What?! ANOTHER article (in English!) about Italian coffee? And please, not another article comparing Italy's coffee with America's or Britain's or ....whichever...PLEASE?
Well, OK, not quite. But yes. At least, we can say that here we are talking about the South of Italy, and so I propose to fill a certain 'gap' in all this discussion, that pertains specifically to coffee in Puglia. Even more narrowly, coffee in Salento, the capital of which is the city where I've lived for seven years now: Lecce, sometimes known as the "Florence of the South" (though I decided some years ago to name Florence the "Lecce of the North".)
But I digress.
First, let's recap what is not always well-understood. While coffee is well loved all over the world, in Italy its enjoyment takes on a special dimension. Here it is not only a beverage, but a small ritual, with an entire cultural backdrop. Ironically, though fundamental to life here, it is consumed very quickly, because only small amounts (about 25ml) are served. This is because, through centuries of perfection, it is now well established that the true rich flavour of coffee can only be enjoyed optimally if it is brewed thick and concentrated. The little stream that trickles out of the machine into the tiny cup should resemble a mouse tail, curving slightly. It doesn't flow in a straight line, as a weaker brew would.
This fact alone is the source of much intercultural misunderstanding. It is rarely necessary to say to Italians "espresso", because virtually all caffè served in bars and restaurants is made in espresso machines. In homes, the 'moka' is used, but it creates a very similar texture and concentration. Most Italians, therefore, consider coffee brewed weaker (even, say, just 30-35ml) as 'lungo' – ('long'), meaning 'extended', or diluted, And most Italians are in fact usually quite skeptical, if not fully disdainful of the idea. It’s almost better to think of it as a hot, liquid bonbon: you simply cannot linger over it as you might over a cup (or pot) of tea. Even though it's a small serving, this small ritual is such a fundamental part of Italian culture that some love to repeat it once, twice, or more times every day. I would summarize: better a short, two or three minute visit to paradise, than a fifteen or twenty minute long plod on dull planet earth.
Another ritual. The first thing consumed every morning is, for 99% of all Italians, a caffè, hot, freshly brewed, and rich tasting. Many take their morning coffee black, but frequently some milk is added, almost always warmed and often steamed or frothed.
Now the fun begins. You can be very choosy about your coffee.
Some may prefer, as I do, just a touch of milk ('stained' or macchiato), because we don't like the taste of coffee to be compromised. Others opt for the world famous cappuccino, which adds as much as 150ml of hot, foamy milk, for a much different effect - warm milk flavoured with a 'shot' of good espresso. Finally, many more non-Italians than Italians (usually denizens of Starbucks-type mass chains or multinationals) will order a 'caffè latte', more often called 'latte macchiato' in Italy. The opposite of a caffè macchiato, it is a whole glass of hot milk lightly stained with a shot, the flavour of the coffee reduced to but a trace.
But here in Salento you have another option - the espressino. Served in a much smaller cup than the cappuccino (usually made of glass with a metal handle) which holds about 60-75ml, it is somewhere between the macchiato and the cappuccio. You still taste the robust flavour of the coffee, but it is softened, not just stained, by hot frothy milk. As with a cappuccino, you can request some powdered chocolate to be sprinkled on top. The transparent vessel shows off to great effect the two-tiered liquid, which resembles an elegant dessert.
During warmer periods (roughly from May until September) a hot climate alternative is available - the espressino freddo. While the hot version is a pretty standardized offering all over the peninsula, the espressino freddo might take different forms. It basically consists of a smooth, creamy mousse - either coffee or plain flavoured, served in a similar glass, with the shot of espresso poured over it and not stirred, so that one sees again a lovely two level effect - white/beige over coffee brown. The mousse has always been prepared ahead of time and churns slowly in a machine near the counter, the coffee shot is made to order. Sometimes a third ingredient may appear - a coffee 'cream' and/or syrupy topping. You should always taste first the top layer(s), before deciding whether or not to stir everything together into one uniform smooth liquid, which will be about the consistency of a milk shake.
In my opinion one of the two best espressino freddo to be had in Lecce is at Avio Bar, which serves them in a type of tall cocktail shaped glass, topped with coffee cream and a squiggle of caramel type syrup, and stabbed with a small biscotti. More on the solid side, quite beautiful, and refreshingly chilled, it makes a perfect hot weather dessert, combining into one treat the coolness of a gelato (though lighter) with your after-meal coffee!
Or, at Alvino, on Piazza Sant'oronzo, directly in front of Lecce's ancient amphitheater, you can order espressino freddo normal or decaffeinated - a plus! The mousse is always fresh and rich tasting. It both blends perfectly with yet never dominates the true taste of the caffè. It is divine. Of all the people I have dragged there, insisting that they try it, not a single one - Italian or foreign - has ever shown disappointment. Sheer politeness? I doubt it.
Another special hot weather treat widely enjoyed here is the caffè in ghiaccio (iced coffee). A glass is filled with a half dozen or so ice cubes while a shot of espresso is brewed. The shot is then sweetened and stirred - you tell the barista how much sugar you want - and poured over the ice. For an extra, very Southern touch, order it sweetened with almond milk (latte di mandorla) instead of sugar. Superb, and again, wonderful either as a midday or afternoon chill, or in place of dessert.
But don't ask for an espressino - cold or hot - nor an iced coffee, anywhere outside of Salento. In Taranto, a city less than two hours from Lecce, they are less known. And by the time you reach the Basilicata region, or even northern Puglia, you might get just a blank stare from the person taking your order.
That's the beauty, and the riddle, of Italy, especially in the South: travelling just a few miles sometimes you suddenly see some things added, and others removed from the local repertoire. Even words and names for things change. So don't be surprised or sad if something you've fallen in love with disappears. Chances are something new and just as delightful is waiting to be discovered!
Interesting points of coffee history:
· Coffee originated probably in Ethiopia and/or Yemen. It reached Italy around the late 1500's as part of thriving trade between Venice and the Arab world.
· Though there were some calls to prohibity the "Muslim drink" in Europe, Pope Clement VIII proclaimed coffee a "Christian beverage" in 1600.
· The first true Italian "coffee house" was opened in Rome in 1645.
· Procopio Cutò, a Sicilian chef, opened the first "café" in Paris in 1689 called Cafe Procope. Great figures of the Enlightenment such as Voltaire, Rousseau and Diderot were known to frequent it, and some say that the first encyclopedia was conceived there. Cafe Procope is still open today - now a restaurant/café in the 6th arrondissement of the City of Light.
The first espresso machine was introduced in Italy in 1945, by Achille Gaggia