Italy is synonymous with coffee and refinement. And, of course, espresso. Why do Italians fuss over their coffee so much and how do they like it best?
For two years in a row, Italy has taken a jab at getting espresso — the quintessential Italian style of making coffee— added to Unesco’s list of cultural practices and expressions of intangible heritage. This method of making coffee, which requires steam to pass at very high pressure through coffee grounds to extract the maximum kick and flavour out of them, is a technique that has its origins in Italy. Some of the first espresso machines were developed in Turin. The resulting coffee has a distinctive crema on top and an intense and highly coveted bittersweet flavour, with some of the coffee grounds — which are made from heavily roasted coffee beans as preferred here — dissolving in. Italy’s coffee culture may well be on the cusp of getting the wider world recognition that it deserves. In Italy, of course, it is nothing short of a religion.
If you’ve seen Eat, Pray, Love, you will remember the chaotic scene where Julia Roberts is trying to order a coffee in a typical coffee bar in Rome. It’s not far from the reality in Italy, where both coffee bars and excellent coffee are in ample supply. The only caveat: don’t expect too much instant coffee. Of the annual 6kg per capita consumption of coffee in Italy, only 0.1kg is instant. Welcome to the world of real coffee.
Coffee has been drunk in Italy since the 1500s, but it’s only in the late-1800s that the way of making and consuming coffee that we recognise as quintessentially Italian took off — or, shall we say, gathered steam.
Angelo Moriondo from Turin is often incorrectly credited with having invented espresso, but he did patent a steam-driven, coffee-making device in 1884. It was probably the first such Italian machine but the French and English had been using steam-driven coffee machines before that.
The next revolution in Italian coffee came in 1933, when Alfonso Bialetti, an Italian engineer, invented the moka pot, a nifty stove-top percolator which used the same principle of passing steam at high pressure through coffee grounds, allowing Italians to make their espressos at home.
Named after the Yemeni city of Mocha, the moka pot is an integral part of Italy’s coffee culture and Italians still make their coffee at home in it. Not only the Italians, the moka pot is popular all over Europe and Latin America. It’s also a modern design classic and is on display at several design museums around the world.
The third important development was in 1938, when a Milanese barista, Achille Gaggia, filed patent No. 365726 for a steam-free coffee machine. Thanks to a revolutionary piston mechanism, called ‘Lampo’, he was able to manage the entire process by which hot water under pressure passed through ground coffee, giving birth to espresso with a natural ‘crema’. And in 15 seconds flat. To this day, Gaggia coffee machines are the best in the business.
So what is the fuss all about? How is espresso different from, say, drip coffee? Due to the pressurised brewing method, the flavours in espresso are very concentrated. It’s thicker than coffee made with other methods and some have likened the viscosity to that of ‘warm honey’. There are more suspended and dissolved solids in it than gentler methods of brewing coffee. And, of course, there is the crema on top, a foam with a creamy consistency.
If you don’t wish to commit caffeine hara-kiri in Italy, it’s best to make yourself conversant with some of the ground rules of coffee drinking in Italy. Cappuccino or any coffee with milk is generally only had at breakfast. In fact, cappuccino with a flaky pastry is the typical Italian breakfast — it’s not difficult to find since coffee bars in Italy open early and close late. Gianfranco Tuttolani, the Italian chef at Celini, Grand Hyatt Mumbai, explains, “Coffee for Italians is more like a lifestyle rather than a simple drink. For us coffee is basically the mocha which we prepare at home and espresso which we drink at the café. We do enjoy latte or cappuccino but it’s basically a morning thing along with a pastry for breakfast. We never drink something like that with a meal as many people abroad do.”
After breakfast, it’s mostly endless cups of espresso for the Italians, who take multiple coffee breaks through the day, called pausa caffè. Nor do they linger at Italy’s ubiquitous coffee bars. The preferred style, called al banco, is to stand at the bar, gulp down your espresso and leave. Of course, you do have the option to sit at a table and be served alla tavola.
Howard Schultz once said, “When I first discovered in the early 1980s the Italian espresso bars in my trip to Italy, the vision was to re-create that for America — a third place that had not existed before. Starbucks re-created that in America in our own image; a place to go other than home or work. We also created an industry that did not exist: speciality coffee.” That must have made a few Italian nonnas turn in their graves. But, no matter. The Italian coffee bar is alive and well. Starbucks only managed to make one small dent in Italy with a store in Milan in 2018.
Italy’s coffee culture revolves around espresso, which is made with speed and precision. No one seems to have the time to hang around for a drip coffee or for the barista to make a pretty pattern on the foam. A pressure of 9 bar is specified for espresso coffee in Italy and it’s always a 3oz shot, served in a demitasse porcelain cup. It shouldn’t cost you more than a couple of euros. The espresso is served hot, but not scalding and you should drink it in no more than two minutes. In Italy, you’ll usually also be served a glass of water with the espresso, to be drunk first to cleanse the palate. And you have to sip the espresso — gulping it down in one shot is unacceptable. All this is part of Italy’s coffee etiquette, called il galateo del caffè, and it is followed strictly. After all, if something has been perfected, why tamper with it?
Some other Italian coffee conventions worth noting: They don’t really do sizes in Italy, so don’t bother to ask for a double espresso. If you want more coffee, just order two. If you do want an espresso, ask for un caffè—espresso is the default mode in Italy.
Never say you want a latte in a coffee shop in Italy—you’re likely to be served a glass of milk. You at least have to say caffè latte. And double tall skinny vanilla latte? What’s that?
Of course, there are permissible variations, like ristretto, macchiato, Americano and the delicious caffè con panna, espresso with a massive dollop of freshly whipped cream. And in the hot Italian summers, a variety of cold coffees make an appearance, like the caffè shakerato, caffè affogato, etc.
Ask Chef Tuttolani about his own coffee-drinking style and he says, “I do enjoy mocha and espresso, as everyone else in Italy, but many a times I prefer a decaffeinated one, which I can’t find anywhere in India. I do love iced latte macchiato (without ice) and I do love another beverage that is impossible to find here — it’s basically a coffee made from barley.”
Yes, they do drink a lot of coffee in Italy which isn’t coffee at all, but that’s a story for another day. Even with regular coffee, there are interesting regional variations across Italy, with each region boasting a distinct coffee culture of its own. In Le Marche, you might be able to get a caffè anisette or an anise-flavoured espresso. In Sicily, you can sample caffè d’un parrinu, an Arabic-inspired coffee flavoured with warm spices. When in Veneto, do try the macchiatone, a cross between a macchiato and a cappuccino. Livorno in Tuscany is noted for its ponce, a coffee spiked with rum. The bicerin, which you can sample in Turin, is layers of espresso, hot chocolate and milk, served in a glass. A caffè corretto is an espresso ‘corrected’ with a shot of booze, usually grappa.
The best place to have a coffee in Italy is perhaps at one of its historic cafés (called caffè). The opulent Caffè Florian in Venice, lying under the porticos in Piazza San Marco, is believed to be the longest running coffee house in the world. It’s certainly one of the oldest cafés in Europe, having opened in 1720.
Other venerable ones are the Caffè Bontadi in Rovereto, established 1790, and Caffè Pedrocchi in Padua, which was established in 1831. The Pedrocchi coffee is legendary, consisting of a shot of espresso with mint syrup, whipped cream emulsion, and a dusting of cocoa. That sounds like heaven in a small cup.