Un Caffe`

A friend of ours says: “Nothing takes 5 minutes in Italy”.

In fact, the closest Italians come to doing something in that short a time is drinking coffee. When I say “drinking coffee”, your mind no doubt conjures up the romantic image of an incredibly stylish Italian couple, sitting in an outdoor café for the afternoon, sipping a cappuccino.

There are several things wrong about your mental picture. Most important would have to be that if they’re having a cappuccino in the afternoon, they’re not Italian. A cappuccino has milk in it, and Italians never have milk after noon. They believe it’s bad for their digestive system. So right there, if you still want to hold on to that vision of the leisurely afternoon cappuccino, you’re going to have to turn them into Americans. And if they’re Americans, you’re going to have to redress them in comfortably baggy clothes and replace those beautiful Italian leather shoes with thick-soled white sneakers or flip-flops. The picture now is not nearly so romantic.

Sometimes a cappuccino is just a little TOO cute.

The second vision that might come to mind when I mention coffee is the Starbucks version of someone holding a gigantic paper cup – and I’m talking here about the “small” cup – with that protective cardboard band around the middle so you don’t burn your hand, and the plastic bubble cap through which you can slurp a coffee concoction that turns from much too hot to room temperature way before you’re half done. There is not one single Italian element in this scenario. The fact that both of them are called “coffee” would make an Italian shake his head in sad disbelief. You might be able to sell Starbucks in Germany or France, but that’s because they have watered-down coffee that’s very expensive. Italians, on the other hand, expect to pay no more than a euro for the small, very concentrated flavor that satisfies their every coffee need. You might call it an espresso, but to an Italian, it’s simply un caffe`.

When an Italian asks for un caffe`, the person on the other side of the counter has no questions about what to serve. He goes to a machine against the wall that looks large enough to be a hydraulic lift for cars, and with a slight turn of his wrist, releases a small cup device with a handle, tosses out the grounds from the last caffe` he made, refills it to just the right height with fresh coffee, tamps it down so it’s perfectly packed, and replaces it in the machine with another slight turn of his wrist. This takes less than 7 seconds. He sets a small cup under the spout and before you can blink, out comes a thick, brown liquid. Though the cup is small, the amount of coffee in it is even smaller – taking up no more than half the space. And on the top, there is a layer that they call “la crema” – the cream. This is not a milk product; it’s the result of the pressure under which the coffee was made. It doesn’t actually do anything to the taste by itself, but without it, an Italian knows that the drink has not been properly prepared.

A cup of espresso

Un caffe`-- la crema lets you know it's the real thing.

If you’re thinking right now: “OF COURSE it costs only 1 euro when you get so little coffee”, that means you’ve confused quantity with quality. Yes, you get 20 times the volume from Starbucks, but an Italian would argue that you end up with only 1/100th of the flavor.

And flavor is what they’re buying. They don’t want a pint of brown liquid; they want three tablespoons of pure coffee essence.  I don’t know what goes on inside that impressive machine, but what comes out is the true flavor of the original beans. And who refines those beans is very important. Italians recognize the difference between Illy coffee and Lavazza or Segafreddo, and they will search for the coffee shop that serves their favorite.

Almost as important to the enjoyment of the ritual is the actual vessel from which they drink their precious liquid. It is possible to find paper and plastic cups in Italy, but you would only go to a place like that if the next nearest café were 100 miles away. Even a run-down coffee shop will serve your coffee in a proper cup with the brand logo clearly visible on the outside. A caffe` comes in the little cup, a cappuccino (don’t forget — morning only) is in the slightly larger cup, and a milk drink – caffe latte or latte macchiato – will come in a clear glass. NOTE: I have never seen an Italian drink one of these milk drinks.

Getting back to my original point, it has taken you at least three times as long to read this as it takes Italians to polish off their beloved coffee. Many don’t even sit down to drink it; they drink standing at the counter. However, though it is just about the only thing that can be done in less than 5 minutes, I hasten to add that doesn’t mean that it must be done in under 5 minutes.

Personally, I don’t mind being labeled an American, as I linger outside for a half hour or more over my latte macchiato in the late afternoon. It’s one of the few times when the American version presents a more leisurely picture than the Italian version. At least I have the common decency to remember to change out of my white sneakers.


Latte macchiato -- the perfect coffee drink for people who don't particularly like coffee.


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