There are two words that truly define the essence of Italian Carnevale : the first is maschera , or mask; the second is — of course — Venezia. While...
Before Americans knew what a caffé macchiato or a cappuccino with its delicate froth was or had the pleasure of experiencing a true espresso, we cared little about our coffee and thought of it only in terms of that morning “pick me up.” We had our Folgers, our morning Joe, we even had our coffee that automatically poured into little paper cups at work. But we were far from being the coffee aficionados that many of us now claim to be. No, we were not in love with coffee; we did not understand or appreciate it, we just wanted something that would wake us up.
Then along came Italy, a country obsessed with its daily brew, and we soon realized that coffee is not just a beverage, it is a gift to the senses. That perfect blend of Arabica varieties, that rich aroma, that liquid that jolts your tongue and warms your throat, this is what coffee is all about. Coffee is not just to be gulped down with a powdered cream, no, it needs to be experienced.
As our taste buds became more sophisticated, we too began to pay more attention to the flavors of coffee and took lessons from our amici abroad. We learned that Italians do not just drink their coffee, they savor it. For them, drinking coffee goes far beyond that morning fix. Instead, it is a beloved ritual that they share in the company of others.
No doubt, we all have our rituals. Americans are no exception. Maybe it is having a big Sunday night barbeque or going for that morning jog. We all do our own thing, but mostly, on an individual basis. In Italy, however, they as a nation have one ritual which unites them—they all love their coffee, almost to the point of obsession. Precipitate a train or bus strike, and yes there will be national distress, but just try to take away their coffee and you will see mass pandemonium break out.
Every day, in every city, at almost every corner, an Italian will be at a bar (coffee house), standing up, sipping an espresso while chatting with the barista or the person next to them. Although seemingly insignificant and trivial, this small act has done more for uniting Italy than any other hobby or passion.
Soccer, though beloved, does not do that, (have you seen a match between Florence and Juventus), politics? Forgetta bout it. But there is something about the act of being in a bar with your fellow patrons, and drinking that magical brew that unites both sud and nord, neighbor to neighbor. At any coffee house, whether it be at Lago di Como or somewhere in Napoli, people gather from all over to enjoy their espresso (the grand dame of coffees and by far, Italy’s best seller), and share this same national pastime.
On any given day, Italians can always count on a few things about their coffee. First, that the coffee will be good, (I pity the barista who makes a bad cup), second, it will be hot, and lastly, it will be served on a white, porcelain saucer. The menu has not changed much. You will not find the “flavors of the day” like pumpkin spice or chocolate almond cinnamon blend. Instead, you will fall in love with true coffee in its purest form. No bells or whistles. Although bars with marble floors and crystal chandeliers do exist, for the most part, Italian coffee houses are kept unadorned and minimalist; the glamour and excitement comes from having a really good cup of coffee done to perfection, while the conversation with the guy next to you is always stimulating.
Although seemingly simple, a cup of coffee is the product of years of dedication and development. Coffee was discovered in Ethiopia, and we owe its invention to a herder who noticed his goats were hyper after munching on coffee beans. Wanting to recreate that same energy, someone grounded and soaked these seeds in hot water and made a tasty drink. In the 16th century, coffee was introduced in Venice and was first sold as a pharmaceutical, a cure-all for any ailment under the sun. Years later, that bean and water combination evolved into what coffee is today.
A multi-billionaire dollar industry. And yet despite its mega status, its fancy names, the key to great coffee always remains the same—excellent coffee starts with excellent beans. Italian caffé is a careful blend of Arabica beans which are then roasted under the most discerning eye in order to maximize its flavor and prevent the beans from being burned. All this plus the skills of a trained barista make for a wonderful cup.
If you happen to be in Italy, along with brushing up on your Italian, be sure to know a little bit about the coffee lingo and its etiquette. Though ordering a cappuccino in the afternoon, (A cappuccino should never be ordered after 11 am) or saying EXPRESSO instead of espresso may be more like hearing nails on a chalk board, we owe it to the tradition of this mighty brew to make some effort, and di fare una bella figura.
As for me, I knew that Italy had entered my heart when I began my daily ritual of going to my favorite coffee house on my way to work. Somehow, the sun did not shine, I did not feel just quite right until I walked into that bar and headed straight to my bel barista with his ivory white apron. He would then raise his eyes, grab my scontrino, and then with the speed, precision, and skill of an Iron Chef, line up the 3 oz. cups and pour the black liquid into them. Sipping that dark blend was like drinking the soul of Italy.
Somehow just hearing the twist of the lever and seeing him press the coffee into the filter, I knew that this was the one thing I could always count on…that no matter what was going on in my life, at that moment, at that bar, I would, as would everyone else there that day, be treated to the best cup of coffee that money could buy.