. The coffee flavor is much stronger and the texture is more like that of straight espresso.
What is a Macchiato vs. Cappuccino?
A cappuccino is espresso (single or double), steamed milk and foam, with the ratio being â…“ of each. This creates a velvety smooth beverage that has a uniform coffee flavor. The flavor is a little stronger than that of a latte, although not nearly as strong as a macchiato.
Compared to the cappuccino, the macchiato has a much stronger flavor and a thinner viscosity.
What is a Macchiato vs. Espresso Con Panna?
The macchiato and the espresso con panna are similar in many ways. Each is a double shot of espresso that’s marked with a topping. The macchiato is topped with foam, while the con panna is topped with a little whipped cream.
The whipped cream gives an espresso con panna more sweetness, and it adds some smoothness. The macchiato isn’t served with any sweetener in it (although you can always add some).
Espresso con panna is more common outside of Italy, and espresso macchiato is more common in Italy.
What is the Proper Way to Drink a Macchiato?
Like all espresso beverages, you should feel free to drink a macchiato however you like. You’re the one enjoying the beverage after all. Nonetheless, there is a traditional way to drink a macchiato.
First, a macchiato is traditionally drunk at the cafe where it’s served. Italian coffee culture is known for its “pausa” beverages, and getting something to go is a foreign concept. What’s more, macchiatos are so small that it doesn’t take long to drink one.
Second, there’s no need to stir a macchiato and you generally shouldn’t. Any milk that’s poured into the espresso will already have mixed evenly, and it’ll have broken the crema slightly. The dollop of foam on top is negligible and doesn’t have to be mixed in.
Additionally, stirring a macchiato will cool it off beyond the serving and typical drinking temperature. The drink is so small that it’ll lose temperature quickly.
Drink a macchiato as it’s served if you want to enjoy it the traditional way.
Enjoy Espresso Macchiato
Marking espressos no longer is necessary, for few people still order straight espresso and some cafes take names for drinks. The macchiato still has its place on cafe menus and coffeehouse tables, though. If you’re looking for an espresso with just a little cream, try a macchiato rather than adding milk afterward to yours.
Scott M. Brodie has over 20 years of professional experience working in coffee shops and writing about coffee (including selling superautomatic machines). When not writing, he can usually be found roasting a new African single origin or composing a fictional work.