Coffee is a culture in Italy, a way of life. Something new to me, something I thought I understood, but boy was I wrong. Last year my family moved to Italy from the US. Back in the States a Starbucks drive-through would get me through the morning. The shear size of my venti vanilla latte with coconut milk would last for an hour as I ran around getting errands done. Coffee is a social culture in Italy and rules apply. For example: it is an insult to refuse when someone offers you a coffee; it costs more to sit than stand at a Bar; you never order a cappuccino or latte after 12pm. How can so much camaraderie come from a few sips of this liquid? It was strange at first to take the time out and stand at the bar for a coffee. The sweet smell of pastries and strong aroma of espresso starts my mouth watering. People are lined up, elbow to elbow the entire length of the bar. Everyone is brushing arms as they, in turn, reach for the sugar. It is such a pleasant and important part of an Italian’s day.
ALL ESPRESSO COFFEE IS NOT CREATED EQUAL
It took me some time to taste the nuisances found in a cup of espresso, but it is much like choosing a wine. There are 6 traits to a great espresso: acidity, body, sweetness, aroma, bitterness, and aftertaste. Each of these qualities play off each other to create the perfect balance. Espresso should never taste burnt or bitter. In addition to the flavor, the texture of the coffee is important, and yes, I did say texture. What I am referring to is the ‘crema’, the light foam which floats on top of a properly made espresso. Many times when the actual liquid is gone, you may notice people scooping the last of this crema from the bottom of the cup before heading on their way.
THE PLACE MATTERS
Finding a great Bar (aka coffee shop) in different areas of the city is important. What you will see is that once favorites have been found you are a patron for life. It is not only the quality of the coffee that makes for a great Bar, it is thebarista who serves it as well. Over time a personal relationship forms between the barista and patron. I enjoy walking in and hearing, “Buongiorno, Christine!”, and in the time it takes me to pay they have already begun my morning regular. They ask me how my husband and kids are doing. This morning banter is just what I need to keep me coming back time and time again (along with a great cup of coffee). Another curious fact is when a barista leaves an establishment, on occasion the patron will follow him to his new Bar. The same barista may have been serving you coffee for years, some in fact have been with their particular Bar for decades. I can understand wanting to continue this relationship even if they change establishments.
OF COURSE, A COFFEE LIST
You may think that there are only three combinations of espresso; normale, cappuccino, and a latte. You are wrong. Listed below are some of the options.
Un caffé macchiato: an espresso with creamy milk on top
Un caffé macchiato freddo: an espresso with some cold milk added
Un caffé lungo: an espresso where the quantity of water is larger than normal
Un caffé ristretto: just a very tiny quantity of water in the cup
Un caffé corretto: an espresso with liquor in it
Un caffé al vetro: an espresso served in a little glass
Un decaffeninato: an espresso which uses decaf coffee powder
Un caffé doppio: a double ‘normale’ coffee served in a larger cup
I order mine ‘al vetro’ which means it is served in a shot glass instead of an espresso cup. By doing this it cools the coffee slightly and it is a smoother way of drinking it. It also allows you to admire the dark hazelnut color, as you know we eat (and also drink) with our eyes before our mouths. They might also ask you if you want to add some “cremina” or “crema di caffee” to your espresso. This is a sweet foam that adds creamy foaminess to your espresso. If you are not diabetic, go for it. It is usually free and quite trendy nowadays.
THIS IS WHERE I GO
One of my favorite coffee stops is Santa Lucia at Largo Febo 12. It is tucked away on a back street right next to Piazza Navona. They serve an array of panini’s and pastries to munch on while enjoying your coffee. Make sure you always pay for your espresso first and then bring your receipt to the counter. Also, if you ask, they will serve you a glass of water for free with your coffee. The only downside to Santa Lucia is they do not have outside seating. I suggest while visiting the beautiful sights of Piazza Navona you don’t give into the temptations of eating eggs and bacon at one of the tourist traps located there. Take a walk as you get lost on the small side streets and pop into some of the local Bars. Maybe by the end of your visit you will be an espresso connoisseur!