After Life in Italy, I Kissed Coffee 'To Go' Goodbye
But so much of my life in Italy I do miss: the beauty of the language, our daily routine of walking to the piazza and the waterfront, indulging in out-of-this world gelato, and shopping for fresh, in-season fruits and vegetables at the outdoor market every day.
Most of all, I miss the coffee. I'd tell my husband that we could find many Italian delicacies back home -- the wines, cheeses, meats and olive oils are all imported to America (although of course nothing tastes as good as when eaten or drunk on native soil). But the coffee? It just can't be replicated.
Sure, Lavazza espresso is available in the supermarket, U.S. coffee shops use commercial-quality espresso machines, and there are many skilled baristas across the country. But I can't import Italy's coffee culture, which is the antithesis to our guzzle-on-the-go mentality.
While it's an Italian custom to stand at the bar and drink an espresso -- often in one gulp -- I always saw people chatting with the bartender or other patrons. Italy is a sociable culture, which explains why the piazzas are always so full of people. Chatting over a morning or afternoon espresso is a chance to slow down, to connect with others. Italians don't go to cafés to plug in their laptops and work. They're there for a simple yet worthy purpose: to enjoy a good cup of coffee among friends.
Last year I started a blog about my experiences in Italy, ChasingCappuccinos, in which I documented my quest to try different coffee drinks from across the country. After six months living in the southern village of Pietrelcina, we moved to the coastal city of Pesaro. I used to watch the barista at Bar Astra, one of my favorite cafés in the city. He worked fast but took such care in making each cup. He had passion for his craft. In Italy, baristas take special pride in what they do. That's not to say they don't in the U.S., but it's considered a well-respected job in Italy, not just a part-time position or a stepping stone to something better.
The cappuccinos and espresso shots I drank at Bar Astra were some of the best I tried anywhere in Italy. The beans were from Pascucci, a local brand in the Le Marche region that produces rich, flavorful coffee and became my favorite. Until recently, Pascucci coffee wasn't available in the U.S., though you can now buy it at Caffe Pascucci in San Francisco. But wherever I traveled in Italy -- from Pisa to Siena to Naples to Alberobello to Lecce -- the coffee was stellar, better than anything I'd tasted in my homeland.
In another refreshing change of pace, to-go cups are still a rarity in Italy. Like Italians, I much prefer lingering in a café and observing the local scene. I did appreciate one "takeout" experience: in Pesaro, I frequently saw wait staff carry a covered tray of four or five espressos to the local grocer, florist or clothing shop. Now, that's something I'd love to see here. Talk about personalized service! I think it also exemplifies the inherent sociability of Italians: while the to-go cup is a way of allowing us to get out of the coffee shop more quickly and on with our personal business, in Italy, the opposite is true. When people are tied down with personal business, the coffee shop comes to them!
So why is the coffee in Italy so good? Maybe it has something to do with the fact that there is no one giant conglomerate like Starbucks, and espresso bars order their coffee from more regional sources (although, according to recent reports, Starbucks will enter the Italian market in the next two to three years). I've heard Italian café owners even insist that their local water and milk are a fundamental part of what makes their coffee superior. Or maybe the baristas are just superbly trained. There is a very small margin between an expert pull of espresso and an awful one, and even in the smallest Italian towns, the professionals always seem to get it right. The CEO of Starbucks recognized importance of coffee-making expertise, and in 2008, famously closed every Starbucks in the U.S. for a day to better train his baristas.
But perhaps it really boils down to taste. Italians produce and appreciate strong, flavorful coffee in small doses. Americans, on the other hand, have grown accustomed to quantity over quality -- and many coffee drinkers here might be dissatisfied with only three sips of espresso in the morning.
Much of the differences have to do with how we treat the coffee itself. While we may be on the go, consuming our coffee at our desks or in our cars, Americans seem to savor the act of drinking it -- taking many long sips, breathing in the lingering aroma, feeling the warmth of an oversized mug in our hands. In the absence of being in the actual presence of our friends, the coffee becomes our companion.
Italians, on the other hand, who go to a bar as a break from work and to socialize with friends, prefer the taste of the coffee itself. They recognize how fleeting such treats are and see them as bursts of flavor that punctuate our lives. Even the way we modify espresso indicates the difference in taste. In Pesaro, I often heard Italians ordering a half-sized ristretto -- only the first few drops of coffee, the "extra virgin" brew -- even if it meant quantifiably less coffee for the money. The aptly-named "Caffè Americano," which is found in cafes in both the U.S. and Italian tourist towns such as Florence, reveals our preference for the opposite: a shot of espresso is diluted with hot water, giving us more quantity and more drinking time at the expense of the strong, rich flavor.
As an American expat, I've come to acquire both points of view. For me, drinking coffee in Italy is an experience to savor, and I'm all for enjoying the taste of the coffee as well as taking pleasure in the act. I'm sure that some Italians will go for the novelty of a flavored coffee drink or the ease of a to-go cup should more coffee chains open up around the country. But I hope nothing replaces Italy's lively coffee culture that I've come to know and love.
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