23 April 2011

Caffé Culture

The birth of my niece has brought me stateside once again and even though I am in love with this beautiful bambina, I can’t say I don’t miss my Italian luxuries (which are normal everyday things, but luxuries to me!)

Gone are my morning cappuccinos and cornetti… Now if I order a cappuccino, I get one of these humungous cups filled with I don’t know what. This is what I got the other day when I ordered a cappuccino at a local breakfast place. This cup was almost bigger than my head! And the contents? Some powdered mix from a push-button machine—no actual espresso. There has got to be tighter rules on what places can get away with serving!

The Italians, although not much of a rule-based culture, are very strict when it comes to food and coffee. So I thought I would give a little caffé lesson so you can be more in the know on the correct way of serving these beverages. But first, a little background and a few cultural comments about il caffé.


Espresso, or caffé, is the quintessential beverage of Italy, consumed 3-10 times a day by nearly every person in the country. It is in the Italian DNA—it is part of their culture and it is the driving force of the country. When “pulled” correctly, a shot of espresso is about an ounce of pure, aromatic, and frothy liquid, extracted from darkly roasted and finely ground beans. Just a quick, short, concentrated amount of black liquid energy.

In Italy, there is a bar (Italians say bar the way we say coffee shop) on every corner of every town and they are all busy serving espresso with the clinking and clanging of cups and saucers. Italians are incredibly fast with their caffé—with an elbow in the air and a flip of their head they can down a piping hot espresso faster than you can say Mammamia! There is also no sitting al bar, as they just line up, shoulder to shoulder, order their caffé and consume it before any tourist can figure out where the line starts (which can be funny because there are no lines in Italy!).

Although espresso has become part of our culture in America, it is oh so different. Take this example: I was in Starbucks the other day and someone ahead of me ordered a "venti quad coconut latte". So that is twenty ounces of fluid made with four shots of espresso, tons of milk, and sweet coconut flavored syrup. Wow. An American may think, mmm, that sounds good! But an Italian would be horrified to see such a thing--way too much liquid, too much milk and why would you want your caffé to taste like coconut? It should taste like caffé. And as far as the "quad" of shots--Italians rarely have more than one espresso at a time, preferring to take several trips al bar for coffee breaks throughout the day.

How is this a cultural example? Well, consider how we do our grocery shopping: in Italy, grocery shopping is more of a daily occurrence, picking up what you need from small, local shops. You can get your bread fresh daily from the paneficcio, your meat from the macellaio, and your veggies from the farmers market, all of which are within a block or so of each other. In America, we are just too busy for that. Our grocery shopping is more like once a week or two, with bulk items and foods with an incredibly long shelf life. Can you see it? Can you see the similarity between the venti quad coconut latte and Costco?

Okay, back to the lesson...


Next up is the smallest of the foam-topped espresso drinks. A macchiato is a single shot of espresso, in an espresso cup and topped with just foam--no milk. In Italian, macchiato means stained. So you are pretty much ordering espresso, stained with foam. I love macchiatos because I can easily drink it quickly (to keep up with the high-speed caffé drinking Italians) and the foam lightens the hard acidic espresso.


In Italy, the cappuccino and caffé latte are strictly breakfast beverages. You will never encounter an Italian drinking milk after breakfast and anyone ordering one after dinner will not be Italian, but most likely American or maybe Norwegian. Outside of Italy, however, lattes and cappuccinos are the most popular of the espresso drinks, consumed at all hours of the day or night and the cause of a worldwide frenzy of professional baristas and foam-pouring specialists. Even Norway has a fiercely competitive, national barista competition. The cappuccino and caffé latte are the ultimate best sellers for coffee shops. But after "tall", "grande" and "venti" have dominated our coffee house vocabulary, do you really know how a cappuccino is supposed to be served? I'll give you hint--it's small. Cappuccio, in Italian, means hood and the -ino means little, so you are giving your espresso a little foam hoody. The real, technical way to serve a cappuccino is a shot of espresso with a slightly larger amount of steamed milk, filled with thick foam and served in a cup no larger than a fist. It's very simple, really. A caffé latte is similar, however the cup is usually much larger and filled with mostly steamed milk and a small topping of foam.


So there you have it...now you know the way these drinks are supposed to be served. You may now proceed to your local coffee shop and adulterate your caffé as you see fit. Or, like me, you can make your own splendid espresso drinks at home with the easy and affordable stovetop caffeteria (how all Italians make their espresso at home) and a frother.

Cin! Cin!

1 comment:

  1. Thanks for the education - I wish there was a caffe latte with less milk, but more milk than a cappuccino. And, it's interesting to finally know why a macchiato has a bit of foam on top...


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