Espresso Cuisines : Classic Italian

Here the emphasis is, above all, on the coffee. There are two principal drinks: a tiny cup of straight espresso, either small, smaller, or smallest, and an austere and splendid cappuccino, the classic drink in which a single serving of fresh, exquisitely brewed espresso is topped with just enough hot milk and milk froth to allow the perfume of the coffee to penetrate every molecule of the cup. The Italian equivalent of the ubiquitous American caffe latte is the latte macchiato, milk "marked" or "stained" (macchiato) with espresso, much smaller than the American "latte," but similar in concept: hot milk and a little froth combined with espresso in a tall glass. Not many of these drinks are served in the average Italian bar, however, and the glass tends to hold 6 to 10 ounces, not the mammoth 16 ounces of the usual American latte glass. Caffe latte does not appear on the menus of Italian espresso bars except in places that attract American tourists. In Italian homes a drink called caffe latte may be made with ordinary coffee from the caffetiera and milk heated on the stove, but the perfection of the Italian bar espresso would never be ruined with the amount of hot milk the American espresso culture dumps into it. It goes without saying that the mammoth concoctions of the Seattle cuisine, double and triple servings of espresso sloshed in enough milk to satisfy a kindergarten class, are seldom if ever seen in Italian bars and caffes.

In addition to espresso drinks, Italian bars and caffes, particularly those associated with bakeries, offer an amazing hot chocolate. This is a chocolate beyond rich; it is a chocolate drinker’s apocalypse. There is a saying in Italy to the effect that hot chocolate is only acceptable if the spoon stands up in it. This drink, if one can call it that, is often served topped with whipped cream, which makes it resemble a hot fudge sundae without the ice cream. However, a drink combining hot chocolate and espresso similar to the American caffe Mocha does not appear to be offered in Italian bars and caffes. It apparently once was; I ran across several references to such beverages in the Italian literature on chocolate. A writer mentions with fond nostalgia the barbagliata once offered in Milanese caffes, for example, and the Turinese bicierin, apparently both combinations of chocolate and coffee. I suspect that such drinks, together with the caffe latte, went out of style as the small, sleek espresso bar replaced the larger, more leisurely caffe after World War II, and as the espresso machine and its peculiarly Italian "less is more" aesthetic was perfected.