Alessandro Galtieri and his wife Cristina are the proprietors of the coffee bar Aroma, in Bologna. In addition to operating Aroma, Alessandro travels throughout Italy and Europe training baristas in proper coffeemaking technique. He also competes in national and international coffee competitions, most recently winning Gold at the Italian Brewers’ Cup in Rimini in January. In April, he will represent Italy at the World Coffee Championship in Boston.
In the interview, Alessandro and I discuss what makes espresso unique among brewing methods, why it’s OK to have cappuccino in the afternoon, and why not all coffee in Italy is of a high quality.
JN: Alessandro, let’s start with espresso, what in Italy is just called caffè [coffee]. Everyone has heard of espresso, but many in America have never tried it, or if they have, it’s been bad. Of all the different ways to produce coffee in a cup, what is distinctive about espresso?
AG: The best way to describe espresso is that it is short, intense, a quick recharge. Filtered coffee by contrast is long, smooth, and relaxing. I say with my students that espresso is an .mp3: concentrated, compact. Filtered coffee is an LP. Espresso is the principal way in Italy to have coffee outside of the home. Especially in the morning, Italians don’t have satisfaction if you prepare coffee in a different way. But often they drink bad espresso, even in Italy. A lot of home coffee drunk in Italy is very bad as well, because people pretend to know how to prepare coffee, like it’s a natural-born ability, but they don’t know really how to treat coffee in the best way. They try to have a kind of magic!
JN: Espresso is the most expensive way to make coffee, because the equipment is so expensive. It’s such a technical, precise operation: the pressure has to be perfect, the grinding has to be perfect, the temperature has to be perfect. There’s nothing quite as technical as the espresso machine, and the result in the cup, you describe as an .mp3, compact. I’ve sometimes used the word concentrated, thinking of a raisin instead of a grape, something like this. What should a well-made shot of espresso look like in the cup, what should it taste like when you drink it, what should its texture be like?
AG: I look for balance. So, I search for sweetness – natural sweetness, not added sugar – I try to avoid bitterness, and I search for an interesting acidity in each coffee I can produce.
JN: For those who don’t know espresso well, tell us about crema, what is is and why it’s important and unique to espresso.
AG: Crema is a creamy emulsion – the oil and protein, the carbon dioxide of the coffee – extracted during the brewing of espresso. In espresso brewing, here is a great amount of energy on a little pack of coffee, and this brews a lot of the solubles inside the espresso. So it’s very concentrated and very strong.
JN: Does crema affect the flavor or only the texture of it?
AG: Yes, it does, because carbon dioxide is a little bitter. Some coffee geeks throw away crema when they drink espresso.
JN: That seems crazy, because for many it is the best part – at least, the texture of it.
AG: The texture, yes, but not the flavor.
JN: That’s interesting. Espresso is also the foundation of other drinks that are very famous throughout the world. Everyone knows about a cappuccino, but not everyone knows about a macchiato. In America, at Starbucks, a macchiato is totally different from a macchiato in Italy. Can you tell us about some common drinks one would order at a bar in Italy?
AG: It’s very simple. The list is short: espresso, cappuccino, latte macchiato. There is not much more than this, because people ask for variations. They don’t say, “Flat white.” They don’t give it a name. They say, “One cappuccino with a little bit of foam and two shots.”
JN: So, they don’t give it a name, but they tell you the way they want it?
AG: Because people often go to the same bar, they say, “Give me mine,” and you have to know.
JN: In Italy, how do you know that you’ve been served a well-made cappuccino? The American version is often super-sized and served too hot with poorly-frothed milk. What makes a well-made cappuccino, in your opinion?
AG: Of course, the size of the cup has to be not so big; let’s say, about 180-200 milliliters, not more, with one shot of espresso. The milk has to be foamed well. There is a technical way to foam milk in order to make tiny, tiny bubbles [called micro-foam] that give a silky, rich sensation of cream, not milk. You can drink a milk beverage that seems to have cream, but has only milk, and the fat is much lower. You can have high satisfaction with low calories.
JN: Is it true that Italians consider cappuccino only a drink for the morning? Is it really a faux pas to order a cappuccino after lunch?
AG: No, no. It’s true that Italians drink cappuccino more often in the morning than in the afternoon, but it’s not a rule. It’s not true that Italians don’t drink cappuccino after lunch. But maybe not with lunch or just after. They do not consider it as a dessert.
JN: So, if an American wants a cappuccino in the afternoon, it’s OK? They shouldn’t feel embarrassed?
AG: Absolutely not! For breakfast, and for what we call merenda, a snack in the afternoon, it’s OK. Absolutely OK.
JN: Let’s talk about macchiato. So, a macchiato is a shot of espresso with just a little frothed milk.
AG: Yes. You have to froth the milk in the same way as the cappuccino, but using a super little quantity of fresh milk. No recycled milk! Fresh milk for the best taste.
JN: How much? I see various styles. Some really just have a drop. Others are maybe 50/50.
AG: There is not a classified way to make coffee drinks, in general. So, it’s difficult to say this is right, or this is wrong. But my vision is that, given the amount of espresso, you have to have half milk and half foam. If you can, as a barista, make a good pattern inside your cup, that’s a good way to present, for cappuccino and macchiato. Not only latte art, but a pleasing silky, shining crown of crema.
JN: You mentioned both milk and foam. In your pitcher of milk, you feel like there are both, it’s not homogeneous all whole way down?
AG: Yes, you have to manage to have tiny, tiny bubbles, and you have to make a motion before, to pour the milk. In this way, foam and liquid milk melt together, so you can have that sensation. Because if you wait, of course the foam goes up and the liquid goes down.
JN: When you pour it, the milk and the foam should all be the same.
AG: Not perfectly the same, but yes.
JN: I see. You mentioned earlier the “flat white.” It’s interesting, because in the US where most milk is frothed badly, the flat white came along. I had to laugh, because it seemed like a flat white is just a cappuccino made properly.
AG: OK! [Laughter]
JN: It’s like they finally figured out how to froth milk right, and they gave it a new name! But how do you think of the term? I was surprised to hear you use and embrace that term. How is it different from a properly-made cappuccino?
AG: I love something new, I like to promote different ways to expand my work for many years. It’s very interesting that other countries have invented some recipes different from the one that we drink generally in Italy. I’m pleased to propose to my customers – foreigners, but even for Italians – why don’t you try this? For me in a flat white there’s two shots, not one shot; there is a lower quantity of milk, so it’s stronger in taste, and there is a little quantity of foam, so there is more liquid. It’s a different way. So, why not?
JN: Let’s talk now about grinding. It’s such an important part of espresso.
AG: It’s difficult to understand the importance of the grind, because we can’t see it. The grind for espresso is so small, we can’t see how it’s made. But if you grind the same coffee with different grinders and you use a microscope, you can see that it’s completely different.
JN: And you mean different grinders of different quality? You don’t mean two grinders of the same quality?
AG: Even with two grinders of the same quality, there are differences. It’s difficult to cut a coffee bean! It’s not like cutting vegetables or meat. You know how chefs are interested in knives.
JN: That’s right, knives are very important to chefs.
AG: Very important. The grinder is very important for a barista, because the grind size, the particle distributions, the shape of the grind, the dimensions of the particle — all give differences.
JN: If someone loves coffee enough to buy a machine at home, and they’re willing to spend 1,000 or 2,000 Euro on a small machine, they need to spend that same amount of money on their grinder, pretty much.
AG: Yes, almost. You have to spend at least 600 or 700 Euro for a good electrical grinder.
JN: And how about dosing? One difference in America is that baristas have increased the dose or amount of coffee per shot. The traditional dosing in Italy for two shots is 14 grams, is that right?
JN: In America, they started doing 18 grams, even 21 grams, and then turning that into a single ristretto shot. Now, instead of having 7 grams in a shot, you could have 20 grams or more. You can imagine the result of that. To me, it’s not balanced.
AG: It depends. Italians produced this recipe – 7 grams for 25 ml – because they have the same blend. All the roasters made more or less the same blend. So, it’s right for them. That recipe is quite good for most of the espresso blends in Italy, but not for other roasts. So, when you want to prepare a single origin, specialty coffee — very selective, light-roasted, very soluble — and you want a thick mouthfeel, you have to add more coffee, a higher dose.
JN: OK, so that’s how it came about, through different types of beans and different ways of roasting?
AG: That’s one reason. The other reason is the geometry of the filter. Italians used to use the single basket, but the single basket is wrong, it’s not the proper geometry. You can see, it tips. So, when you press with nine bars and 93 degrees on a little cake of coffee, you crush it in this one.
JN: So, you never use the single basket.
AG: I do, because I’ve been a barista for many years.
JN: You can do it, but it’s harder.
AG: But not for coffee. For Italian-style coffee.
JN: So how do you dose?
AG: For me the ratio generally is 50 percent, so if you use 14 grams of coffee, you have 28 grams of liquid. Generally speaking.
JN: One important difference about espresso in Italy is that often they are blends of arabica and robusta beans. In America, robusta has developed a bad reputation among small, artisan roasters. Why has robusta traditionally been included in Italian blends, and is it a good thing?
AG: Robusta is important in the traditional Italian blends because we want a strong and thick preparation. Espresso has to be strong and thick, and robusta gives that body, it gives that thickness and a thick crema. We are used to adding sugar, so we don’t care if espresso is a little bit bitter, because we balance that bitterness with a little bit of sugar.
JN: What percentage of Italians add sugar to their espresso?
AG: Eighty percent, I think, because sugar adds body. So, you have a greater amount of body inside a thick and strong espresso.
JN: Does it make you sad to see your customers adding sugar to your coffee at the bar?
AG: Yes. [Laughter]
JN: Because it shouldn’t need it! And they don’t even taste it first, they just add sugar.
AG: It’s a habit.
JN: So, the robusta is providing body, more crema…
AG: And, a bitter taste that some people do like.
JN: Obviously, it’s good to have different flavors. When you drink espresso, do you prefer blends with robusta, or 100% arabica?
AG: I prefer arabica, specialty coffee – I search for fruity and citrus-like flavors.
JN: So you use blends with robusta to meet people’s expectations, but you prefer arabica?
AG: Yes, I think that my work is to give quality, not say to my customers what is good or what is not good. They have to decide. I give quality in any case.
JN: But you wouldn’t encourage American roasters to start including robusta in their blends.
AG: I think it’s the future, actually. Maybe not soon, but I think that robusta will be included, because robusta is less rich, of course, than arabica, but the bad taste of robusta is often because it doesn’t have the same attention given to it, as arabica.
JN: So, it’s usually bad because they’re not paying attention to it, but if people are doing it well, it could be just as good as arabica. Different, but just as good?
AG: Yes. It’s the same as with wine and beer; if you’re eating lobster, maybe you appreciate champagne. But if you’re having a crostino, maybe you want Barbera, not champagne.
JN: It’s always good to have different options, different flavors.
AG: The same man can go to the 3-star restaurant and to McDonalds and appreciate both.
JN: For any roasters reading this, when you blend robusta and arabica, what kind of ratios are we talking about, in traditional Italian blends?
AG: Generally, 80% arabica and 20% robusta.
JN: I’ve had 100% robusta shots that taste quite different, but which are wonderful, so it’s possible even to have 100% robusta of high quality?
AG: Yes, definitely. Ten years ago, in the books of chocolate masters, it was written that it was impossible to have 100% chocolate that tastes good. It’s not true! You can have 100% and have it taste good.
JN: So, we’ve talked about ways espresso and roasting are different in America. Let’s talk about Italy now, because many Americans who visit Italy wrongly think that everything is perfect. Of course, when you’re on vacation, everything tastes good. But it’s not true!
JN: But people say things like, “I’ve never had a bad meal in Italy,” and “I’ve never had a bad coffee in Italy.” It’s not true. You’ve told us how you’re working here; tell us about how your work is different from other bars in Italy. You mentioned earlier that many Italian baristas don’t have much training. They think they can do it just because they’re Italian. What are other bars doing that makes you sad?
AG: They don’t give value to coffee, sadly. The bar generally has 30% of their work making espresso, because they’re also selling panini, aperitivi, and so on. 30% is a great amount of your cash, so it’s as important as the other part of your work. So, I don’t know why, but the quality of the espresso goes down, and generally when a new guy comes in and he doesn’t know how to do the work, they ask him, “What do you know?” and he answers, “Nothing,” and they say, “OK, go to the machine.” The perfect opposite of the other country: there, you can’t touch the machine, and you are scared. Of course, because the machine costs a lot of money, and people come into your caffetteria because there is good coffee. They might have a cake or something else, but they come because there is good coffee. In Italy, often it’s not so. They say, “What does it take to make an espresso? Anyone can make an espresso, it’s not important.” It’s not true, it’s not proper. It’s a pity, in a country so valued, as you said, for the quality of the food and beverages. It’s a pity. We are changing this.
JN: I understand what you’re saying, and I agree with it about Italian bars. It’s just so much worse in other countries though. Even “bad” espresso in Italy is better than it is in most other countries. That’s interesting too.
AG: Yes, this is interesting. It’s because we grew up with espresso. In our mind, there are some proportions – you know that there has to be that amount of water in the cup, you know that there has to be that amount of coffee in the basket. You know because you grew up with espresso. But it’s not a real knowledge; it’s an instinct.
JN: Speaking of being trained, something I see people in Italy tamp very firmly; other times they barely touch it. I’m curious what your attitude is about tamping. How important is it?
AG: Tamping is not as important as people pretend. But it is important, because during the tamping you take out a variable: the air pockets in the grind – the air particles that are inside the basket in a confused way. So, you have to compact the coffee. To do that, you use the tamper that has to properly formed for the basket – not too small, as often is used. It has to fit correctly, to get all the air out. This is the work of the tamper. You have to be consistent, to avoid injury of your hand if you’re doing it professionally all day.
JN: And I guess we should have mentioned that the reason you need to spend 1,000 or 2,000 Euros on a grinder is so that the particles are all exactly the same size. That’s one reason the grinder is so important.
AG: It depends on the brewing method. For espresso, no. For espresso, it’s better when there are different particle sizes.
JN: Really? That surprises me so much. Not identical?
AG: No, not identical. So, some are very fine and some less so.
JN: And a good grinder does that better than a cheap grinder.
AG: Even very expensive grinders are not right for espresso. It depends, some very expensive grinders do not give the right particle distribution.
JN: So, like buying a car, you probably shouldn’t buy a grinder you haven’t tested with your machine.
AG: Yes, it has to fit well with your machine.
JN: And machines vary, too, they have their own personalities?
AG: Yes, of course.
JN: The brand of machine you have now, is it new or have you used it for your whole career?
AG: Yes, I have changed, of course. This kind of machine was invented in 2000. Before, there were only E-61 type, so I used that kind then.
JN: Have you ever used a machine that’s totally manual, with a hand pull?
AG: No. I do like it, but you can’t manage the temperature so well.
JN: So, of the other coffee bars in Italy, some of them probably aren’t even cleaning their machines very well, or their portafilters.
AG: No, they think it’s bad. Sadly we have lots of baristas think that if you clean the machine, the coffee is bad.
JN: The opposite of what’s true! Do you find the quality of the coffee is even dependent on different types of baskets?
AG: It is not simply a basket; it is an extraction chamber, not only a basket. So, the shape, the number of the holes, the distance between one and another, the shape of the holes, everything is important.
JN: Let’s move on to a topic of interest to Americans visiting Italy: etiquette at a coffee bar. What should Americans who have never been in an Italian coffee bar know about what to do? In some bars, you pay first and then bring your receipt to the barista; in other bars, you order first and then pay. People don’t know whether they should stand at the bar or sit down. What advice do you have?
AG: As with the issue of the recipe, generally you don’t find a menu, because people ask for the same things and they ask for different recipes personally made. The Italian espresso bar has developed in a peculiar way. Working-class people made the espresso bar. It’s a place where workers go to meet someone, to socialize. The Italian espresso bar was born during the Industrial Revolution in Italy, that started after the Second World War. A lot of people from the country went to the city to find work. They lost all their culture, all the people they knew, and they had no money. So, what do we do when we don’t work? We go to the bar, and we can socialize with the small cost of one espresso. Then comes gambling on soccer, then the TV, everyone goes to the bar to watch TV.
JN: Which is ironic, because in the US, sometimes working-class people think that people who go to espresso bars are snobs. They prefer to have a 12-ounce cup of American coffee.
AG: Yes, it is a new way to drink coffee for Americans. I think [former Starbucks CEO Howard] Schultz had a great idea to promote espresso for Americans, because espresso is a cool thing. It’s not the coffee that you’re in the habit of drinking, but it’s something more cool. The same, maybe, will be in Italy for pour-over.
JN: Speaking of pour-over, your bar is one of the few here where one can order a pour-over. When did you begin making pour-over filter coffee?
AG: Two or three years ago. I started to appreciate it.
JN: Do you make it for yourself?
AG: I’m afraid to say that, [Laughter] but I drink a lot of filtered coffee, more than espresso!
JN: Earlier you compared it to an LP, whereas espresso is an .mp3.
AG: Yes. I like this way very much to prepare coffee. Of course, when you prepare pour-over coffee, you use specialty coffee, not commercial coffee. It’s very interesting to find the way, manually, to exalt the pleasant characteristics that are inside the coffee. It’s difficult and challenging.
JN: In addition to the regular espresso drinks that every bar makes, you also make these lovely drinks which are sort of like dessert coffees. There’s one with zabaglione, one with chocolate, and one with fior di latte cream. Tell us a little about where the idea came from to make those.
AG: We started to have a specialization in coffee when in Italy there was no one doing it. We had to imagine a way. We were pioneers.
JN: How long ago was this?
AG: We started in 1987 to make single-origin coffees, and in 2001 we started with this place. When we started, we had only espresso. Not only espresso, but only coffee. We didn’t make sandwiches, alcohol, nothing. And we threw away sugar! We were very hard on our customers. They were interested, but they didn’t know what we were doing. So, to maintain a link with our customers, we started to make something gorgeous, some concoction with our product, espresso. We started to think about a list of recipes. We have reduced our offerings a lot, but during the years we’ve had many recipes, dessert coffees.
JN: You mentioned having this shop for 18 years. Are you from Bologna?
JN: So, you’ve seen Bologna change in your lifetime, especially the past few years. I understand that tourism is really beginning to get stronger. As a resident of Bologna and an owner of a coffee bar, how do you feel about the changes? Is it good so far, or is it something you worry about, Bologna becoming like Florence or Venice?
AG: I’m afraid of that, of course, but we have the possibility to build a better, different way of tourism. Bologna is closed, it’s a medieval city, and it has a lot to offer in terms of culture, not only food culture. Of course, I’m pleased; I am representative of the food culture, so I’m lucky. There are a lot of non-food artisans who are in trouble now because people only want to eat and drink. This is a pity for other artisans. I see that often tourists think only about food. It’s a pity, because Bologna can offer a lot in terms of culture.
JN: What would you recommend to a tourist visiting Bologna for the first time, in terms of how long to stay and how to organize their visit?
AG: Bologna is a small town, so you don’t need too many days to visit it. I suggest to visit not only the church [Basilica of San Petronio], but also the museums that are very, very good; the archaeological museum; the medieval museum; the music museum; the University museum is very interesting. Between one meal and the next, I suggest that. It’s good to go up the towers, too, but not only that.
JN: Your shop is close to the Piazza Maggiore, but not too close. Do many tourists find you? Have your experiences been with tourists been positive?
AG: Very, very positive. I want only tourists!
JN: Maybe they appreciate it better than the Bolognesi. [Laughter]
AG: It’s much easier with tourists for my kind of offerings. Very much easier, and they are very much more happy. For me, it’s a real pleasure to serve them.
JN: Finally, you mentioned being a lover of the food of Bologna. People shouldn’t come and only eat, but of course eating is an important part of visiting Bologna. Having grown up in Bologna and seen the city for your whole life, what is the quality of the Bolognese restaurants these days? Is the quality very high, or is it declining?
AG: It was worse in the past. Maybe now with all this tourism, it’s getting better. There are many people in the past who started doing something thinking only about money. Now they want to give quality, not just make more money. When there wasn’t tourism, only people coming for big fairs and conventions, the quality was worse.
JN: What are some places where you enjoy eating?
AG: I like Osteria Bartolini very much because of their fresh fish daily from Riviera Romagnola (80-90 km from Bologna), Osteria Bottega for tagliatelle, tortellini and salumi, and Ristorante Marconi (30 car min. out of Bologna) a one-star Michelin restaurant, when I want to cuddle myself much more!
JN: I’d love to talk all afternoon, but unfortunately we should probably stop there. Thanks again!
AG: My pleasure.