Why is it so hard to find a good (Italian) Espresso in New York?
Just a few years back, I wrote that I found it nearly impossible to find good espresso in New York. I’d now like to qualify that statement. Today I ask: Why is it nearly impossible to find good Italian espresso in New York. I know that word “Italian” before the word “espresso” seems redundant, but the adjective is now necessary to distinguish the beverage that I’m obsessed with from “Italian-American” espresso, which I often drink, but without passion.
While Italian-American espresso can take many forms, espresso in Italy is a relatively consistent sensorial experience, perhaps due to its long history and cultural importance. Order something in any of the 200,000 espresso bars that cover Italy, and you are pretty certain as to what you will get. Of course, this is nuanced, as differences do exist, and the more you know about espresso, the more you notice them. For sure, Italians see differences in espresso like no one else can. I liken their precision to that of a mother who is the only one that can notice the different shades of black among her children’s hair. And yes, espresso in Italy is evolving, but no one there seems intent on rethinking it. Indeed, in its current form, espresso is a symbol of national pride.
In America, with the typical iconoclastic approach, focused on the trendy, and driven by capitalism, espresso was destined to become “bigger and better.” It can now take on many forms. It can be the weak and watery stuff that comes from the automatic machines at convenience stores and Dunkin’ Donuts. Or it could be the less watery but bitter stuff that flows by the gallon at Starbucks. Or it could be the nondescript stuff served at countless restaurants, pulled from gleaming new espresso machine imported from Italy, but failing to be either cheap or delicious. Or it could be the handcrafted hipster extra-thick stuff, which has become a caricature of Italian espresso (which I actually like). Hence, in the short period of 25 years, America has managed to turn espresso into something that is now both widespread and confused.
But worse, espresso has become bourgeois. It is expensive. It is served in wasteful and unhealthy sizes, married with caramel and 20 ounces of milk. In Italy, espresso is the people’s drink. An espresso in Italy costs one euro, all over the country; a cappuccino may cost two (with sizes ranging from one ounce to maybe five). The Agnelli family will drink the same espresso as will the Fiat worker. So perhaps what irks me most about the Americanization of espresso is the fact that America has taken a simple, delicious, and democratic tradition, changed how people think about it, made it unhealthy, and then exported that new American notion around the world. (Starbucks now has 23,000 outlets around the world, but not one in Italy.)
None of the above American variations match the ideal of their original Italian inspiration – the simple, subtle, smooth and delectable, one-ounce drizzle of syrupy coffee and crema that makes an espresso authentically Italian. This is the drink that inspires me. It pushes and pulls me to search for it. This is this beverage with which I have become obsessed.
But why is America missing out? One factor is exposure. Most cafes and restaurants don’t really know what authentic Italian espresso is. And most customers — perhaps using Starbucks as a basis – don’t know the difference either. A second factor is that real, good espresso isn’t easy to make. It takes time, skill, patience, and pride. Too often, the job is relegated to waiters, students, and hurried staff.
So what makes a good espresso?
In Italy, it is said that good espresso is the result of the 5 M’s (le cinque M): 1. La Mano (the hand or skill of the barista, who is serious about the job); 2. La Misura (the measure, or amount of espresso that is put into the machine); 3. La Macchina (the machine — quality and cleanliness of the espresso machine); 4. La Miscela (the mixture, or blend and roast of the beans); and 5. La Macinatura (the grind, or the fineness of the grind). When the 5 M’s are in unity, the result is one ounce of dark, thick, rich espresso, covered by a quarter inch of crema, the emulsified oils that settle on top.
And what does an Italian espresso taste like?
Look for what I call the CACA of good espresso. 1. Corpo (Body): it shouldn’t be too thick or thin. 2. Aroma: The aroma and taste should be strong and intense, but not too bitter. 3. Crema (the cream): A good espresso should be covered with a rich multi-shade brown crema. 4. Acidita (Acidity): A mixture if Ababica and Robusta beans should roasted into a dark, smooth finish, with an easy after taste. The ideal result: an ounce or less of dark brown, creamy, smooth, and not too hot, espresso. I think it is a thing of beauty.
So can you find authentic Italian espresso in New York? Yes, see my list below. The list is certainly not exhaustive, but these are my favorites. Even at some of these places, consistency can be an issue. The “mano” is so hard to control. They get busy, staff turns over, and hurried waiters make the espresso. I make sure to ask for a ristretto, and if the barista doesn’t know what that is, then I don’t bother.
And to be clear, espresso is not as black and white as all of this. It is a combination of art and science, which makes it a matter of taste. And when things get personal, opinions grow strong. So don’t take my word for it, develop your own obsession. Just keep sight of the fact that Italian espresso is the true north. Espresso is, after all, Italian.
Obsession always leads to disappointment. Still, I scour the city, and indeed the world, searching for the best Italian espresso I can find. I do this because I know how beautiful it can be.
To learn more about the history and uses of espresso see this article: The Art and Science of a Beautiful Espresso.
Good Italian Espresso in NYC.