What Is a Cappuccino?

A Guide to Understanding and Drinking a Cappuccino

The Perfect Cappuccino in a cup

The Spruce / Ahlam Raffii

In recent years, the cappuccino-- an espresso and steamed milk drink-- has spread from Europe and Australia to North America and beyond. Today, cappuccinos can be bought in Japan, Hong Kong, Thailand, and many other unexpected places.

So what is it about this drink that has made it so beloved around the world? Where and how did the cappuccino originate? And what are some of the major variations on the drink that exist around the world? Learn all this and more about the world-renowned cappuccino.

What Is a Cappuccino?

Let's start with the basics. A cappuccino is a coffee drink made from a mixture of espresso and steamed milk. A traditional Italian cappuccino is generally a single (or sometimes a double) espresso shot topped with equal parts steamed and frothed milk (in a ratio of 1:1:1). Many Americans have adapted this recipe, using more steamed and frothed milk for a milder espresso flavor and a richer taste.​

What Does It Taste Like?

A well-made cappuccino has incredible flavor and texture. It has a bold coffee taste and some sweetness from the naturally occurring lactose sugar in milk. It may also be flavored with sugar, with flavored simple syrups, and other additives (although this is not traditional).

A great cappuccino takes a little skill to make, so for those who haven't tried one they like yet, give it another chance with a different barista.

espresso machine steam wand in a container of frothy milk

The Spruce / Ahlam Raffii

The Italian Cappuccino

The cappuccino has only become popular in the US over the last 25 years or so. As a result, some people have assumed they are a novel drink. However, the cappuccino dates back hundreds of years and has long been enjoyed in Italy and elsewhere.

In Italy, cappuccinos (or cappuccini, as the plural for "cappuccino", is called there) are incredibly popular. They are typically drunk early in the day as a drink to enjoy with breakfast (often with a sweet pastry) or as a sort of mid-morning pick-me-up. (Whereas Americans often drink cappuccinos throughout the day and enjoy them as an after-dinner drink, continental Europeans traditionally drank them in the morning.) Most Italians find the idea of drinking them after dinner to be distasteful and unhealthy and prefer to drink espresso later in the day instead. Cappuccinos may be consumed at home or in cafes or coffee bars.

In Italy, cappuccini are often served to children because they have much more milk than espresso. (Similarly, in some parts of Europe and India, very milky tea is served to children for similar reasons.)

Real Italian cappuccinos are made with espresso machines and require some skill to make. In Italy, they are prepared by a barista (plural: baristi). First, the barista will pull an espresso shot. Then, he or she will prepare the milk. Espresso machines often have steam wand attachments which can be used to steam and froth the milk. Pressurized steam shoots out of the wands and into a small, metal cup of milk, giving the milk an abundance of tiny bubbles, plenty of heat, and a much larger volume than before. (A quick frothing can give milk double its original volume.) The milk becomes light, airy, and much more flavorful and luscious when it is prepared well. The milk is then layered over the espresso in a pre-heated cup and served.

“Cappuccinos” Abroad

As the cappuccino spread from Italy to the rest of the world, the meaning of the word changed. Its popularity led many convenience stores and coffee shops to serve their own versions of cappuccinos, which are often only vaguely related to a real, Italian cappuccino. These "cappuccinos" usually involve a dispensing machine that can also mix hot chocolate and other hot drinks. They usually used brewed coffee rather than espresso or, worse yet, whip a powdered espresso-milk mixture into a "cappuccino". Yikes!

That said, there are many coffee companies taking great strides to make more authentic cappuccinos abroad, and the quality of cappuccinos abroad has improved vastly in the last decade.

How Cappuccinos Are Served

The sizes and serving vessels for cappuccinos vary from place to place.

Italian cappuccino is traditionally served in 150 to 180 ml (5 to 6 fluid ounce) cups. In the last ten years or so, fast-food chains and coffeehouse chains started serving cappuccinos in sizes up to 600 ml / 20 fluid ounces.

In Italy, cappuccino is typically served in a pre-heated, bowl-shaped, porcelain cup. Abroad, cappuccino is usually served in a porcelain cup in better cafes, because porcelain retains heat well. For to-go orders and in cheaper cafes, fast food chains and the like, paper cups are used for convenience. These cups typically have a plastic lid for safety and heat retention. (Heat retention is important for enjoying a good cappuccino. Luckily, the foam acts as a natural insulator, keeping the drink warmer longer.)


The popularity and widespread drinking of the cappuccino have led to many variations on its basic recipe.

A traditional cappuccino is comprised of one to two shots of espresso topped with layers of steamed and foamed milk. Each barista and cafe has small variations, so each place you drink a cappuccino will be a little different. However, some variations are bigger and require their own names. For example:

  • Iced cappuccinos or cappuccini freddo are a cold version of the hot cappuccino. In Italy, this drink has cold, frothed milk added to the top. In America, it is often an iced (or iced, blended) beverage.
  • Wet cappuccinos (also known as cappuccini chiaro or light cappuccinos) are made with more hot milk and less foamed milk. They are creamier and more diluted in taste traditional cappuccinos, much like a caffe latte with a little foam on top.
  • Dry cappuccinos (also known as cappuccini scurro or dark cappuccinos) have less milk than the other cappuccinos. There is a little steamed milk mixed in, but there is more foamed milk layered on top of the drink. The taste of the espresso is stronger in this drink, and the liquid part of the drink is darker in color than it is in a traditional cappuccino. The milky foam on top of the drink insulates the drink, keeping it hotter longer.
  • Flavored cappuccinos are very popular in the United States. Typically, flavored simple syrups are used to add the flavor of your choice. Popular flavors include vanilla, chocolate, caramel, peppermint, raspberry, and cinnamon. Sometimes, other additives (such as powdered cinnamon or cocoa, or drizzled caramel or chocolate sauce) are also added on top of the cappuccino's foam.