Italy coffee tour: Where to go and what to know
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.