Espresso is an artisanal drink, intertwined with the maker, requiring skill, patience, and passion. This concept is at odds with modern society, which is why finding authentic Italian espresso is so hard these days. In America, espresso is a recent immigrant who hasn’t quite assimilated and isn’t quite determined to retain its identity. But who has the time? Who really cares? There are a few factors that contribute to the problem. This is indeed 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.
Espresso is the most consumed beverage in Italy. But even in Italy there are regional preferences. In the South, espresso is creamy and rich. In the north, it is lighter and less intense. There are volumes written about the regional differences, as nuanced as they are. Even so, there is much more uniformity in Italy regarding espresso than there is in America. This uniformity, ironically, may be due to the fact that much of the espresso in Italy is roasted and distributed by large companies that cover the county (like Illy and Lavazza). Part of the uniformity is also driven by the fact that espresso culture is now widespread and ingrained. People don’t question it. Indeed, they love it. It is a symbol of national pride.
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Obsession always leads to disappointment, but this is my cross to bear.
And like religion, so much about espresso is subjective. It’s personal. Long or short shot, the blend and roast of the beans, with out sugar, milk or froth? So much of this is regional too. I love the dark, rich espresso found in Naples. I can’t bare the watery stuff found near the Austrian border.
So what is the perfect espresso for me? It’s a ristretto. The beans, a mixture of mostly Arabica with some Robusta, are roasted dark, but not too dark. They create a thick, dark crema. It’s strong and not too bitter. In the morning, it’s combined with an equal amount of frothed whole milk to make a strong cappuccino. Perhaps in the afternoon it gets a dollop of milk froth to make a macchiato. Occasionally, I pour it on ice. I never add sugar, but am not afraid of Sambuca. And I never, ever like it drowned in milk. If it’s perfect, I want it alone. To me, a perfect espresso is a thing of beauty.
So Why Care?
My answer is because real, authentic Italian espresso is a work of art. A thing of beauty. The color, the smell, the taste. These things inspire emotion in me. But I’m not judging anyone. I just believe these things are worth preserving. I want my kids to know the difference.
Espresso (and its uses) in Italy.
Italians are relatively strict about which type of espresso to drink, depending on the meal and time of day. Cappuccino is for breakfast and is not consumed after lunch or dinner.