Espresso Basics : Espresso as Cuisine

Espresso also can be defined as a kind of coffee cuisine. For example, mainstream American coffee cuisine emphasizes the bottomless cup: large, repeated servings of usually brisk-tasting, light-bodied coffees prepared by the filter method, often taken without milk or sweetener. Espresso cuisine, on the other hand, emphasizes smaller servings of heavier-bodied, richer coffee, brewed on demand rather than in batches, usually drunk sweetened, and often combined with frothed milk and other garnishes and flavorings.

In Italy the classic espresso cuisine emphasizes simplicity: perfect short pulls of espresso and a handful of exquisitely modulated combinations of coffee and milk. Predictably, in North America a more free-wheeling, idiosyncratic, bigger approach has evolved. At one extreme the Seattle-style espresso cuisine rears its many-flavored head: wide-open, innovative, the basic themes of espresso and milk exuberantly elaborated with flavored syrups, ice, a score of garnishes, and seemingly endless refinements involving the milk (1%, 2%, 3%, skim, soy, eggnog …).

At the other is beatnik espresso, the original Italian-American cuisine, the espresso of storefront shops in old Italian neighborhoods and seedy artists’ caffes. This cuisine resembles the classic Italian, but the coffee is darker, the servings are bigger, and the taste is rawer. Between the two are a few, very few, caffes that conscientiously pursue the classic Italian ideal. The Cuban tradition of south Florida constitutes still another, though more regional, American espresso cuisine.

Finally, there is still another American cuisine, which I would like to dub espresso manque, and which is all of the misinterpretations and misunderstandings of espresso being committed in the United States today thrown together, including watery, bitter, overextracted coffee, scalded milk, meringue-like heads of froth, all presented to the background flatulence of canned whipped cream being sprayed on top of the drink to distract us from the grim reality underneath.