*If you don’t care about coffee, you might want to skip this post. If you tend to be extra generous with the expression “first world problem”, definitely skip this post. You’ve been warned. Few weeks ago, I mentioned that I was going to Rome to a friend. He was kind enough to recommend few bars and restaurants. As the conversation turned from beer and wine to beverages in general, he also said something that captured how I felt about coffee in Italy perfectly. I just didn’t have the guts to say it out loud.
“It’s not as good as they think it is”. Insert thunder and lightening here somewhere. My first visit to Italy was two years ago - we spent a total of two weeks, eating the world’s best cheese, bread, and in-season grapes. I found myself missing a good mug of brewed coffee after about three days of espressos. Now, don’t get me wrong - if espressos are your jam (and you do not have an opinion on bean country of origin), you are in luck. As I type these words, I have just finished a perfectly good espresso from a machine on a super fast train from Rome to Bologna. Beautiful.
What you observe in Italy when it comes to coffee (and food) is a much higher average baseline. If you pick a random gas station in Italy, and a random gas station in United States, one of them will have MUCH better coffee. No question about it. However, for your average coffee snob, who is used to buying freshly roasted beans, and chatting away about the recent Ethiopian blend, things are… so-so in Italy. I brought a French press and my own beans to Russia and Cuba in the last 12 months. And I have briefly considered doing the same for this trip, and then did not dare. I was going to Europe after all! Europe! Coffee! Right? Wrong. In Italy, coffee means a single espresso. The entire transaction takes about twenty seconds, and happens three to five times a day. You come into the bar (aka coffee shop), give barista a nod, stand at the counter, receive a tiny cup with an even tinier gulp of espresso. Down it in one, maybe two sips. Pay, and head out. Rinse, repeat - two hours later. And then again. No brewed coffee, no pourover, no funky business. No hoop-la. Now, I never order espresso straight while in Canada. Mostly, because it tastes like death in 90% of places. . I prefer a regular well brewed cup. Although, a well made Americano with thick creama on the top hits the spot, and does not need (but benefits from) cream. All coffee beverages are be espresso-based - espresso, espresso lungo, macchiato, cappuccino, and yes, Americano. Espresso, espresso, espresso.
While a typical snooty coffeeshop in North America will have the ratio of espresso to hot water down to a science, most bars in Italy will simply use whatever capuccino cup they have, dispense a shot of espresso inside, and top it up with hot water. . “It’s not as good as they think it is”. I think next time I WILL bring my damn French press. [Another hack for fans of a BIG cup of coffee in the morning - Starbucks Via packs of instant coffee is not just THE best instant coffee I have ever tried (the best of the horrible is not exactly high bar), but it comes remarkably close to tasting like decent coffee.