Synonymous with Italian culture, coffee is an important part of daily life in the country that invented the espresso machine. Today, the experts and the artisans of Italy’s most popular type of bar take great pride in serving perfect coffee, reveling in a time-honored daily tradition.
by Marisa Huff
In Italy, coffee, or caffè, is a cornerstone of the country's quality of life. It is likely that the first thing you encounter after exiting the baggage claim in any Italian airport is an espresso bar crowded with a huddle of standing people sipping espresso out of impossibly small, porcelain cups.
For Italians, coffee is culture. In every neighborhood in every village, town and city of Italy, there are a multitude of local coffee bars. From ornate and opulent to simple and sparse, they function as a chat room for local politics and gossip. On average, Italians make two to three daily espresso runs to their local bar, often inviting a friend or work colleague. They go for a quick pick-me-up, but inevitably spend a few minutes exchanging soccer results with the barista, bar owner or other customers. In Naples a visit to the caffè might end with an act of charity. According to Luciano De Crescenzo, novelist and expert in Neapolitan social customs, it is not uncommon for a contented patron to pay for two cups of espresso when he gets to the cashier—one for himself and one as an offering to humanity, or to the guy lucky enough to be next in line. This extra coffee is commonly referred to as a caffè sospeso, or a dangling espresso.
The history of coffee in Italy dates back to the 1600s, when coffee beans were first introduced to Europe through its major port cities. At the time, Venice was considered Italy’s coffee capital, which later gave way to Naples, Trieste and even Turin. The first coffeehouse, or caffè—a term interchangeable in Italian for coffee itself—was established in Venice around 1640. Yet the coffee served then, according to Corby Kummer in The Joy of Coffee, must have paled in comparison to what Italians drink now because, prior to the invention of the espresso machine, Italians, like all other Europeans, were forced to drink from “big boiled urns full of weakish brew."
Italy’s historical affair with coffee stems from a deep-rooted respect for good taste. After all, it was the pursuit of the perfect cup of coffee that inspired them to invent the espresso machine, revolutionizing the world of coffee. They found that by forcing hot water through well-packed, finely ground coffee at high pressure, one could extract the most, and most long-lasting, flavor from beans. According to Enrico Maltoni, owner of the largest collection of Italian espresso machines in the world and author of Espresso Made in Italy, the first Italian espresso machine was registered in the Milan patent office in 1901 by Luigi Bezzera. The machine had a huge, columnar shape and was powered by steam. Throughout the 20th century, design-savvy and technically minded Italians made continuous improvements to the machine, the two most notable of which occurred in 1948, when Giovanni Achille Gaggia invented a machine with a spring-powered piston located directly over the filter holder, and in 1961, when Ernesto Valente, a rival of Gaggia’s, created the Faema E61. This innovative machine used an electric pump, rather than a spring-loaded piston, to circulate the water. The result was a dark, aromatic liquid covered by a thick, creamy, reddish-brown foam called crema.
In Italy, caffè generally refers to a classic black espresso, served hot in a demitasse, though there are as many different types of espresso-based drinks in Italy as there are Italian provinces. (Some years ago, Focus magazine identified 33 types of coffee served in Italy. Based on their readers' comments, however, the final count reached 111.) There are those who order caffè ristretto, a dense espresso made with less water, and those who find the taste of coffee too bitter and prefer caffè macchiato, espresso served with a splash of milk, either hot or cold, with or without foam. Just like everything else in Italy, the character of coffee varies from region to region. Maltoni also notes that in Piedmont, coffee is often mixed with chocolate or flavored with hazelnut, like the indulgent bicerin, a specialty of Turin composed of layers of hot chocolate, coffee and whole milk. In northeastern Italy you are likely to be served a caffè corretto, a boozy espresso with about 2 teaspoons of grappa added to the cup. In Friuli, alcohol consumption is so commonplace that in order to get a classic espresso, you have to ask explicitly for a caffè lisco, or a straight espresso. There is, however, one rule that holds true throughout the peninsula: a cappuccino is only a breakfast drink. No self-respecting Italian would be caught dead sipping on a cup of hot milk with a splash of coffee anytime after the mid-day meal.
How to make the prefect espresso.
Start with seven grams of fresh, finely ground coffee. Two tablespoons of hot water, at about 194°, are then driven through the coffee for 25 to 30 seconds at nine atmospheres of pressure. Giorgio Milos, winner of the 2008 Italian finals of the World Barista Championship, has found that if your coffee is too coarsely ground, the water will move through it too fast, resulting in watery espresso with little flavor and a rapidly disappearing crema. You will get similarly “under-extracted” espresso if the temperature of the water is too low, or if you use less than seven grams of coffee. Conversely, if your coffee is too finely ground, if the water is too hot or you use too much coffee, you will end up with an “over-extracted” cup of bitter, burnt espresso with little aroma and a dark crema. But even before placing his order, Milos looks to see whether the steam pipe for foaming milk has been wiped clean. “A clean steam pipe is the sign of a well-trained barista,” he says.
The type of bean you use and how it is roasted also play a critical part in the outcome of your espresso. In Italy, you can find two species of bean: the coffea Arabica and coffea canphora, commonly known as robusta. Arabica beans generally produce more complex aromas and well-balanced flavors, whereas robusta is fuller-bodied and less acidic. During a recent cupping—the industry term for coffee tasting—Manuel Terzi, Italian coffee expert and owner of Bologna-based coffee company Caffè Terzi, served five cups of espresso, each made with beans of different origins or blends. The differences were remarkable. The aromas ranged from white peach to vanilla, all of which lingered in the mouth for at least 20 minutes. According to Terzi, freshness is key. “In order to get the most flavor and aroma out of a bean, it's best to use coffee that has been roasted less than a week ago,” he says. With regards to roasting, styles vary throughout Italy. Northern Italians generally prefer a lighter roast, which produces more acidic coffee, whereas in the south you will find a darker, more bitter cup.
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