In Italy, a spiritual search for the essence of espresso
By Erin Meister,
For the espresso obsessed (like me), visiting Italy is like journeying to Mecca: Caffeine-loving crusaders seek answers by crossing time, language and cultural barriers to visit the drink’s motherland. And although it’s not a sip from an Islamic holy well, this potent secular beverage does transport devotees to a higher plane — if only until the jitters wear off.
Sacred spots are scattered across Italy: Each major city has its own coffee tradition, and limiting myself to one or two would feel as incomplete as sticking to decaf. As a barbecue fanatic must bounce not only between the Carolinas but also through Missouri, Tennessee and Texas for meaty enlightenment, I won’t fulfill my pilgrimage simply by slugging a few espresso shots in Rome.
So I select stops that will give me the widest range of coffee and culture: Starting near the rippled canals of Venice, I’ll move south to the piazzas of Florence to the bustling streets of Rome and finally to Naples’s craggy coastline, attempting to parse the cultural code of the cappuccino in its birthplace. Can overcaffeination lead to illumination? I’m determined to find out, one ounce at a time.
Coffee and canals
Venice’s pin-drop silence at sunrise is interrupted only by singing gondoliers, and the mostly pensive calm that settles on the car-free city reminds me that I’m on a fanatical quest. I try to imagine wandering these narrow alleyways 400 years ago, when coffee first arrived at the ports, along with spices from Arabia and Africa. Venice’s first cafe reportedly opened in the 17th century, although the details of where and when vary.
One of its most venerable, however, remains. Caffe Florian on the Piazza San Marco has been an ornate — and extravagant — shrine to espresso and liqueur-drenched desserts since 1720. Gold glints from every indoor surface and is reflected in the crema, the aromatic foam atop the coffee. This is my first sip of the trip, presented without fanfare, and I half expect it to be something of a life-changing revelation.
A revelation it is, though not exactly of the type I’m seeking. The bitterness in this cup implies old beans carelessly brewed; a rubbery aftertaste betrays the robusta, or lower-grade commercial coffee, that infuses the otherwise light, bright espresso. (The latter disappointment proves to be recurring: Italian blends often feature robusta to boost the crema, unfortunately at the expense of flavor.) But the sheer nonchalance of the service, contrasted with the opulence of the setting, makes this feel like a secular tourist’s visit to the church of coffee.
If nothing else, I know that I’m on the right track.
Thankfully, Venice redeems itself in a less ostentatious locale. Not far from the Jewish ghetto is cafe-cum-roastery Torrefazione Marchi. Snuggled among busy butcher shops and pizzerias, this warm little spot is perpetually crowded with neighbors and shopkeepers on the move, downing espresso and biscotti before grunting a quick farewell. A small roasting machine in the back room keeps the baristas in a steady supply of single-origin coffees and custom blends, such as the semi-secret Caffe della Sposa, a mix of beans from eight growing regions. The shot I order (a citrusy Colombian) is speckled with chestnut and mahogany browns, and its sharp fruitiness makes my mouth water. Three sips later and I’m out the door in a flash like the Venetians around me, ready for the next espresso, the next cafe, the next stop on my quest.
Grape and olive devotees have long exalted Tuscany’s wines and oils, establishing Florence in particular as a hub of good taste. The same seemingly applies to espresso: The acidity in those northern coffees mellows into a sweet chocolate cup here, with a toasted nuttiness like the peanut-studded brittle stacked in bakery windows and a silkiness reminiscent of the luscious tableside olive oils.
In Florence I have my first taste of espresso dolce, “sweet coffee.” Roasted, blended and brewed to create a playful balance of sweet and bitter, it epitomizes the city’s dualistic culture. Here, designer fashion and ancient statues vie for tourists’ attention in the same piazza, and fine-dining restaurants peacefully coexist with workaday snack bars where five minutes leaning against the counter gets you an espresso and an earful of gossip. With one foot firmly planted in the past and one in the present, Florence and its coffee represent the changeable Italy, where people and tastes easily adapt to the new while nodding to tradition.
Although there’s nothing especially sweet about the businesslike baristas at Caffe Scudieri, their masterful coffee offsets their tourist-weary scowls. (The endless array of cream-filled pastries helps, too.) Smooth milk chocolate and almonds are dominant cup flavors, making a lovely straight espresso and, when paired with steamed milk, an indulgent breakfast cappuccino. I can practically see my reflection in the velvety microfoam as I sip from my morning cup, watching fashionable Italians emerge from the shadows of the nearby Duomo, the city’s majestic cathedral, from my perch along the marble bar. The sunny cafe retains some classic charm from its 1939 beginnings and is perfect for the sweet tooth: Although savory salads and panini are available, sugar-topped buns and glazed fruit tarts are a better complement to the toothsome espresso and the chic decor.
A short walk from Scudieri is another Florentine cafe long on both legacy and character. Giubbe Rosse opened on Piazza della Repubblica at the end of the 19th century, its name inspired by the red shirts sported by liberal forces in a national unification campaign. The staff still wears crimson suit jackets in tribute, and at least one barista is liberal — with his smile, if nothing else.
“This is a famous cafe,” he beams, handing me my espresso. “You know it in America? This is famous Italian coffee!”
Famous, certainly: There’s that familiar rubbery twinge, but the cup retains its mostly dolce personality under heavy copper-flecked crema. No matter that the robusta in the blend pierces a bit, because the cafe itself is so charming: Giubbe Rosse, its walls lined with caricatures, is still an enduring rendezvous for artists, entertainers, politicos, poets and journalists.
The barista grins as I take my last sip, fixing his attention on the next customer, who bellies up for un caffe corretto, an espresso “corrected” with liqueur. His smile proves that the sweetness of Florence isn’t always limited to its demitasses (or the decadent tiramisu that accompanies them).
Skeletons and secrets
No pilgrimage would be complete without a visit to some solemn sanctuary or boneyard, and Rome is teeming with both — including the catacombs of the Capuchin monks, after whom cappuccino is named. These austere friars, members of a Franciscan Catholic offshoot, wore brown hooded cowls as a mark of their order: A bronze ring of crema surrounding the white foam atop a cappuccino is often called a “monk’s head,” mimicking that traditional robe.
To reach the crypt, I follow Via dei Cappuccini to the Church of Our Lady of the Conception of the Capuchins, where the remains of 4,000 clergymen are arranged in decorative patterns. Some skeletons still wear coffee-colored cloaks, remnants of a liturgical law that forbade traditional underground burial on friary grounds.
Bones tell no tales, and neither do Roman baristas. Nowhere is this more apparent than at Sant’Eustachio il Caffe, where the techniques and coffee blend are so proprietary that the bartenders are hidden as they produce drink after drink for the drowsy masses. (Since it opened in 1938, a reported 4,000 espressos a day have been passed across this bar.)
Signs around the cafe proclaim, “Il caffee senza zucchero va richiesto all’ordine,” or “Coffee without sugar must be requested when ordering.” Asking for a shot amaro, or bitter, might earn coffee cred back home, but you’d be missing out here: Whatever alchemy takes place behind the curtain yields delicious results, and it’s best to trust the master at the machine. The frothy, almost meringuelike crema on this espresso is unlike any other I’ve tasted, and while there’s a noticeable kiss of sweetness, it neither overpowers nor distracts from the coffee’s deep roasted-chestnut flavor.
Part of the secret is that the blend of 100 percent high-altitude-grown, deeply aromatic Arabica coffee beans is still wood-roasted in the style of the 1930s and ’40s, giving it a distinct smokiness that tastes not unlike the specks of char on a perfect pizza crust. The other part? I sense that if the baristas told me, they’d have to kill me. Instead, I’ll happily stick to doing as the Romans do (con zucchero, per favore).
Charm with an attitude
A departure from the tourist-friendly sheen of the cities I’ve left behind, Naples’s cafes are examples of well-oiled human machinery at work: Watching baristas here is like observing fine automobiles pieced together on an assembly line. Not only do the barmen (and they’re almost always men) move with complete precision, but their machines are also industrial marvels. Any Neapolitan cafe worth its bulk in beans still cranks out espresso on lever-controlled contraptions, with baristas pulling and releasing the long metal arms in succession so fast that they appear to be piston powered. And while Naples might not be storybook pretty, like Venice, it seems to give me a sideways smile as I bump against locals, jostling for the perfect spot at the bar.
The historical district’s Caffe Mexico epitomizes order and rhythm. Two nimble baristas dance around one another to attend to a constant flow of customers — taking orders, doling out still or sparkling water, and pulling espresso shots in one fluid, continuous movement. But this is less ballet than military drill: The bartenders are even decked out in what look like navy whites, complete with gold braid on the shoulders.
The shot I’m handed is all business. The farther south I’ve traveled, the darker the roasts have become, and this espresso is all bittersweet cocoa and cedar smoke, designed to put hair on your chest. (Though if that’s the case, then the woman next to me in the exaggerated fur-trimmed hat must be pretty hirsute: She’s several sips into her third cup as I finish my first.)
This scene is repeated all over town: stoic baristas pulling and passing shots to bumblebee-busy bar backs who balance multiple demitasse cups while simultaneously clearing empties and pouring fresh water for those waiting their turn. The flow is occasionally interrupted by “to go” orders, when several espressos in tiny takeaway cups are placed on spill-proof trays and whisked off by a delivery person with a steady hand and a brisk step. (You read right, purists: There is espresso to go in Italy.)
As my pilgrimage winds down, the cardinal question remains: Can coffee alone truly capture Italian culture? The dynamic individuality that shows itself in the bottoms of the cups I’ve drained suggests not. But even though I can’t expect to learn everything about a people simply by studying their morning stimulants from place to place, at least I’ve been wide awake for the journey.
Meister is a specialty-coffee professional and writer in New York. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.