Why is good espresso so hard to find in New York City? I ask about New York, because if you can’t find a good espresso here, you probably won’t find one outside of Italy. (Have you ever ordered an espresso in France? Think Nescafe. I have had spectacular espresso in Japan, but this is only because Massimo Zanetti himself (of Segafredo) imported his own machines and baristas to make the espresso at his cafes.) There are literally thousands of cafes and Italian restaurants in New York, all claiming to serve espresso. Even the best ones serve mediocre espresso. Is it possible that Mario Batali can serve some of the best Italian food in New York, but can’t figure out how to make a good espresso? (Yes, Babbo’s espresso is sub par.) And yet the fact is that an Italian restaurant can’t truly succeed with its mission if it doesn’t take espresso seriously. Ignorance? Laziness? They just don’t care? All of the above.
There are a few factors that contribute to the problem. (I see this as a problem, because good espresso is an anchor of Italian gastronomy. Without it, the meal, the experience, and the pleasure are all incomplete. With a good espresso, the world is perfect – if only for the time that it takes to drink the one ounce serving.)
Let’s talk about why New York and the world are missing out. One factor is ignorance. Most cafes and restaurants (unless owned and managed by Italians) don’t really know the difference between good and bad espresso. 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. In Italy, this job is handled by a professional. A good barista takes his craft seriously. Outside of Italy, the job is generally relegated to clueless waiters, students, and hurried staff.
I’ve grown tired of ordering and receiving bad espresso. I still order it — hoping to be surprised, but I am seldom surprised by anything other than the bored, oblivious, rushed attitude of most espresso makers. Sometimes I watch, and my blood boils, as the process is botched and I am served yet another watery, bitter, overfilled cup of poison.
So let’s talk about espresso. What makes a good espresso? In Italy, it is commonly 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 formally trained and serious about the job); 2. La Misura (the amount of espresso that is put into the machine); 3. La Macchina (the quality and strength of the machine itself); 4. La Miscela (the blend of coffee used); and 5. La Macinatura (the fineness of the grind itself). When the 5 m’s are in unity, the result is one ounce of dark, thick, rich, syrupy espresso, covered by a quarter inch of crema, the emulsified oils that settle on top. (My grandmother would skim this crema off an entire pot of espresso, and whip it together with sugar. The mixture would then be spooned back on top of each espresso. Although delicious, I still prefer it without sweetness.)
All of these components needs to work together to make good espresso. For example, you need the right dark roast blend of Arabica beans for the flavor to be intense, not burned. The espresso machine needs to produce 9 bars of pressure (135 pound per square inch) to properly force the water through the coffee, at about 200 degrees Fahrenheit, for 25 seconds. The barista needs to be skilled — often perfecting his skill over many years. The coffee grind needs to be very fine, as courser grounds do not absorb the water. And finally, you need the right amount of coffee — one-quarter of an ounce exactly. Too much or little of any of the above can ruin the espresso. Sure this sounds complicated. But somehow in Italy, they manage to make good espresso everywhere – All day; Everyday — because they know how good it could be.
So where is the best espresso in New York? Good espresso does exist, though I’ve found it in just a couple of places. I’ve searched high and low. And even though the odds are 99% that I will be disappointed, I keep searching, hoping to be surprised. To see where I’ve been satisfied, refer to the restaurant section, under Caffe, and please tell us about any good espresso you find in your travels…