May 17, 2009

Espresso coffee

We Italians, and especially Neapolitans, who are Italy's most famed coffee fundamentalists, pay special attention to the preparation, the selection of the blends and the use of accessories, that are all part of a special culture focused on the dark and mysterious drink.

In this excerpt from the Eduardo De Filippo theater play Questi Fantasmi, Professor Pasquale Lojacono - played by De Filippo himself - discloses the secrets to making the perfect demitasse of coffee with the trademark Napoletana drip brew coffee pot.
I have followed his instructions in this step-by-step Napoletana tutorial.

The venue where Italians drink coffee is called a bar, which is a coffee bar that also serves cocktails and spirits, but also sandwiches and croissants. So in a bar you can drink coffee beverages, fruit juices, alcoholic drinks and also eat pastries, panini, gelato, etc. (with many possible variations). Sometimes you can even gamble with a slot machine. Some bars are only a counter and a cash register with no bar stools, others may have tables and serve a warm meal for lunch.

But mainly, the bar, to be called one, has to brew coffee. Il caffè is normally enjoyed at the bar, and either with friends or alone, or chatting with the barista (Italian for barman), and it implies asking for an espresso. Espresso is always served with a saucer and demitasse spoon, and sometimes with a complimentary wrapped chocolate and a tall glass of cold tap water. While caffè espresso is normally drunken quickly, often standing up and on a rushed break, Napoli tradition imposes the strict rule to drink your espresso seated to fully enjoy its pang.

Here in Italy, you will not be able to replicate your experience of ordering and consuming a coffee beverage as you would, say in an American coffee shop. In Italy, each beverage comes in a predefined size (an espresso cup or a cappuccino cup) and with a standard type of milk (usually pasteurized whole milk). Concepts like medium, large, tall, fat, slim and non-fat are foreign to us. Decaf is (barely) accepted. You may be able to obtain soy milk in some establishments, but you’ll be looked upon with suspicion.

In Italy we don't walk around drinking coffee, so the concept of "to go" is quite foreign. Because we do not routinely use disposable coffee cups, we don’t see the need to bring our own to reduce waste. We also don’t feel compelled to fill containers to the brim. In fact, in some cases, that is a veritable no-no. For example, a shot of espresso will never fill the cup. If it does, the coffee is considered annacquato, watered down, thus denoting inferior quality.In Italy we drink un caffè for the pleasure of tasting an intensely aromatic nectar that leaves behind a heavenly aftertaste. Water makes us skeptical. "Acqua fa ruggine", my old nanny used to say. Water generates rust.

Most Italians do not have an espresso machine at home: they use a stovetop coffee brewer pot called moka. In 1933 Alfonso Bialetti revolutionized home coffee-brewing in Italy with the introduction of the Moka Express aluminum stovetop brewer. This simple, reliable machine became a design icon of the 20th century and even today can be found in nearly 90% of Italian households.

I think if I were a woman I’d wear coffee as a perfume. 
~John Van Druten


  1. Hi Lol,
    My trusty moka serves me a wonderful, consistently good coffee every single morning - and suspicion or not I have it with soy milk...which makes very thick sweet foamy milk when heated and plunged in my special milk plunger.
    Ah so good....
    I usually wait til after the gym - it is my daily reward for exercising!

    Happy Days

  2. Australians were just like Italians until recently. Now we are both. I HATE huge foam disposable cups. I prefer the ritual of sitting down and savouring, tea as well as coffee.
    Good on you for posting.xx♥

  3. I learned to really drink coffee for the first time in Italy many, many years ago. I have a similar experience here each morning, but do it at home, seated, with an espresso cup. I don't have a Moka, though, as we have an induction cooktop, and I haven't found a Moka or the equivalent that will work.

    Lovely post!

  4. So that is why we have 'baristas'. I could never make sense of that word. Coffee IS better than alcohol - having it in 'bars' makes perfect sense.

  5. Oh - and what I really meant to comment on was your title - it's just so "authorblog" - David influences all of us!

  6. Thanks Lola , you explained that very well. My experience drinking coffee in Italy has been nothing short of spectacular! From the north to the south, I love it. The best place to drink coffee is in Italy!!
    Yes, I use Bialetti daily!

  7. This brought back so many memories of traveling in Italy... thanks!

  8. So interesting, L! I love learning about food the you present it here--the description of the bar, how the cups aren't filled up, ways of preparing. These details make it all come to life.

    I used to sell Mokas at a specialty cookware shop where I worked in college. I never used one, but still use a manual drip method I bought while I worked there.

    Having never been a big fan of espresso, it was good for me to learn that the aftertaste is one of the reasons to enjoy it. I'll have to try it again with that in mind. I tend to be more of a caffe-au-lait type--and am not up to speed on all the variety of coffee drinks in the U.S.

    Happy Sunday. XO

  9. Much more refinement to coffee drinking and preparation in Italy it seems than here in England, the land of Fish and Chips. Rather like tea making in Japan. I'm going to learn so much from your blog - this is great! I feel like a male version of Eliza Doolittle concerning culninary things - wiil you be my female version of Professor Henry Higgins! However, sorry I did not understand what Eduardo De Filippo was saying - pity! Eddie

  10. Wonderful! You almost make me wish I was a coffee drinker! :-)

    There's a little something for you over at my place xx

  11. Every Italian has that machine, even though some of us own many different ones. You need to talk about the coffee beans too, as they are a specialty not easily found.

  12. my coffee...have great little place called the Muse run by a buddy of mine that i like to "to go" because you would miss the atmosphere and community that makes coffee so special. His motto "inspiration in every cup" seems to imply the conversations that are started around the tables.

  13. Love this post:) Wish I were back in Italy drinking my caffe' the way I'm supposed to!

  14. There is something about the ritual of making and drinking coffee that is soothing, relaxing, comforting and so enjoyable.
    Then of course there is my morning coffee wackos, I mean group, that help me start my day off right.
    BTW we are looking for a name for our group that covers how funny, quickwitted, rude, crude and socially aware we are. Any suggestions. Did I mention we are really, really funny.

  15. as perfume. I rather like that idea.

  16. Very good post on coffee and espresso. You have a good talent in explaining Italian culture to non Italians. And the Eduardo excerpt is great.

  17. I always thought I didn't like coffee...until I moved to Italy!

  18. If I have an addiction - then it is espresso. Ah, the aroma... the dark, full-throttled sexiness as it slides down the throat like an angel in velvet pajames! A day is not a day without that delightful little taste of heaven in a tiny cup! Especially if it is sipped outside in the warmth of a benign and gentle sun.

  19. It's about coffee and I love every bit of it. No on the go. No sloshing overfilled cups. No dilluted taste. Just purity and simplicity and time to share in the bounty of drink while sitting down.

  20. One day I hope to experience this in person. . . one day.
    Recently a friend invited me to a Starbucks. I ordered Cappuccino that came in a cup the size of a soup bowl! I think their coffee and the way we drink it is overinflated. Enjoying the simple essence and atmosphere should be priority. Italians have got it and maintain that.
    I hesitate to buy the stovetop brewer thinking I will not master a good brew and it'll sit and collect dust.

  21. Buon giorno! I was originally attracted to your blog thanks to your recipe for Gnocchi alla Sorrento. I started making gnocchi from scratch after returning from a trip to Italia in 2006. I've been trying to find a good recipe alla Sorrento and just wanted to THANK YOU for posting yours.

    I was just in here looking up the recipe (I'm making it tonight and will let you know how it goes) and came across this post. Coffee, obviously being a passion of mine, in addition to my Italo-philia, and bam, you've got a loyal fan. Keep up the great work! Grazie mille!


  22. I really enjoyed this post- especially Eduardo DeFilippo ...thanks for making me smile!

  23. Grande Eduardo! I loved that bit of Questi Fantasmi, great to find it here.
    I totally agree with Man of Roma.
    I must pass this post's link to a dear friend in NY: he loves coffee and coffee is often a topic in our chats (no joke!, there just so much to explain as your post brilliantly shows...).
    Come stai Lola?

  24. as i read this post i was on the phone with my daughter (who is 13) and she was telling me that she had a headache because she missed her morning cup. espresso is a must in our household.

  25. Margaret~ welcome! Come back as often as you like. Thank you for browsing and leaving a comment.


  26. Hi Eleonora! Happy 2010 !

    I love reading your stories because they "transport" me to Buenos Aires...did you know that the biggest Italian community is in Argentina? Our "bars" are like the one you describe there...and you become an "habitué" and so when you get there, you don't need to order...they know what you like already...small china cups, all our tradition comes from Italy..and of course I have the Italian coffee maker that you show in the picture!!!
    Thanks a lot for all these memories!!!

  27. This blog has irresistibly pleased its audience.
    Jill Scott