It was 1959.
Italian novelist Italo Calvino received a grant to spend six months in the US, and arrived in New York City to its blooming coffee trend.
Disturbed, he wrote in his journal:
The trend of espresso-places has been thriving for a few years in New York and is expanding to the rest of the country. Sure, I’m happy when I can drink a coffee Italian-style, but I struggle to explain to Americans the feeling of uneasiness that this kind of places provoke in me.
You see, according to Quartz, Italians are still “deeply protective of their country’s reputation as the coffee capital of the world” – so much so they despise American-styled coffee, regarding it as a “dull black broth”.
And the espresso? It’s always either too short, too strong, or too slow.
Now Starbucks, with all its endless options, is opening its first Italian post in the middle of Milan.
But, as Quartz points out, the two countries have “traded in coffee products and rituals for nearly a century”.
Italians historical relationship with coffee:
Italy truly emerged as the global leader in coffee thanks to Milanese inventor Luigi Bezzera, according to Jonathan Morris, a coffee historian from the University of Hertfordshire in the UK. In 1901, Bezzera came up with the idea of forcing pressurised water through a handful of coffee powder to produce a short, concentrated drink: the espresso, so called because it could be prepared expressly for each customer and because the water had to be expressed through the coffee.
“Aaaaah,” we all chime in unison.
Quick to make and good to wake, the espresso became a futuristic icon at the turn of the century, sharing its name with a high-speed train. Espresso machines found their place in so-called “American bars”—spaces where people would stand at the bar, saloon-style, instead of sitting down at the table.
The first American bar in Italy was Caffé Maranesi, in Florence, nicknamed Caffè dei Ritti after the standing people that populated it (ritti means “upright” in Italian). The person who prepared the coffee was called a barman, until the word barista was coined under the reign of Mussolini. Today, hipsters who work in coffee shops from New York to San Francisco sport with pride this relic of fascist nationalism.
By the late 1950s, most Italians consumed coffee at home, in the traditional moka pot—first built by engineer Alfonso Bialetti in 1933, and now an icon of Italian design worldwide, as Morris explains in his 2008 essay “A History of Espresso in Italy and the World.” But there were exceptions. A young Calvino was a regular customer at Caffè Talmone, a café in Turin where he met with other intellectuals to discuss books and politics. There, he drank Italian espresso with a layer of foam on top, the result of a patent registered by bar owner Achille Gaggia in 1947.
After moving to New York, Calvino was disoriented by how the beverage was marketed in the US. “You must choose from a long menu, in which every coffee is accompanied by its ingredients and sometimes a few historical notes,” he wrote. “‘Roman Espresso’: Italian coffee served in a glass with a lemon slice. ‘Caffè Borgia’: Italian coffee and milk foam covered in imported grated chocolate. ‘Cappuccino’: a preparation of hot milk and cinnamon is added to the espresso.”
Confused by all the options, the price, and the culture around coffee consumption, Italians just have no time for American-styled coffee.
Quartz lists the differences from the procedure to the time to which place Italians think make the best espresso, and will serve as a decent intro to the basic understanding of Italian’s coffee culture.
Read it, in full, here.
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