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alacarte

Why is Italian cappuccino so good?

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I recently took a trip to Northern Italy, and was delighted to find that the cappuccino everywhere was just wonderful, without exception. Smooth, flavorful, aromatic perfect crema, strong but not too strong.

Aside from the obvious answer (duh, Italians created cappuccino :raz: ), what makes Italian capp so fantastic, and how do I duplicate the effect here?

I'm wondering if it's the water, the way the coffee is ground or stored, the machines used....I'm baffled.

Also noticed that the serving size tended to be smaller than what I'm used to -- i.e. a small teacupful vs. a brimming mug or Starbucks supersize. Not sure why that is either.

Grazie mille for any insight on this!

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I believe the classic ratio for a cappucino is approximately 2 fl oz espresso, 2 fl oz liquid milk, 2 fl oz foamed milk.

The gut-busting 20 oz latte monstrosities don't do anything for the quality of the coffee, but I suspect that the primary strength is that the machines are well tended (cleaned regularly), the baristas are competent, and the coffee is a lighter roast than is typical in the US. Also, if it's only 6 fl oz. you're probably not taking 30 minutes to drink it; pulled espresso is fragile and doesn't like to be sitting around very long.

Most coffee shops in the US choose a fairly dark roast because it's more predictable and stable, not because it's better tasting. In Seattle, we are lucky to have a few exceptions, but I'm sure that's not reliably true elsewhere.

I recently took a trip to Northern Italy, and was delighted to find that the cappuccino everywhere was just wonderful, without exception. Smooth, flavorful, aromatic perfect crema, strong but not too strong.

Aside from the obvious answer (duh, Italians created cappuccino  :raz: ), what makes Italian capp so fantastic, and how do I duplicate the effect here?

I'm wondering if it's the water, the way the coffee is ground or stored, the machines used....I'm baffled.

Also noticed that the serving size tended to be smaller than what I'm used to -- i.e. a small teacupful vs. a brimming mug or Starbucks supersize. Not sure why that is either.

Grazie mille for any insight on this!

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What Jason said.

The caps and lattes you get from most joints in North America are coffee-flavoured milk drinks.

Also, in Italy, barista is a profession; the job is taken seriously. In North America (with a few blessed exceptions), it's a McJob.


Edited by carswell (log)

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Might also be the milk. I've noticed that milk has a distinctive flavor that varies based on where it came from. Maybe you like Italian milk.

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I believe the classic ratio for a cappucino is approximately 2 fl oz espresso, 2 fl oz liquid milk, 2 fl oz foamed milk.

this isn't really the traditional cappuccino ratio - just something of a well propagated myth.

Most Italian cappuccinos are around 5 or 6 fluid ounces with only 1 fl oz of espresso.

What they have worked out is not only how to put a decent shot in the bottom, but how to get the best out of the milk (keeping the temp below 70C) and how to achieve a suitable texture (they use the wand to add most of the air to the milk only at the start of the process).

They are more discerning, some speculate, due to having a cafe culture - cafes being where most of the social hours are spent therefore competition is based on quality of beverage, not necessarily price.

Its a big ole topic and I have a feeling I've left half of the relevant info out but I am at work and probably shouldnt be writing huge posts...

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I believe the classic ratio for a cappucino is approximately 2 fl oz espresso, 2 fl oz liquid milk, 2 fl oz foamed milk.

this isn't really the traditional cappuccino ratio - just something of a well propagated myth.

Most Italian cappuccinos are around 5 or 6 fluid ounces with only 1 fl oz of espresso.

I agree with the myth part, but I am not at all sure I agree with this second part. As it so happens, I've got a number of friends who own or manage restaurants in Italy. And as it also so happens, I've got a Rancilio at home. Various friends in Italy have, over the years, given me matched pairs of their branded espresso and cappuccino cups (most restaurants and bars use branded cups from their espresso supplier). I just spent a few minutes pouring water into them. Most of the Italian cups came in at around 5 ounces total volume. This means an approximately 4 ounce fill, which comes out to an ounce of espresso and at most three ounces of steamed milk.

I agree with the "myth statement" above because I believe that it isn't possible to separate foam from milk in properly steamed milk. It's all just wet, thickened, expanded, heated milk that pours out together. None of this raking the dry foam off the top of the pitcher. This all lines up with what kingseven says about the foaming technique.

Another reason, I believe, is that espresso in Italy is produced with the primary idea that it will be consumed as a straight shot. As a result, it will be smoother and sweeter with none of that "Starbucks bite" to cut through too much milk. This is especially true in the North where the preference is for a lighter roast. In the South, they like a much darker roast (and much more sugar!).

Finally, there is the simple fact that people in Italy care about it more, both the consumers and the producers. There are precious few places in America where you can get a first rate espresso -- hardly any in NYC. Maybe a handful. In Italy they're not all mind-blowing, but you'll find a pretty good caffè on just about every corner. Many people in Italy drink three or four shots of coffee every day, just stopping into a bar for a quick one. If the coffee isn't good, they will simply go down the street the next time. This is also dependent on a "foot traffic" kind of society. Italians aren't driving to a strip mall for coffee in a "to go" cup. It's the same kind of thing that keeps the ubiquitous neighborhood pizza joints at such a higher level in NYC than most other American cities: if the pizza is lame, people will simply walk to the pizzeria on the next block and the bad pizzeria will go out of business.

Ultimately, if the place isn't selling espresso you'd like to drink, it's unlikely that the cappuccino is going to be very good (impossible, I'd say). So that right there tells you that there isn't much good espresso to be had over here. Who likes Starbuck's espresso? Yuck! When you combine good espresso with a proper milk foaming technique and a higher percentage of (better) coffee in the drink, you get a much better cappuccino. That's how I make 'em at my house. :smile:

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I don't customarily measure out the wet and dry milk; I usually just pour it into the cup directly from the pitcher. Of course, even well-foamed milk breaks relatively quickly, particularly where it's in contact with the coffee, so I think it works out to about 2 oz of liquid and 2 oz of more stable foam. Then again, I don't usually sit around waiting for the coffee and foam to break down, so I don't really know.

I usually pour somewhat ristretto shots (generally doubles). My home espresso machine, doesn't quite do real espresso, though, so I usually pour a double. In a cafe, I'd be happy with a good 1 oz shot.

Bad espresso won't produce a good cappucino, however, as David Schomer discovered, a lighter roast is favorable for straight shots, and the sugar and fat from the milk benefits from a slightly darker roast (not charred) for milky drinks, including cappucino.

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Its a big ole topic and I have a feeling I've left half of the relevant info out but I am at work and probably shouldnt be writing huge posts...

Me too (at work)

Actually... I think you and the other respondents on this topic have covered the most salient points. I'll confess to not yet having visited Italy. Here in the US the number of places serving a real quality cappuccino may be small but it's growing.

And many East Coast US roasters (I'm generalizing here) tend to favor a lighter roast profile than many people associate with Seattle style coffee. But that takes us back to the terrible double edged sword of the 'bucks (actually just one edge at this point).

Their rapid growth and marketing savvy has helped develop a broader interest in, acceptance of and opportunity for specialty coffee. But at the same time they've managed to misinform people about so many things. The good independent operators often have much re-education to do in order to get the message across to people.

But the good news is that there may (hopefully) be a natural evolution among specialty coffee drinkers that's akin to the path many people take with wine appreciation. Starting out with something sweet like a blush or a moderately sweet white.... moving gradually up to varietals rather than blends and then moving into the reds.

I like to think that such an evolution can occur with coffee but we in the business have our work cut out for us. The biggest challenge in some areas is getting people to try a cappuccino - even a properly made one.

I also recognize that there are cultural differences between the US and Italy which will never change. 20 oz mega lattes with a ton of steamed milk and a small bit of bad espresso aren't going away but there's progress to be made.

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Of course, even well-foamed milk breaks relatively quickly, particularly where it's in contact with the coffee, so I think it works out to about 2 oz of liquid and 2 oz of more stable foam.

I suppose it depends on your definition of "relatively quickly" but with well textured milk, it simply should not break in the time it takes to consume your drink.

Bad espresso won't produce a good cappucino, however, as David Schomer discovered, a lighter roast is favorable for straight shots, and the sugar and fat from the milk benefits from a slightly darker roast (not charred) for milky drinks, including cappucino.

Actually, those are also both myths as well.

There are numerous lighter roast coffees that make fabulous cappuccinos (Ecco Caffe Reserve Espresso is one such example) and a nearly equal number of "darker" roasted coffees that make great straight espresso (Stumptown Hairbender is an example here).

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Even very velvety foam is increasingly liquid approaching the bottom of the cup... bubbles are fragile. Anything that depends on them will be somewhat unstable. The effect will be more exaggerated in poorly foamed milk, of course.

On the roast question, I'm not sure it's a "myth" so much as an oversimplification... There are certain to be exceptions, particularly when personal taste preferences are involved. I think David's darker roast Vita is a nod to Seattle's latte fixation, and his Dolce roast is more inspired by Northern Italian styles.

I'm sure a dirty, poorly maintained espresso machine out there occasionally produces a decent shot, but on average, it's a fair statement to say that a clean machine is going to produce more reliably decent results...

Similarly, I'd say that on average, darker roasts tend to like milk more than lighter roasts. I've had good straight shots from David's darker blend and in a pinch I've made decent cappucinos or lattes with his Dolce blend... Both were good, but the flavor profile was more satisfying when consumed as intended.

Actually, those are also both myths as well.

There are numerous lighter roast coffees that make fabulous cappuccinos (Ecco Caffe Reserve Espresso is one such example) and a nearly equal number of "darker" roasted coffees that make great straight espresso (Stumptown Hairbender is an example here).

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But I think we can all agree that coffee which is scorched, burnt and oily makes both crappy straight espresso and also bad milk drinks - right?

But it sure as heck allows an ounce of espresso to cut through a pile of milk. And still tastes like the dreck it truly is.

And I agree with both the notion that good microfoam is pourable with no visibl;e separation and also the fact that after a certain amount of time in the cup there's a tendency for some foam to remain on the surface whilst the balance of the cup has evolved into a different texture.

A phenomenon I've noted that may be all in my head but more likely has some basis in fact: assuming good espresso with ncie cream is used I have noticed that proper microfoam somehow melds with such espresso more effectively than it does with less successfuly foamed milk (i.e. larger bubbles and/or visible milk/foam separation). It's as though the whole is more than the sum of the parts.

This characteristic becomes less noticeable as the drink cools and the body of the foam changes but I have noticed it. Or at least I think I have :rolleyes:

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I think the whole "lighter roast for espresso/darker roast for cappuccino" idea is largely an American one. In Italy, if you're North of Rome you're going to get something lighter than what Americans think of as "espresso roast." And they sure aren't going to bother offering two different roast profiles, one for straight and one for milk. They're going to use their regular shot. Of course, the whole cappuccino thing is mostly an afterthought in Italy. Many people never take milk drinks at all.

One thing I can certainly say is that people who have cappuccino at my house appreciate the mellower roast profile I use, and seem to prefer it to what I consider the over-roasted sharp profile most Americans associate with "espresso." I would also be willing to bet that any place that makes a truly outstanding cappuccino has these things in common: 1. lighter roast; 2. coffee component smooth and drinkable as espresso; 3. larger-than-usual amount of coffee in the mix; 4. wet, pourable, integrated foam/milk; 5. reasonable sized portion. These five points are almost diametrically opposed to the typical American cappuccino aesthetic.

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In principal, I agree that this is an American conception, though not necessarily an incorrect one. Vivace only does espresso drinks--no drip coffee, no house-made food--so they don't mind having two or three big grinders on their counters, but in places where rents are higher I can't imagine sacrificing perfectly good space to the cause of multiple grinders for different roasts or blends.

In general, anything short of charred, carbonized beans is an improvement over what passes for gourmet. I like roasts in a fairly wide range. But milk is very sweet, so if I'm going to be making even small cappucinos I tend to prefer slightly darker options.

I have another pet peeve, though... a lot of shops making espresso with "imported" Italian brands seem to me just to be serving stale coffee. To me, one of the things that most Seattle shops get right is that they toss out old beans fairly regularly, if they have any.

Strangely, I have a friend who prefers stale German coffee to fresh local roasts, but to me, even well-stored coffee seems to lose its charm after 10 days or so.

I think the whole "lighter roast for espresso/darker roast for cappuccino" idea is largely an American one.  In Italy, if you're North of Rome you're going to get something lighter than what Americans think of as "espresso roast."  And they sure aren't going to bother offering two different roast profiles, one for straight and one for milk. 

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I recently took a trip to Northern Italy, and was delighted to find that the cappuccino everywhere was just wonderful, without exception. Smooth, flavorful, aromatic perfect crema, strong but not too strong.

Aside from the obvious answer (duh, Italians created cappuccino  :raz: ), what makes Italian capp so fantastic, and how do I duplicate the effect here?

Nobody's addressed, "how do I duplicate the effect here?"

1) Find a shop that knows what they're doing. That's no easy task... in NYC, check out Ninth Street Espresso or Gimme! in Williamsburg. I've personally been to neither, but they have a good reputation. Intelligentsia (from Chicago) is planning a NYC shop to start construction (hopefully) in '06.

2) You'd need a good espresso machine, and a good grinder. The two together will cost about $700+. Study and learn... read sites like CoffeeGeek.com and Home-Barista.com, and pick up David Schomer's book. Realize that no matter what, a great cappuccino is the culmination of much training and practice. MUCH.

FYI... there are apparently folks in NYC who would take issue with your "duh" statement. I've heard claims that a New Yorker "invented" the cappuccino.

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FYI... there are apparently folks in NYC who would take issue with your "duh" statement.  I've heard claims that a New Yorker "invented" the cappuccino.

I recall reading that comment elsewhere (probably posted by you Nick!). Can you posta link to a thread or article somehere that mentions it? I Googled Don Schoenhelt's email address / user name and cappuccino (which was supposed to be the way to find the original reference) and still can't find it.

But I think it is true that the first commercial espresso machine ever installed in North America was at Caffe Reggio on MacDougal back in the 1920's (or so the story goes). They still have it on display on a position of honor but as with most places in NYC they serve crappy espresso :rolleyes:

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From my time in Itality-- mainly in Rome-- I can't help feeling that the water is different, although I am sure there are other factors too.

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I saw the comment regarding milk and have to wonder - is Parmalat milk the norm or is it something else? In Mexico and Central America they all seem to use Parmalt milk for making cappuccino's. It's typically used at room temp and the higher starting temp leaves little if any time for proper milk development.

There were other issues as well but the milk seemed to me to be a problem.

I also saw Parmalata in use in Ireland and France - two other places where I never had a good espresso based milk drink (but again - there is no Italian style coffee culture in any of these places and that's a huge factor).

If water is filtered properly there should be a small amount of mineral content but no other flavor artifacts from things such as chlorination.

There are some beverages, such as German beer, in which a certain higher mineral content can contribute to desirable content over a certain level wreaks havoc with the boliers, heating elements etc.

That said... I'm sure there are many, many US shops in areas where the municipal water is not stellar and all they do is put a filter in place to deal with chlorination artifacts. For ideal results it's best to get a Cirqua system or its equivalent but many shops either don't know enough to do that or don't want to commit the money.

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There are some cases in Italy where calcium is added to the water in order to enhance the espresso and I rarely (if ever) saw a water filtration setup like you see here.

Just because burnt coffee is more tolerable in large quantities of milk does not mean that milk drinks should be made with darker roasted coffee.

To use the example previously mentioned in this thread - Vivace uses two different coffees - one for straight espresso and one for milk drinks. The difference between the two is not actually degree of roast but rather the component beans in the blend. The "milk" espresso (Vita) has beans that are heavier and more "intense" in flavour. It is also less sweet. As a result, the flavours "carry" in milk better and the milk adds the missing sweetness back in.

There are two common approaches to creating an espresso blend that works well in milk. The first is as described above - to go with a "heavy" blend (often using Indonesian coffees). The second is go with accent coffees that are "bright" and fruity. By adding an Ethiopia Harar or Sidamo (for example) you can create a blend where the fruit brightness will 'cut" through the milk and where the acidity is offset by the sweetness from the milk. The Intelligentsia Oromo is a good example of this.

Taking a coffee beyond its optimal degree of roast is never required for any form of preparation. Doing so destroys the varietal nuances of the coffee. It's far better to, instead, choose beans carefully and develop blends based on an understanding of those beans.

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I am not sure that I agree that Italy always has great espresso.

I have had espresso, capuccino and caffe latte all over Italy, and although there are some good places (Sant Eustacio in Rome, Tazza d'Oro in Rome, a good place in Florence...) But most of it is OK to average.

For one thing the cost of espresso is regulated by the government! Hard to believe, but true. The cost of espresso or cappucino if you drink it standing at the bar is a government regulated commodity with a standard price everywhere - and not a very high price - like 80 Euro cents to 1 Euro. If you sit down at a table it can be very much more expensive because it is not regulated - like 4 to 5 Euros.

Which is why most Italians stand at the bar. A number of Italians who are into quality food and wine have complained to me that the regulation means that there is huge incentive to use cheap beans in their blends. Perhaps this is not the case, but that is what I've been told.

Italy does not appear to have the intense focus on custom roasting, special blends, special pours. Instead, most caffes serve standard products from big companies like Illy. There are exceptions - like Sant Eustacio and Tazza d'Oro, but those really are exceptions.

Italy does not seem to have obsessed baristas modifying machines to add PID temperature control, sawing the bottoms off portafilters and so forth. I think all those innovations are driven by people in the US. I don't mean to slight any Italian innovators accidentally, but so far as I know the espresso quality movement from a technical stand point seems to be American (and within America, driven from the west coast, and within the west coast, from the Pacific Northwest, and within the Northwest from Seattle).

Granted I live in Seattle, and that may not be a dominant point of view.

At the very high end, for the really best espresso drinks, I think that Italy has a couple of places that I really like. But I suspect that there are more really fantastic espresso shops in Seattle than there are in all of Italy. There are certainly more in the US than Italy - I don't think it is even close.

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When I've had both blends in my home, side by side, Vita seemed overall visibly darker, but I suppose that could be a characteristic of the beans rather than the roast. Of course, both are substantially lighter than typical for American mass-market "espresso" roasts.

To use the example previously mentioned in this thread - Vivace uses two different coffees - one for straight espresso and one for milk drinks. The difference between the two is not actually degree of roast but rather the component beans in the blend. The "milk" espresso (Vita) has beans that are heavier and more "intense" in flavour. It is also less sweet. As a result, the flavours "carry" in milk better and the milk adds the missing sweetness back in.

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I think the espresso scene is distorted in the U.S. due to the dominance of Starbucks, Tullys, and SBC. Accordingly, while we might have a fair number of fantastic roasters and espresso shops, we also have an insane number of mediocre ones. After all, Starbucks fluorishes inside Seattle city limits, even if better options might be as close as next door.

At the very high end, for the really best espresso drinks, I think that Italy has a couple of places that I really like.  But I suspect that there are more really fantastic espresso shops in Seattle than there are in all of Italy.  There are certainly more in the US than Italy - I don't think it is even close.

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I think the espresso scene is distorted in the U.S. due to the dominance of Starbucks, Tullys, and SBC.

These mass market places are, in my opinion, good for coffee as an industry, and actually lead to better support for custom roasters and great baristas.

A pyramid needs a base and Starbucks and other mass market expresso places are the base of the espresso pyramid - both in the US and many other parts of the world. Yes, they are not as high quality as the others, but they introduce people to drinking espresso and lattes.

I don't think that the great small places would have anywhere near as much support (i.e. customers) to be able to do what they do without having that element of the industry present.

The same thing is true in wine and fine restaurants - there is usually a pyramid with the mass market at the base. Each rung up toward higher quality is smaller, but it rests on the base. At the very top there are the very best places.

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I am quite thankful that Starbucks paved the way for increased expectations. Without them, and perhaps my starving student days in Germany, I probably wouldn't be much of a coffee drinker myself.

And in fact, in relatively unpopulated areas, unless an indie place gives me a good vibe when I pass by, I'm likely to head straight to Starbucks, as I've far more coffee disappointments at poorly run indie shops than I have at Starbucks... at least there, I know what to expect. This is their strength. The strength of the indie coffee shop is the ability to push the envelope.

These mass market places are, in my opinion, good for coffee as an industry, and actually lead to better support for custom roasters and great baristas.

A pyramid needs a base and Starbucks and other mass market expresso places are the base of the espresso pyramid - both in the US and many other parts of the world.  Yes, they are not as high quality as the others, but they introduce people to drinking espresso and lattes.   

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much of the overwhelming positive is gained only by the fact you are in Italy.

the experience of cuisine is greatly enhanced by environment amongst many things.

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much of the overwhelming positive is gained only by the fact you are in Italy.

the experience of cuisine is greatly enhanced by environment amongst many things.

So true (in general - I have not been to Italy so say this as a generalized remark).

A few summers ago I ate some smoked salmon and store bought crackers for dinner. I had just backpacked ten miles in to a riverside campsite in Olympic National Park. It was the first real wilderness alone-time I'd had in my adult life. I know it was strictly context but I still recall that meal as one of the very best I'd ever had in my life.

And a few years before that I had a short cappuccino at the tiny Flores airport in eastern Guatemala. The espresso machine was ancient, the drink was served in a cheesy styrofoam cup and the freshness/provenance of the beans was unknown.

Again... likely due to context because I was so excited to be there (it was the first stop on my very first trip outside the US)... it tasted fantastic.

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