Prior to my trip to Italy, the people who told me about the coffee there fell into three camps. One said that it was excellent everywhere and that the worst espresso drink in Italy was better than the best drink in the U.S. A more complimentary group said that it was uniformly good and that Murky was the only place they’d found in D.C. that could match it. A small number of people said that the espresso was actually rather disappointing compared to the really good stuff available in the best American shops. Once in Italy, I made a point of trying out as big a variety of coffee bars as possible to see who was right.
Unfortunately, I’ve got to say that the third group was right based on my sampling. I went to a lot of places, and in almost all of them the espresso was bitter, not complex, and sometimes thin. Hardly anyone hand-tamped the pucks and they didn’t take much care in the dosing, either. Perhaps they get away with this because so many drinkers add sugar there, but a more likely explanation is that the market has just become complacent. For example, talking with a local in Venice one night I asked him where in town I should go for a great shot of espresso. He looked at me like I’d just asked a Container Store clerk where they keep the containers. “Well, anywhere,” he said. This was Italy. He did eventually pick out one place as especially good and it was one of the better shots I had on the island. Surprisingly, it was from an automatic machine, which tells you how poor the technique was elsewhere.
There were a few exceptions, however. One was the lone Illy shop I made it to in Amalfi. Illy’s known for preground espresso for use in restaurants or home machines in the U.S., but in Italy they’re highly respected. This was the one place that pulled a really good shot, so good that I ordered another one to give it another taste. (One good thing about Italy: espresso can be had for much cheaper than in the U.S. I think the Illy shop was offering them for just 65 Euro cents apiece.)
The most interesting place I went was Sant’Eustachio il Caffe, the one place in Rome I made a point of checking out. Widely known as one of the world’s best coffee shops, they wood roast the coffee on premises, produce amazingly thick crema, and position their two espresso machines so that the baristi’s activities are hidden from customers’ view. How exactly they produce the coffee they do is a tightly guarded secret. A 1998 article in The New Yorker describes its aura like this:
Like most of the great bars in Italy, Sant’ Eustachio is really an all-business, standup kind of place. Although it is vaguely permissible to drink a morning cappuccino while seated, espresso must be consumed on your feet. A couple of thousand people wander in every day–and each stays about five minutes. There the baristi– barmen who are something of a cross between short-order cooks and maitre d’s–can be so regal and perfunctory that they would have been perfectly suited to work the rope line at Studio 54 during its signature years. Sant’ Eustachio is the only place I have ever been where you are expected to tip before you are served.
Yet Sant’ Eustachio is probably the most deeply revered bar in Rome. Its house specialty, the gran caffè¬ comes with a crema–the burnished foam on the surface of the espresso–so thick and rich that the director of Tazza d’Oro, the competing shop just a few hundred yards away, told me in the gravest possible tones that he was certain the coffee was roasted with additives (cream, perhaps, or chocolate). The rivalry between Tazza d’Oro and Sant’ Eustachio has all the subtlety of that between Letterman and Leno–and few Romans are agnostic. “Their coffee is good, of course,” Silvano Giovannucci, the director of Tazza d’Oro, said to me about his competition. “But it is not pure. If you want pure coffee you would have to come here.”
The crema at Sant’Eustachio really was incredible. Easily the thickest and most airy I’ve ever seen, almost as if they’d given the shot of espresso a hit off the steam wand (but of course they didn’t). It’s this crema that leads to all the speculation about what the shop does or doesn’t add to the beans; Bon Appetit suggests that the secret ingredient, if there is one, might even me bicarbonate. I have no idea. Beneath the crema, however, the espresso was unexceptional and thin. Perhaps they were just having a bad day, but that was a bit disappointing — though it didn’t stop me from ordering four drinks and a souvenir demitasse.
Curious about how the cafe gets its results, I brought a kilo back home to try out with some of the Murky crew on the Synesso. It was the weirdest damn blend I’ve seen. We never could get a really good pull with the stuff; it had a tendency to come out weirdly thin and black at first before developing a very small amount of crema. I don’t know if the secret’s in the ingredients or the technique, but we never matched the crema at the original store. It was fun trying though.
Even though the espresso in Italy was generally unimpressive, I had a good time trying it out (and I did do more than just hang out in coffee shops all day). I also learned a bit about steaming milk for a cappuccino, which they really did do well, and discovered a new iced espresso drink that I really love. Details on that to come. The bottom line: the espresso in Italy isn’t some magical brew that can’t be beaten anywhere else in the world, but the chance to sip cappuccini in Piazza San Marco while a band plays classic Italian music and an evening breeze blows in off the canals makes it all worthwhile.