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alacarte

Why is Italian cappuccino so good?

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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.

This is totally true. I recently had my honeymoon in Italy and I don't think that the quality is even close to the best of the bunch in Seattle. What Italy does have though is a much higher base level of quality. While we have Starbucks etc.. here, the average espresso joint on the corner in Italy is much more concerned about proper espresso.


Gimme what cha got for a pork chop!

-Freakmaster

I have two words for America... Meat Crust.

-Mario

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I agree that it is less likely to get a really mediocre shot in Italy - the "average" or typical espresso drink is better than typical US. But as per previous posts I think the best in the US is probably the best in the world. Furthermore the innovation all seems to be in the US.

I'd love to be wrong and hear about fantastic espresso places in Italy, or anywhere else in the world, but as far as I know that just isn't the case...


Nathan

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I'd love to be wrong and hear about fantastic espresso places in Italy, or anywhere else in the world, but as far as I know that just isn't the case...

Mario Batali claims that the best cappuccino in the world (at least that's he has tasted) is available in the Rome airport - at a stand on the left just after you pass through customs. By chance have you tried cappuccino or espresso there?

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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." 

4. wet, pourable, integrated foam/milk...

I couldn't agree with you more, especially regarding the fourth item on your list of factors that contribute to a good cappuccino.

While I have had my fair share of mediocre and even poor cappuccini in Italy, the majority are far superior to those I have in the United States because of the treatment of milk. If you go down to the regional forum on Italy, look for the avatar used by divina. That photograph represents a great cup of cappuccino.

That heart-shaped pattern on the top of the foam would be impossible for many of the young people set up before espresso machines in my city because they tend to cap the coffee and milk blend with stiff dry foam that looks like over-beaten egg whites when it is spooned out of the metal pitcher. There's too much air whipped into the milk, creating bubbles on steroids. Often that upper layer of foam or schiuma is lukewarm even if it isn't leftovers. It looks like a styrofoam lid since it is not fully incorporated into the drink.

Attempts to explain personal preferences are often met with blank expressions. Sometimes a manager will say "This is the way customers like them." It's only when someone who (I think) knows how to make a proper cappuccino is behind the machine, or charged with the responsibilty of training others at the store that I get a good cappuccino in D.C.

This brings up the point of workers and professionalism. In Italy, you go to a bar you visited for the first time in 1986 and the same guy is behind the counter. The place is still independently owned, unless it's razed by a Florentine fashion designer who is destined to burn forever in Hell for his crime. Here, there are some young people who apply for a job at Starbuck's because they get health benefits, but they have no plans to keep their position for very long. Some are terrific and care about what they do. For others, pride is invested elsewhere.

Finally, there is something to be said for the price. My taste buds are not sensitive enough to note if I've been slipped an inferior bean. However, I do like the fact that I can buy a steaming cup of cappuccino and a cornetto still warm from the ovens below the bar for about 1.80 or 2.30 euros. In the market, bread, tomatoes and other foods considered important for daily sustenance are also subject to price control. Despite its lack of essential nutrients, coffee is recognized as essential to the quality of life of all Italians and not just those able to pay 3 to 6 euros a day for their brew.


Edited by Pontormo (log)

"Viciousness in the kitchen.

The potatoes hiss." --Sylvia Plath

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I agree that it is less likely to get a really mediocre shot in Italy - the "average" or typical espresso drink is better than typical US.  But as per previous posts I think the best in the US is probably the best in the world.  Furthermore the innovation all seems to be in the US. 

I'd love to be wrong and hear about fantastic espresso places in Italy, or anywhere else in the world, but as far as I know that just isn't the case...

Having fairly recent experience with espresso drinks in Rome, Naples, and the Veneto region in the northeast, I'd agree that Italy isn't necessarily an espresso Mecca, especially in the Veneto region, where I spent more than a week and found only one cafe that served espresso drinks I enjoyed (a place in Vicenza serving a brand called Cafe India). In that area lungos are the standard, meaning longer shots that I find bitter and weak. I also found that the baristas in the Veneto region were often young, and I didn't get the sense that they regarded it as a career.

Between San Eustachio and Tazza d'Orro in Rome, I prefer the latter. If you go to San Eustachio you'll note that they have put up screens that shield the baristas' work from public view. They're doing something weird behind those screens. The espessos are delivered with a huge volume of a crema-like substance, which to my eye and palate simply isn't a naturally obtained crema. It's extremely light, almost like coffee flavored egg whites. When you get down to the small amout of coffee at the bottom of the cup, it's not much to write home about.

Personally, I found I most enjoyed the espresso drinks in the Naples area, where short, intense ristretto shots are the norm and where you still find your coffee prepared by a guy in his fifties or sixties who's been at it for a long time. They take their coffee very seriously in Naples, and I had lots of excellent shots there.

The distinction between shot volume in the Veneto and Naples brings us back to the cappuccinos served in the U.S. To my mind, the best cappuccinos and lattes are made with a ristretto shot and a moderate amount of well textured milk. A big problem with cappuccinos made in the U.S. is that they are built on top of bitter, over extracted shots. I see it all the time: three or four ounces of bitter swill topped off by an equal amount of airy foam scraped off the top of a pitcher of scalded milk.

Ouch.

But things are improving in the U.S., and we're seeing a slow spread of roasters and cafes from the Pacific Northwest, where lots of innovations have occured, to the rest of the country and places mentioned elsewhere in this thread.

--Richard Reynolds

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At Sant Eustachio they adulterate it with some dairy product to get the crema. I think they use a light cream.

I don't think the coffee is uniformly great in Italy: certainly north of Rome it is easy to find bad coffee. In Rome itself, there are loads of very cheap places that serve mediocre espresso. But it is very easy to find excellent coffee.

(edit: but there clearly is a lack of innovation: there are very few places where they really try to go that extra mile, by tweaking or finding a better source of beans.)

I was very surprised to hear that the coffee in America is better than that in Italy at the high end. Is this just a Seattle thing? I have never been to Seattle but I have been underwhelmed with the coffee in NY and SF and other points in between. It's very difficult also to find good coffee here in London: the major weakness is that the espressos have way more liquid in them, than they do in Italy.


Edited by balex (log)

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It's only when someone who (I think) knows how to make a proper cappuccino is behind the machine, or charged with the responsibilty of training others at the store that I get a good cappuccino in D.C.

Go to Murky Coffee on Capitol Hill

- you'll get a very good cappuccino with a properly made ristretto shot and expertly textured milk.

I was very surprised to hear that the coffee in America is better than that in Italy at the high end. Is this just a Seattle thing? I have never been to Seattle but I have been underwhelmed with the coffee in NY and SF and other points in between. 

Not anymore. Portland has Stumptown Roasters, Chicago has Intelligentsia, Ithaca and NYC have Gimme Coffee (Ithaca also has the excellent new Carriage House Cafe), DC has Murky and nearby Timonium MD has Jay's Shave Ice and Kona Coffee. These are just a few that I know about outside of Seattle but there are many many more that are doing it the right way and new ones are popping up regularly.

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I still object to the arrogance of claims that Americans are making superior cappuccini--at three times the price of their counterparts in Italy.

However, I honestly appreciate the recommendation since it's been a while since I've gone to that neighborhood for more than a book or a capon.

Question, though? Is Murky Coffee music free?


"Viciousness in the kitchen.

The potatoes hiss." --Sylvia Plath

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If I recall correctly there is music playing inside Murky Coffee but I don't remember it being at a very high volume level on either of my visit there. But when the weather is warm enough there is some outside seating - it's a lively and pleasant neighborhood to sit in with your coffee or espresso.

I still object to the arrogance of claims that Americans are making superior cappuccini--at three times the price of their counterparts in Italy.

Object all you wish but it's not arrogance when it's not made as a categorical blanket statement (and in this thread no one has claimed that Americans in general are on a widespread basis making better cappuccino than the average Italian cafe).

I've seen comments to this effect in multiple places from multiple people who are not connected to each other and have no vested interest in making false claims. These are folks who are well read, well traveled and have an appreciation for good food and drink of all types.

Also - the claim is not that American coffee shops or espresso cafes in general are routinely serving cappuccino superior to that routinely served in Italy. Rather, the assertion is that there is a handful of dedicated coffee artisans here in the US (and the number is growing) who are serving drinks equal to or even better than some of the best places in Italy. Yes there's far far more crappy espresso and cappuccino served in the US than in Italy - no question about it.

But there's also a small but growing wave of quality driven espresso purveyors in the US who are routinely serving up top shelf drinks and constantly testing, experimenting and striving for even more consistency and quality. By virtue of my personal interest and travels I've been fortunate enough to sample espresso in a number of these shops and can personally attest to the quality. By virtue of the same travel (usually for business when I have no choice in the destination) I can also confirm how truly wretched the great majority of espresso drinks are that are served up both by chains and many independent shops in the US.

As for price - here in the US there is no governmental price control for coffee or espresso drinks. In Italy when such drinks are served at the stand-up bar the pricing is regulated by the Italian government. I'm told that if you sit down and order the same drinks through table service you can expect to pay the same price or possibly even more than you would in the US.

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DON'T FORGET THE MILK!!

this is capuccino that we're talking about! just tasting the plain milk will show anyone that one is dealing with a fundamentally superiour beverage here.

parmalat? though processed, often far superiour than what one finds in the average US supermarket, taste-wise, and don't you know, this affects the end result.

it's not always the bean.

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I have not been to Italy but in other countries where Parmalat milk is widely used there is often a tendency to steam it straight from the container at room temp rather than having it properly chilled. This interferes with proper development of the microfoam and results in poorly foamed milk, thus an inferior drink.

I assume that in the better bars in Italy the milk is properly chilled?

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DON'T FORGET THE MILK!!

this is capuccino that we're talking about! just tasting the plain milk will show anyone that one is dealing with a fundamentally superiour beverage here.

parmalat? though processed, often far superiour than what one finds in the average US supermarket, taste-wise, and don't you know, this affects the end result.

it's not always the bean.

And sometimes it is. I found the espresso in Italy to be wonderful everywhere. Coffee shops, gas stations etc. I can only attribute it to a culture that values great coffee and encourages developement of great roasters, great baristas etc. I don't tend to drink milk in my coffee.

Our kids have a small roastery:

Daybreak Coffee Company

in Northeast Ohio. I help out there from time to time. We do whatever we can to provide the best coffee. I know we have the best coffee in North East Ohio today. I hold the memories of the wonderful coffee I had throughout Italy as a goal I hope to achieve someday. It's been many years since I've been in Seattle so I have no idea how things there compare. I would LOVE to attend one of the Italian schools that teach roasting.

Ken

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In the fall of 2004, we visited Italy for the first time and fell in love with Italian cappuccinos as well. There was a little bakery/bar downstairs from where we stayed in Venice; we would stop every morning and have a cappuccino and fresh crema filled doughnut. I loved the civility of it all -- the ceramic cups, the efficient bar system, the politeness of those around. Much different than the long line at your local Starbucks to get a grande latte in a paper cup with plastic top soon to be thrown in the garbage can with all the others. In the end, we did not find that all cappuccinos were great in Italy, but enough of them were to change our minds about coffee.

Upon return to the US, I searched coffeegeek.com and found a beautiful machine called the Elektra Microcasa Semi-Automatica in a brass and copper finish(http://www.coffeegeek.com/proreviews/detailed/microcasaautomatica). I was sure that it would receive a poor review, but it received very high marks. I researched coffee beans and have since settled on Vivace's Vita blend. We use a Macap M5 grinder and whole organic milk from Trader Joe's. We use heavy cups from Pasquini that we preheat. After a year, we now make fairly consistent cappuccinos, the best of which rival or even surpass those we had in Venice. We have not had a cappuccino in the US outside our home as good as the best in Italy; my experience is somewhat limited, though, in that I've stopped ordering them due to consistent disappointment.

Foaming, in my opinion, is a huge factor. Our machine microfoams very well. I'm sure I'm repeating others in this thread, but the foam really needs to be mixed throughout the milk after foaming. It may be a little heavier on the top, but there is no separate cap of foam sitting distinctly above the milk. There are no large bubbles; in fact, you can't even really see bubbles at all. It almost looks like snow with a beautiful subtle sheen on top. And when you drink the perfect cappuccino, you're drinking epresso, milk and foam as one in every sip.

Hilary

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I assume that in the better bars in Italy the milk is properly chilled?

Yes.

Pontormo makes a good point, though... to a certain extent. Given the exchange rate, I'm actually unwilling to say that *my* price point (I go to 9th St. Espresso in NYC) is that high. $2 for an espresso (1.7 euros) or $3.00 for a latte (2.5 euros) doesn't seem that bad, and for that, I can *sit* (so, these aren't "bar" prices) for as long as I like with a newspaper or laptop.

The real issue, of course, is a) how few places there are to get quality espresso drinks and b) the difference in attitude. I'm really not so fond of the emphasis on mechanical technique displayed by the best espresso places; I'd rather just not know how many seconds my coffee was pulled for at what dosage and temperature. (I need to know those things at home, but when I'm downing a cup out somewhere?)


Mayur Subbarao, aka "Mayur"

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Given the exchange rate, I'm actually unwilling to say that *my* price point (I go to 9th St. Espresso in NYC) is that high. $2 for an espresso (1.7 euros) or $3.00 for a latte (2.5 euros) doesn't seem that bad, and for that, I can *sit* (so, these aren't "bar" prices) for as long as I like with a newspaper or laptop.

I agree that the prices are not really out of line.

a) Just as France regulates the price of baguettes, in Italy the government regulates the price of espresso "bar drinks" that are consumed at the bar rather than at a table - so it's not surprising that onecan get a single espresso for the equivalent of $1 to $1.50 US.

b) If I understand correctly those are quite often single shots. Every high progressive shop I've been to in the US serves either double or 'triple" ristretto shots. These produce a slightly larger fluid volume and require 2x to 3x thwe weight of beans to produce the shot (typically 15 to 18 grams for a double and about 21 grams for a triple)

$1.75 to $2.50 for a double or triple ristretto is the going rate in most American shops and 43.00 to $3.50 for "traditional" cappuccino drinks (a 6 oz drink akin to the size served in Italy). IMHO that's reasonable in light of the actuall costs associated with producing and serving these drinks.

The real issue, of course, is a) how few places there are to get quality espresso drinks and b) the difference in attitude.....

I can't disagree with this. It's an unfortunate reality that we're unlikely to ever see a

an abundance of places to get quality espresso drinks in every small to sized city and major metro market. But the number of committed, quality driven coffee shops is growing and spreading. It's not a static or flat market - there's a positive growth curve.

I won't be surprised to see the number of such places increase 2x to 3X overall in the next several years. You'll still need to seek them out - it's not as though they'll be sprouting up on every busy corner like Starbucks. But it will be easier and easier to find them.

I'd rather just not know how many seconds my coffee was pulled for at what dosage and temperature. (I need to know those things at home, but when I'm downing a cup out somewhere?)

I guess I haven't run into this phenomenon in my travels. I know what most of the better shops are doing because I'm in the business part time but I don't recall being assaulted with details apart from a sign saying "all our shots are double (or triple) ristrettto". But that might just be the shops I go in - I don't have the opportunity travel or visit a variety of espressos options nearly as much as I'd like.

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The real issue, of course, is a) how few places there are to get quality espresso drinks and b) the difference in attitude. I'm really not so fond of the emphasis on mechanical technique displayed by the best espresso places; I'd rather just not know how many seconds my coffee was pulled for at what dosage and temperature. (I need to know those things at home, but when I'm downing a cup out somewhere?)

We have a blackboard sign that tells you what our accessible parameters are and that if we can't pull a shot within those parameters, we won't serve it. But that's about it - our baristi don't bore customers with details unless specifically asked.

The reason for the sign is for people to understand there are parameters and there is skill involved in this. Too many people think it's simply going to the ice cream shop. Heck, if we're lucky, next time they go down the street and get a drink they'll note, "Hey, that was only a 10 second shot," and that barista will go, "So what." And then that customer will come back to us and stay with us.

Don't laugh, it's already happened. More than once.

Anyway, I went through that story to tell this one. I used to market a huge trade show for tile and stone which offered me the opportunity to travel to the big Italian trade shows in Verona and Bologna in addition to our show in Orlando.

As with others here, everywhere in Italy we had great espresso after great espresso and terrific cappas.

At the U.S. tradeshow, the best espressos/cappas were not at the chain outlets in the lobby. It was in the Italian pavilion on the exhibit floor. The Italians flew over a La San Marco two group, a couple hundred pounds of Segafreddo, several crates of Parmalat and a couple of baristi who could pull shots but who never cleaned the steam wand.

I would wager a bet that during the week of the show, despite using supermarket coffee, shelf-stable milk, and what might be considered unhygenic or at least messy steaming practices, those were the best shots being served in the entire state of Florida.

So while you can take the espresso out of Italy, apparently, you can't take the Italy out of the epresso!


Rich Westerfield

Mt. Lebanon, PA

Drinking great coffee makes you a better lover.

There is no scientific data to support this conclusion, but try to prove otherwise. Go on. Try it. Right now.

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