Not Your Average Cup of Joe

Italy’s breakfast of champions: cappuccino and pastry.

I’ve returned from two weeks of exploring Italy from top to bottom, and while I will have plenty to say about the experience in the weeks to come, this week, as I recover from jet lag, my mind is focused on one thing above all else: staying caffeinated. So naturally, this post is about Italian coffee.

We can thank the Italians for bringing coffee into our European ancestors’ lives: the Venetians were the first to import it (way back in the 1500s). And in the early 1900s, it was the Italians who arguably perfected it, with their invention of the espresso machine.

Espresso remains the coffee beverage of choice in Italy. True Italians will only drink cappuccinos (and other milk-based coffee drinks) before 11am; after that, they only drink espresso. (This habit was born from necessity: before refrigeration, the milk would spoil by late morning.) If you stand at the bar of a café, you can get a single espresso for 1 euro (the price is actually regulated by the government). It will be served to you, without exception, in a proper ceramic cup and saucer. The ritual is simple: first, have a drink of water to cleanse your palate. Add sugar if you desire. Then, take two sips to polish off the espresso.

I’m actually a little surprised Americans haven’t embraced espresso shots. They’re faster to make and to drink than our usual large, fancy Starbucks orders. Even I – lover of large cups of coffee with milk – came to appreciate the efficiency of espresso. Several times during my travels I found myself with only a few free minutes to caffeinate, and I was happy to discover that I could procure and consume an espresso with moments to spare. But I suppose our addiction to sugar is more powerful than our addiction to doing everything in a hurry.

Perhaps most remarkable is that the coffee in Italy is good…everywhere. In a truck stop along the highway between Venice and Florence, there was a coffee counter with a huge, gleaming espresso machine, and they pulled a beautiful shot of espresso. And the best cappuccino I had the entire trip came from the Naples airport.

Some people complain that Italians are too engrained in the old ways of espresso, and some entrepreneurs are trying to introduce the Italians to single-origin beans and cold brews. Starbucks even dared to open its first Italy outpost recently. But it seems unlikely that the essential nature of Italy’s coffee culture will change anytime soon; after all, when you can get a very good espresso for 1 euro anywhere you go, why mess with perfection?