Macchiato Vs. Piccolo (Quick Guide With Pictures)

Last Updated on September 30, 2021 by John Moretti

With how many trendy cafes there are these days, it’s easy to feel confused with what coffee to order and how it is made, like should I get a macchiato or a piccolo? What’s the difference, which is for me? Luckily, this article will answer exactly that question for you! 

Macchiatos are a shot of espresso with a layer of milk foam on top.  Piccolos are a shot of ristretto plus a small amount of steamed milk. Both names are Italian, with macchiato meaning “stained”, while piccolo means “small”. Ultimately, personal taste will determine which is best for you.

However, there’s so much more than that to know about macchiatos and piccolos before you can make the best choice. Read on to learn a full explanation of these strong coffees with milk, how to make them yourself, and other tips and tricks to impress your friends and your favorite barista at that trendy café. Let’s go!

Macchiato Explained

macchiato coffee cup

Also known as an espresso macchiato or a caffe macchiato, the humble macchiato is essentially your standard espresso plus a splash of milk. Typically, this is cow’s milk and never too much either. 

The purpose of the macchiato is to use just a little milk to soften out the harshness of espresso, while still allowing you to enjoy a strong and flavorful coffee drink. This is why they’re called what they are, macchiatos.

Back in Italy, baristas would refer to espresso with a spot of milk as stained, spotted, or marked, hence the name. See, if you add a spot of milk to your espresso, it darkens it just a little and leaves a white spot on an otherwise smooth black surface. Over time, of course, the milk and the coffee mix, leaving you with a lovely tan color.

The major benefit of the macchiato is that you keep the espresso’s strength and uniquely intense flavor. Still, you get to moderate it with the sweetness and the creaminess of the milk. It’s a delicate compromise that has won the hearts of coffee drinkers and aficionados the world over.

Nowadays, though, you won’t get the milk in a macchiato in liquid form. Instead, expect the milk as a layer of foam on top of your drink.

You can find different types of macchiatos too. If you’re not convinced by espressos, try order a latte macchiato instead. This drink reverses the idea and instead uses the intense espresso as a splash to darken and add flavor to the milk. Also, consider adding flavored syrup to your macchiato for a different kind of kick.

What To Look For In A Macchiato

A good macchiato is all about ratio. On the one hand, you don’t want to overwhelm the espresso with milk and dilute it. If you want that, order a flat white instead. However, on the other hand, you don’t want so little milk that the espresso remains acidic or overly intense either. A good ratio is important.

The milk in a perfect macchiato has another role too. The milk foam makes the espresso’s crema even smoother and silkier. As well as that, it brings out the natural sweetness in the coffee beans.

Making a macchiato yourself is pretty simple. Start by making espresso with whatever machine you’re most familiar with. I recommend a moka pot, as it’s cheaper than an espresso machine and more environmentally friendly than using pods. Also, grab a little cup. The cuter, the better. 

Then, make your espresso according to your machine’s instructions. Go with a single shot, not a double or a lungo. Then, add 20ml of the milk you prefer. Cow’s milk is standard but almond milk also works very well. 

If you have a milk frother, feel free to use it, but keep in mind you might need slightly more milk then in case you spill any.

And there you go, your very own macchiato. Enjoy the delicious blend of bold espresso and smooth milk. Cheers!

Piccolo Explained

At first glance, the piccolo, or “small coffee” for any Italian speaker, is quite similar to the macchiato. However, it is a different beverage. For starters, it’s based on a ristretto shot instead of an espresso. You also add a lot more milk.

A ristretto is essentially a concentrated espresso shot, as it is made using only half the water. Even though they don’t always use the full amount of grounds, the end product is still concentrated, despite it having less caffeine.

What a piccolo does is enhance the robust flavor and sweet finish of your ristretto by topping it off with an equal amount of steamed milk. 

Adding that much milk balances the boldness of the ristretto with the milk’s rich smoothness. A piccolo is thus still a very strong coffee, but it’s also easy to drink given how soft it is.

The milk also then adds to the sweetness already present in the coffee. As such, piccolos rarely ever need sweeteners. Not only are they sweet enough already, but a few teaspoons of milk are definitely healthier than a few teaspoons of processed sugar.

Piccolos are also served differently and, while you might get away with a takeaway macchiato, piccolos are drunk in the café. They’re typically served in small glasses rather than cups and they have comparatively little milk foam too.

Despite being delicious, piccolos aren’t the most common coffees out there, though. Still, you can try ordering one under other names. Certain cafes are more familiar with piccolo lattes or might not draw a difference between them and cortado.

If you’re slightly lactose intolerant, a piccolo can also be a safe bet for you. This is why they took off in Italy, as the relatively small amount of milk worked well with an espresso. At the same time, a full-on cappuccino would’ve been overpowering.

What To Look For In A Piccolo

What you’ll be looking for in a piccolo is a good balance of milk and coffee. A balance of intense espresso notes, sweetness, and creaminess is ideal.

Obviously, as with any kind of coffee, quality ingredients are important, but it’s especially worth reiterating here. There’s nothing synthetic in a piccolo, just milk and espresso. If your ingredients are subpar, there’s no hiding that.

So, make sure you’re getting the good stuff. You deserve it, and not just for reading this article either. I would recommend cow’s milk, but oat milk and coconut milk are interesting, flavorful substitutes for those who can’t or don’t consume it.

If you want to make a piccolo at home, that’s easy. Start by brewing your ristretto like you would an espresso, except with three-quarters the normal amount of grounds and half as much water. 

For custom recipes like this, a moka pot is a good idea. A cheaper machine might not have a ristretto setting.

Top your ristretto off with an equal amount of steamed milk, and there you go! No froth is required here, although some do enjoy a touch of foam.

Remember to serve your piccolo in a glass, of course. We’re keeping it classy. However, if you don’t have a coffee glass on hand, a double shot glass might work. Just make sure it isn’t cold when you pour the coffee, or else you might crack it.

Bottom Line

To wrap this up, although macchiatos and piccolos might seem similar at first glance, they’re different drinks that do different things.

If you enjoy an espresso’s strong flavors the most but don’t always like the acidity, a macchiato could be best for you. That’s a shot of espresso, plus just a splash of milk foam on top to moderate.

However, if you’re more interested in a strong, sweet coffee, go for a piccolo. This ristretto with steamed milk will be right up your alley.

Regardless of what you choose though, enjoy it. And make sure to tip your barista.