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I said ESPRESSO not expresso


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I was sipping on my apertivo at the bar of a very popular American Italian restaurant when a very polite young Italian approached the bartender and requested an espresso. Then as politely as he could he explained to the bartender how he wanted the espresso made. The bartender seemed to be listening attentively then went to the $10,000 espresso machine behind the bar and went through the motions exactly as taught him by the restaurant manager and produced another small cup of brown crap – actually it was a $4.00 cup of crap.

The bewildered young Italian looked down at the cup that had been placed in front of him. It was full to the brim with only a wisp of foam or crema on the top. Once again he politely explained what he wanted. The bartender looked blankly at him and said, “I sorry that’s how the machine makes them.” The dejected Italian took a sip, slightly grimaced, put the cup down, paid the bill and tipped the bartender and left.

I have had bad espresso everywhere. Babbo, Spiaggia, Valentino – you name it. Why can’t you get good espresso in the United States? Being served espresso in hand painted Illy cups is grand, but who cares if the coffee is not good.

You can buy the same machines, the same coffee. Why can't they make the coffee? Is it only because the customers don't know the difference?

The next person that puts a lemon slice in my espresso is a dead man.

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I was visiting a local Italian foods wholesaler, and they offered me an espresso. To be polite, I accepted, and they prepared to open up a foil-wrapped pod of pre-ground espresso powder that closely resembled a small version of the coffee packs you find in hotel rooms. I was pleasantly surprised when the resulting espresso had a great crema -- the espresso itself was OK, but the crema was very thick.

Anyone else have experience with these?

By the way, and slightly off topic, but yesterday the Pope beatified the Capuchin monk who is credited for "discovering" cappuccino. Click for Story

Dean McCord

VarmintBites

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Craig, you're the guy that's supposed to give us the answers, we can all ask the f***ing questions.

It can't be the customers, can it ? Sure, if they don't know what real espresso tastes like, maybe they'll complain less; although frankly, given some of the espresso I've had in the USA, you don't need much experience to know it's crap. But the reality is that there is nothing difficult about making espresso. You just need to buy the right beans and make it fresh every time. My daughters do that with their little £40 aluminium espresso makers in their kitchens at home, and it's fine.

My best guess is that the restaurants simply don't clean out the espresso machines often enough.

And shouldn't this be in the New York Forum :unsure: although I have indeed had similarly awful espresso on occasion in Italy.

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I'm fairly sure the water has something to do with it. Jeffrey Steingarten wrote an essay about this. I couldn't find a link to this essay, however, and I can't recall his conclusions, either. Sorry for my lameness!

Dean McCord

VarmintBites

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It can't be the customers, can it ? Sure, if they don't know what real espresso tastes like, maybe they'll complain less; although frankly, given some of the espresso I've had in the USA, you don't need much experience to know it's crap. But the reality is that there is nothing difficult about making espresso. You just need to buy the right beans and make it fresh every time. My daughters do that with their little £40 aluminium espresso makers in their kitchens at home, and it's fine.

It most certainly is the customers and perhaps, most of all the employees of the restaurant who don't know the difference. I have watched hundreds of people drinking horrible espresso without complaint.

By little 'espresso makers' do you mean mocha makers, because you can't make espresso on your stovetop. Mochas and espressos are two different styles of coffee. I love excellent mocha by the way and would take it over bad espresso any day.

One thing for certain you cannot make espresso as great at the espresso in an Italian bar at home. The Italians can't and we can't either. However, when you drop big Pounds or Dollars on a professional grade machine you should be able to produce - especially if you charge for it.

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Yeah, we have excellent espresso in Montreal. Don't know why. I think the customer here demands it and the espresso makers listen. And here, the espresso makers are either French or Italian so they care.

Varmint, I've seen those espresso packs made by Illy. I have a friend who has one of those cute-but-expensive retro espresso machines (the ones you can stack cups on top and come in a range of sherbet colours), and she just pops one of those packs in the machine and out comes perfect expresso.

I don't buy the water theory. I think it has to do with coffee grind and temperature.

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I've already forgetten what we paid for Miss Silvia to come sit on our countertop. She's a pale imitation of what a NY barista, if I may misuse the word this way, has to work with, but we've been disappointed with restaurant espresso since. There have been some long threads about making coffee at home in the states. By coffee, I mean espresso. By the way, I've noticed a trend in Spain for some of the more expensive restaurants to feature Italian brands of coffee -- Illy, for instance. The pity is that I get a better, nuttier, more chocolatier and less bitter cup of coffee from every bar in Spain that uses a Spanish brand. I've found many people who prefer the coffee (espresso, of course) in Spain to that of Italy. Sacriligious I know, but I've not heard from anyone with recent extensive experience in both countries.

By the way, and this has also been extensively discussed on cofffee and espresso machine threads, we're happy with Danesi Gold beans. Danesi has just started to import a black label called Doppio which we've just bought and will try next. We had a shot of this at the restaurant show some time ago and loved it, but they had a real machine.

Robert Buxbaum

WorldTable

Recent WorldTable posts include: comments about reporting on Michelin stars in The NY Times, the NJ proposal to ban foie gras, Michael Ruhlman's comments in blogs about the NJ proposal and Bill Buford's New Yorker article on the Food Network.

My mailbox is full. You may contact me via worldtable.com.

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I think that 99.9% of restaurants care not a whit about the espresso (or coffee, for that matter) that they serve. Certainly, the ones that have paid for a proper machine, you'd think that with a little training and using properly roasted and blended beans, correctly ground, the'yd be able to produce a decent cafe.

But just take a look at the service that we see in most of our restaurants - Wait people and bussers reaching their hands in front of your face;

tables being bussed before everyone's done with their food; runners asking "who gets the salmon;" I mean, if these things aren't taught at the outset, why should we expect a good/great espresso - which involves a lot of care? It's just another annoying aspect of dining out in our great country.

And, after a number of trips to Italy, and drinking lots of really great espresso for less than $1 a shot, I very rarely will buy a cup in a restaurant here - much less a coffee (as an aside, that's one of the things I like about Gramercy Tavern - the press pot coffee!).

Anyway, now that I roast my own beans my tolerance for shitty coffee has gone way down!

Mitch Weinstein aka "weinoo"

Tasty Travails - My Blog

My eGullet FoodBog - A Tale of Two Boroughs

Was it you baby...or just a Brilliant Disguise?

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I think one of the major problems is that it should be made "ristretto (sp)" or "short". On many automated machines, there is a picture of a half cup and one of a whole cup. Most people who don't know what they are doing think they are cheating you if they only give you a half cup. Really, that just matches the amount of water to the beans correctly; double the water gives you all the bitterness. The good flavanoids come our with less water, but the bitter components only come up with more water.

beachfan

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I've already forgetten what we paid for Miss Silvia to come sit on our countertop.

Bux -

I'm jealous because I barely have room for my coffee grinder on my counter top - lots of juggling goes on in my kitchen.

So, when are you gonna start roasting and grinding your own?

Mitch Weinstein aka "weinoo"

Tasty Travails - My Blog

My eGullet FoodBog - A Tale of Two Boroughs

Was it you baby...or just a Brilliant Disguise?

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I think one of the major problems is that it should be made "ristretto (sp)" or "short".  On many automated machines, there is a picture of a half cup and one of a whole cup.  Most people who don't know what they are doing think they are cheating you if they only give you a half cup.  Really, that just matches the amount of water to the beans correctly; double the water gives you all the bitterness.  The good flavanoids come our with less water, but the bitter components only come up with more water.

i've never been able to make an espresso - crema, taste and all - on a stove-top model. my present braun model - a cheap one - will on the other hand produce quite decent espresso when newly cleaned and when you don't use too much water , and the coffee is correctly pressed. better than at most restaurants in copenhagen, but a few cafés serve absolutely splendid espresso made from illy beans.

i use lavazza (did i hear gasping?)...illy tends to become too sharp on my machine.

edit: not braun. krups. silly me.

Edited by oraklet (log)

christianh@geol.ku.dk. just in case.

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i use lavazza (did i hear gasping?)...illy tends to become too sharp on my machine.

I agree that Illy often tastes to sharp on a home machine. Perhaps there is just too much water contact for the roast. I often use Lavazza at home.

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I know many people who rejoice about the state of Italian food in this country compared to 25 years ago, but for some reason finding a well-made espresso is nearly impossible. The Steingarten article in Vogue was focused on finding the best home machine. There was another article in the NYT within the last year, which I'm sure many of you saw, about the quality of coffee shop espresso. As I write this, two of my friends (including the reigning two-time national champion) are competing in the barista national title, from which they will go on to international competition (Italians and Swedes usually clean house, I hear). Even their best cups of espresso lack the signs of good espresso at times.

Despite all the variables one must account for while drawing a shot, I cannot believe that espresso's learning is so steep that two-thirds of all baristas and restaurants fail miserably in their attempts. I put the problem at training. Coffee quality is another.

I'm generally impressed with Illy's quality--it's definitely adequate, but there is better.

On the positive side, what restaurants have people had good espresso at? (Even some of the greats, like Charlie Trotter's, have disappointed me. Among the best on the West Coast is Pizzeria Bianco.)

Much peace,

Ian Lowe

ballast/regime

"Get yourself in trouble."

--Chuck Close

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I posted some info about the Francis Francis-Illy promotion here...

As for American espresso, it's my experience that in most restaurants nobody has really been trained to pull a good shot properly. When you factor in the semi-mysterious process at work, more often than not the results suck.

The place where my son works bought a new commercial machine when they opened, and the Illy rep came in to train everyone. Even he couldn't get a perfect shot every time, and he said that's typically the case.

Jim

olive oil + salt

Real Good Food

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Let me solve this mystery for you, Craig. First, go on line and drop $600 for a Gaggia Synchrony COMPLETELY automatic espresso maker. You drop beans in one bin, water in the other, and push a button. I can hear the moans already, but trust me on this: it makes perfect espresso EVERY time. Not merely "pretty good for an automatic machine, and worth the convenience"-PERFECT. The thing was developed by a Swiss guy for Gaggia. He devoted his entire life to it. He is a genius. I own two of these machines-one here, one in Italy. Then, for my taste, forget about Illy, forget about Lavazza, good as they can be. Go on-line to www.essetti.com. Buy Mauro beans. They have 6 or so grades, including decaf. Top of the line is Atto Primo, which is 100% Arabica, and the richest, mellowest cup you will ever taste. I need the mellowness cut by the characteristic bitter edge of espresso, so I buy De Luxe. The further down the line you go, the stronger and ultimately harsher the blend, as the percentage of Arabica drops. I also believe that the Mauro people are geniuses. But then again, I also believe that Jeffrey Steingarten is a genius! Even if you think that I am a madman for advocating an automatic machine, still try the Mauro.

Bill Klapp

bklapp@egullet.com

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and drop $600 for a Gaggia Synchrony COMPLETELY automatic espresso maker.

Now you tell me. I plead the fifth and will not testify to how much I paid for my Lavazza machine in my mad and obessed search for a good coffee. :blink:

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The place where my son works bought a new commercial machine when they opened, and the Illy rep came in to train everyone. Even he couldn't get a perfect shot every time, and he said that's typically the case.

But why? The barrista at an Italian bar makes hundreds of shots a week. I have never seen a mistake. Even the espresso they pump out at the bars at the huge trade shows in tiny plastic cups always seem to be right on the mark.

What is the mystery?

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One of the reasons I don't use Illy at home is that they don't sell the really dark roast in the bean in consumer packages. The 3 kg. can is the smallest quantity you can buy and I've found the Danesi beans in the 1 kg gold package beats the preground Illy in the small can.

Robert Buxbaum

WorldTable

Recent WorldTable posts include: comments about reporting on Michelin stars in The NY Times, the NJ proposal to ban foie gras, Michael Ruhlman's comments in blogs about the NJ proposal and Bill Buford's New Yorker article on the Food Network.

My mailbox is full. You may contact me via worldtable.com.

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Let me solve this mystery for you, Craig.  First, go on line and drop $600 for a Gaggia Synchrony COMPLETELY automatic espresso maker.  You drop beans in one bin, water in the other, and push a button.  I can hear the moans already, but trust me on this:  it makes perfect espresso EVERY time.  Not merely "pretty good for an automatic machine, and worth the convenience"-PERFECT.  The thing was developed by a Swiss guy for Gaggia.  He devoted his entire life to it.  He is a genius.  I own two of these machines-one here, one in Italy.  Then, for my taste, forget about Illy, forget about Lavazza, good as they can be.  Go on-line to www.essetti.com.  Buy Mauro beans.  They have 6 or so grades, including decaf.  Top of the line is Atto Primo, which is 100% Arabica, and the richest, mellowest cup you will ever taste.  I need the mellowness cut by the characteristic bitter edge of espresso, so I buy De Luxe.  The further down the line you go, the stronger and ultimately harsher the blend, as the percentage of Arabica drops.  I also believe that the Mauro people are geniuses.  But then again, I also believe that Jeffrey Steingarten is a genius!  Even if you think that I am a madman for advocating an automatic machine, still try the Mauro.

isn't espresso supposed to be made from 100% arabica, anyway? both lavazza and illy is pure arabica, as far as i know. different qualities, roasts and blends, of course.

by the way, there was a dane who was world champion barista a few years ago. works at my favourite cafe in copenhagen. i'm very grateful for that!

christianh@geol.ku.dk. just in case.

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Traditional Italian espresso is a blend of robusta and arabica, and the same is true in France. The better companies -- like Illy -- today use only 100% Arabica, but that's not the traditional formula. I've spoken to and e-mailed with several Europeans who are under the (mis)impression that robusta in the blend gives a better crema and more body, but I'm not aware of any actual coffee expert who agrees with that statement.

Steven A. Shaw aka "Fat Guy"
Co-founder, Society for Culinary Arts & Letters, sshaw@egstaff.org
Proud signatory to the eG Ethics code
Director, New Media Studies, International Culinary Center (take my food-blogging course)

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Craig, let me console you. I paid $900 for one of my Synchrony machines when it first came out! Also, oraklet, I disagree that espresso SHOULD be 100% Arabica. It CAN be. It is almost NEVER 100% in your average cafe in Italy, as pure Arabica has zero bite. I find it delicious, to be sure, but ultimately a little boring. I think the best espresso has a little robusto to create a complex and interesting flavor.

Bill Klapp

bklapp@egullet.com

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