I am obsessed with coffee. More specifically, with Italian coffee (espresso) and the drinks based upon it. But it wasn’t love at first taste. Like many Americans, the first shots of espresso I encountered here at home tasted burned and bitter. But slowly, through travel in Italy and experience with my own machine at home, I came to experience the magnificent glory of a proper shot of Italian coffee.
Technically speaking, a shot of espresso is made by passing water through 7 grams of finely ground and tamped coffee at 195 degrees and 9 bars of pressure, resulting in a one ounce shot in about 20 to 25 seconds. Of course, this requires a machine of quality and sophistication. Italians simply call the drink “un caffè” (Italian for “a coffee”), and it is the foundation of Italian coffee culture.
Properly made, espresso’s character is expressed best by the concept of concentration. That is, instead of thinking of it as stronger, as many do, I think it makes more sense to think of espresso as more concentrated than American coffee. Just as a raisin represents the concentration of a grape, so to does a shot of espresso represent the concentration of coffee in a small, intense, and rich package. Like wine, espresso is rich in aromatics and flavor compounds, and the complexity of its flavor and texture is its chief virtue. Because of its unique extraction method, espresso also contains a layer of “crema” on top of the shot. This crema is the emulsified oils of the beans sustained in tiny micro-bubbles of air. It is one of the unique and divine properties of espresso.
In addition to a classic shot of espresso, Italians drink a wide variety of espresso-based drinks. Most famous, of course, is the cappuccino, a breakfast drink made with a shot of espresso and twice that amount of frothed milk. Italians inevitably think of this drink as a morning beverage, which only tourists order after noon. For later in the day, one can order a caffè macchiato, which is a shot of espresso “stained” (which is what macchiato means) with just a touch of frothed milk. There is also caffè corretto with a shot of grappa or other liquor. There’s also caffè lungo with extra water, caffè ristretto, with less, and caffè Americano, with a lot of water to satisfy American tourist tastes.
Once I had had a proper espresso in Italy, I wondered why it wasn’t made right in the US. Everyone seems to have the same high-quality, Italian-made machine. Why wasn’t it right? Once I bought my own machine and began to learn about proper technique, I realized that attention to detail at all steps makes a huge difference. Indifference or lack of knowledge anywhere along the way can derail the entire result. Beans must be of high quality, freshly roasted, and freshly ground. Water must have great flavor. Tamping and grinding must be done correctly. One’s machine must be meticulously cleaned to perform optimally. In Italy, being a barista is a serious profession, not a weekend or night-time job for college students.
But most importantly, one has to have experience of what good espresso is. Without a standard or target, one doesn’t even know what to aim for. This is especially obvious in the poorly frothed milk one finds at coffee bars in the US. Properly frothed milk should have the appearance and texture of wet paint, like a thick and luscious cream. This result is produced by the incorporation of tiny air bubbles into the milk as it is heated. Frothed this way, the milk can be poured into lovely designs in the cup, known as latte art. For reasons I don’t completely understand, milk frothed correctly also tastes sweeter. Poorly frothed milk, by contrast, look more like soap suds and lacks refinement and delicacy. It often tastes flat or burned. Because some people think milk with lower fat froths better, much of it is quite flavorless.
Because few of us have easy access to a coffee bar making espresso well, our only option is making it at home ourselves. One can purchase a high-quality home machine with grinder for just under $1000, which seems like a lot to spend until one considers how much daily joy such a machine can bring. Although we’re about to upgrade at the restaurant to a machine more suited for commercial use, we’ve used the Rancilio Silvia for some time, which is one of the best machines for home use. We recommend it highly and would be happy to give recommendations for its use and maintenance. We use coffee beans from La Colombe in Philly and Caffe Fresco near Wilkes-Barre, both of whom do an excellent job. Two coffee bars which do a great job making espresso are capogiro (also a gelateria) in Philly and Square One, in Lancaster City.