Recent Entries

October 10, 2005


Monday, October 10, 2005

Perugia, Italy:

If you walk into a "bar" (meaning a coffee bar) in Perugia or any other place in Italy and order a "caffè", without saying anything else, you will invariably receive what those of us from the U.S. and many other countries call an espresso.

But not exactly.

It is not my intention to rail on about perceived deficiencies regarding life in the United States of America. Every country has its problems and the U.S. doesn't have nearly so many as a great number of others (let's all chant: "U.S.A! U.S.A!"). No matter how bad the reality TV shows get, no matter how idiotic certain not-to-be-named elected officials might be, the country has plenty to be proud of and plenty of things it can brag about.

But coffee is not one of those things. Least of all what passes for "espresso" there.

I don't know why this is the way it is. I think that certain foods and drinks that made it over to the U.S. from their native lands were modified upon arrival due to a lack of easy (or affordable) access to the authentic ingredients or the means to transform them as they were transformed overseas. They've become almost entirely different things in America, and it hasn't always been for the better (just wait until I start in on the pizza). Whatever the case, I cannot think of a single place in New York City that serves a cup of espresso that holds a candle to what is regularly available just about anywhere in Italy. I'm sure I've had a few good cups somewhere, I just can't remember where, other than in the apartment of my friend Jon, who makes his own with a $500+ machine and a brand of specially-roasted espresso bean he buys from possibly the only person in all of New York City who orders them (also a coffee fiend who imports 10-pound bags of the stuff from Italy).

Italians are addicted to coffee and drink it all the time; as an addict, it's one of the reasons I like the country so much. My only disappointment --- and it's a rather big one --- is that they drink it quickly, usually on their feet at the bar, and so there are not many places where you can settle down in a chair with some friends or a book for a long read. Where tables are found, the prices for sitting are higher than those for standing. But on the other hand, service is built into the price and you don't need to tip --- even if you order some food, which most bars with seating have on offer. Moreover, a lot of the bars are stylish, ambient settings, and sometimes they double as something else. One of my favorite bars in Perugia, "Caffè Milano," on Corso Garibaldi just a dozen meters or less from the Universita per Stranieri's Palazzo Galenga, is also an enoteca and regular (alcohol-serving) bar. Bottles of almost every liquor imaginable line the walls behind the counter. A large, sleek, flat-screen TV on the opposite wall plays football matches, music videos and movies. Toward the tables in the back are two wall-length shelves stocked top to bottom with different regional Italian wines that can also be ordered by the glass. Come in the evening to have a drink and you can often help yourself to some of the many free snacks put out to lure patrons in. With so many students in Perugia, the place is affordable too. What places like this don't make on outrageous mark-ups (an espresso costs about $.90 and a capuccino about $1.05), they make on plenty of volume. If you start to go them regularly you'll find the people working there will remember you and eventually start dropping the "buongiorno"s and "arrivaderci"s and replacing them with "ciao"s.* When I go in I am almost always asked by the same barrista "caffè doppio macchiato?" The answer is generally "si."

But back to the bean. There has been a myth going around for a long time that espresso is more potent, concentrated and caffienated than regular coffee ("American coffee" or "caffè lungo" in Italy) but this isn't the case at all. An espresso (hereafter a "caffè") is no more than a few sips of liquid that has spent little time in contact with the beans, absorbing the caffeine. Many people are surprised to find out that the typical cup of espresso has 1/3 or less of the caffiene found in a typical cup of filter coffee. So, when I tell you I sometimes drink 5 or 6 cups of espresso (or a variation thereof) each day, you needn't think I'm bouncing off the walls on the stuff. I am, however, appreciating the fact that the espresso actually tastes good.

I've never made my own espresso and I'm no expert on the stuff. I can't descibe the technical points that go into making a good cup of espresso (somebody might be raising a skeptical eyebrow, but any espresso afficionado out there knows there are plenty), but I can tell you exactly what I like about the Italian version and what I disdain about the general U.S.-produced specimen. Whereas the former is short, black, just slightly thicker than water, and mildly but pleasantly bitter, with a slight brown froth on the top and a nutty/vanilla, roasted texture and taste to it, the latter is a strung-out shadow of the stuff. American cafes generally serve a weak and strained, bitter, burnt and thin-textured excuse for dirty-black water. The cups served in the States are almost always two or three times the size of those served in Italy and that has plenty to do with the poor quality and diluted flavor and texture. Maybe it's because Americans would never happily pay $1.50 to $4.00 or more for a thimble-sized cup of something that isn't alcohol. They demand more for their money; bigger is better, so super-size my espresso already. For their own part, coffee shops and restauranteurs probably don't want to downgrade their price expectations. If they had to serve a short espresso, they couldn't charge the same. The result? Shitty espresso. (O.k, so maybe I sound like a coffee conspiracy theorist. But I can't understand why the gap in quality is as big as it actually is.)

As far as other espresso drinks are concerned, the difference is also big, though the addition of milk can cover up a lot of the burnt, bitter taste of poorly-made espresso. I've never really had a terrible caffe latte or capuccino and don't think I could in the absence of rancid milk. Nevertheless, the capuccinos in Italy are different in that they aren't immense bogs on frothed milk you can guzzle for hours. A capuccino is usually about the size of a regular cup of normal American filter coffee and you can taste the coffee under the milk as a result (and you actually want to taste it). Just don't order a capuccino much later than 11:30 AM or so, if you care what the Italians will think of you. A capuccino is pretty much the exclusive domain of "colazione" or breakfast (and often the sole component thereof), and you might get an odd look, a chuckle, even a sarcastic remark, as one friend recently did when she ordered a cup after dinner (basically along the lines of "signorina, you'll have to return for breakfast for that.") If you can't stand the taste of espresso, or just feel that you have had one-too-many a cup, you can always do what I do and order a caffè macchiato, which has just a little milk in it and costs the same as an espresso. A doppio resembles something that nearly approximates a small cup of American coffee. Except, of course, that it's better.

But if I've bashed the American lifestyle too much here I'm sorry. All is not paradise in coffeeland, at least not here in Perugia. You can't get a good burger here to save your life. Something resembling steak? It can't be much less expensive than it is in Japan. Craving Thai food or authentic Mexican? Good luck! I'm hoping to touch on all of these things eventually. For now, however, another macchiato awaits, along with studying the joys of the present and imperfect subjunctive tense.

* (A general suggestion to foreigners travelling in Italy is to always stick to the more formal greetings until an Italian begins to use the very informal "ciao" with you, at which point you can reciprocate --- although sometimes it is always best to stick with the formal when dealing with somebody significantly older than you. The word "ciao" might be a lot of fun, but addressed to a stranger it will often get you a steely glance of disdain. I've seen too many 19-year olds throw it around here with people far their senior; they might as well be shouting "yo!")

Posted by Joshua on October 10, 2005 11:42 AM
Category: Italy: Journal of Gluttony and General Sloth

Woh...Josh. not so harsh on the American cafes! You're hurting my feelings here!

Posted by: David on October 12, 2005 01:55 AM

Espresso is truly an art in Italy: everything from the machine itself, to the barista, to the cups is given thought. Josh, try a "ristretto" for a more potent dose--if you can imagine it, even less water is used. Blog on!!

Posted by: espressoman on October 13, 2005 10:36 AM
Post a comment

Remember personal info?

Email this page
Email this entry to:

Your email address:

Message (optional):

Designed & Hosted by the BootsnAll Travel Network