People all over the world drink coffee and every culture has its preferred way of doing things. So why is Italy synonymous with coffee and why does it dominate the global scene?
It’s all about the espresso…
Coffee was first brought into Europe through the port of Venice and coffee houses were a thing even in the 16th century. Yet it was the invention of the espresso machine, by an Italian engineer, at the start of the 1900s that kicked off coffee culture as we know it today.
Although the term ‘espresso’ has several interpretations, the whole point was that it was fast. In fact it was fast enough to wrap an entire new industry around, and the Italian coffee bar was born. Adopted the world over, the pressurised espresso machine was literally made with coffee shops in mind.
Italy is not dominated by global coffee chains. There are no hipster third-wave coffee boutiques. There is simply the bar where you go to get your perfectly formed espresso, several times a day.
A barista is the barman (barperson?) in a coffee bar. It is an Italian word. We may have come to think of a barista as the equivalent of a sommelier, but this is slightly missing the point.
The barista is a master of simplicity. The barista is more concerned with the quality of the roast than the origin of the bean. They are more interested in the depth of the crema and the body of the shot than the latte art on top.
The barista can pull hundreds of espresso shots every hour, with no compromise on quality or lack of consistency. They can compensate for any variable (of which there are many) that could get in the way of the perfect espresso, seamlessly making technical adjustments without interrupting the flow. There is, of course, room for serious discussion on the topics of the day. Punctuated by a hand gesture or two.
Coffee is a ritual that punctuates the day. And in Italy, that day begins with a milky coffee. There is really only one true milky Italian coffee, and that is the cappuccino.
A cappuccino is one third coffee, one third steamed milk, one third foamed milk. A shake of chocolate powder over the top is optional. The drinking experience is one of moderately strong yet milky coffee, sipped through a creamy foam. The foam does not dilute the coffee, but softens the effect of the drink as a whole.
The addition of chocolate is not so common in Italy, yet it does add a pleasing sweetness and extra dimension to the foam that many of us now associate with a cappuccino.
And then there is the caffè latte. It is said that the caffè latte was designed in Italy to please the palate of American tourists, who were unaccustomed to the strong taste of espresso.
The caffè latte is one third coffee to two thirds steamed milk, with less than half a centimetre of foamed milk on the top. The foam is not as dense as the foam on a cappuccino and it sits within the crèma of the coffee to form a fine silky head. The drinking experience is more milky than a cappuccino, as there is more steamed milk to dilute the coffee.
Generally speaking, the ‘latte’ should be milkier than we have come to expect.
Which brings us to the flat white. An antipodean creation, quite possibly born of the desire for something with more strength than a caffè latte, yet none of the foam of a cappuccino. Or indeed, chocolate. As a newcomer to the global coffee scene, and a non-Italian one at that, it is open to plenty of interpretation.
The flat white has more coffee to milk. But it has as much to with cup size as ratio. And very little to do with the texture or quantity of foam. The ‘flat’ that it refers to is the concept of cappuccino minus the foam. So it has a similar strength to the milky part of a cappuccino. Essentially it is small cup, double shot, same silky head as a latte. The drinking experience is that of a milky coffee but with a more intense coffee flavour.
It could also be said that it is the perfect size for a milky coffee; enough to slake a thirst but not so much that you struggle to the end.
So, what is the difference between a flat white and a latte?
The confusion arises from the now almost standard practice of adding more coffee to a latte. The classic ‘caffè latte’ has been replaced by the ‘latte’ and nearly always comes with an extra shot. This is largely due to the fact that most coffee shops outside of Italy use a medium roast coffee that gets lost amongst the milk, and also that we now just view the latte as something stronger than it was originally intended to be. The distinction between the two very different forms of coffee has been lost.
In Italy, these long milky coffees are strictly breakfast coffees. Something to be enjoyed slowly, sitting down, with a pastry. The rest of the day is dedicated to the espresso, which is taken standing at the bar during una pausa. The literal translation of the Italian coffee break is ‘a pause’, so you can see how this plays out. A few long sips, a few minutes chat, and away…
The espresso is so central to Italian coffee that it goes simply as un caffè. It is rarely a double shot (doppio). If you want more coffee then you simply return for another later.
An espresso is a short, intense coffee, served in a tiny cup or glass. It should have a creamy, caramel coloured, head on the top which is known as the crema. Without the crema, the espresso is said to be reedy and it will lack body and flavour. The drinking experience is pure coffee.
A good Italian espresso begins with freshly ground dark roast coffee beans for plenty of body and a strong flavour. It should be smooth, not bitter, and well balanced by the acidity that is determined by the bean itself.
There is one concession to the ‘no-milk after breakfast’ rule, and that is the espresso macchiato.
An espresso macchiato is a shot of espresso with a very small amount of milk foam on the top. The drinking experience is the same as that of an espresso, but the foam softens the coffee on the palate.
There is also another type of coffee shot, known as the ristretto, which is made with the same amount of ground coffee but less water. Ristretto translates as ‘restricted’.
A ristretto is a shorter shot of coffee than an espresso. The drinking experience is sweeter, with more floral notes, than a standard espresso. It also contains less caffeine.
With a shorter extraction time, less of the bitter notes of the coffee are present in the ristretto.
There is also the other extreme, known as the lungo. Translated as ‘long’, the lungo has more water than the standard espresso.
A lungo is a longer shot of coffee than an espresso. The drinking experience is less full bodied, with more bitter notes, than a standard espresso. It also contains more caffeine.
With a longer extraction time, more of the burned bitter notes of the coffee are present in the lungo.
What is a cortado and is it different from a piccolo?
The cortado and the piccolo are both short coffee drinks with steamed milk. Neither are Italian. The cortado is from Spain and translates as cut (with milk). Piccolo is Italian for small, but the piccolo latte is from Australia. And yes, they are different…
A cortado is a short coffee made with equal amounts of coffee to steamed milk and a very small amount of foam on the top.
A piccolo latte is a ristretto shot topped up with about 100ml of steamed milk and a very small amount of foam on the top.
Finally, there is the Americano. Which is actually Italian. The story goes that it was invented in Italy for American soldiers, in an attempt to mimic the filter coffee they were more familiar with.
An Americano is a black coffee made of espresso topped up with boiling water. It is essentially an alternative to filter coffee and can have milk (hot or cold) added to taste.
We believe that the joy of Italian coffee lies in its simplicity. Of good ingredients treated with care. But we aren’t the coffee police, so please ask. Tell us how you like it. Wet, dry, long or short; we aim to please.