Whose Espresso Is Better: Third-Wave Cafés or Traditional Italian Espresso Bars?
There are probably several culinary disparities that threaten American-Italian relations on the regular (I'm looking at you, Papa John's "pizza." You too, "Tuscan inspired" Olive Garden), but it's possible that none is as touchy as the espresso question.
To Italians, the brash, big fruity espressos making their way across counters in American third-wave coffee shops are undrinkable disasters; to baristas from New York to San Francisco, the long, roasty, and deeply bittersweet coffee that epitomizes the Roman- and Neapolitan-style shot is nothing more than an archaic cultural touchstone and caffeine-delivery system.
Who truly has the best coffee? Let's put this argument to rest.
Recently I visited one of New York's quintessential Italian-style joints, the café-restaurant–wine bar Tarallucci e Vino to chat with owner (and espresso fanatic) Luca Di Pietro about the differences between espresso in its homeland and in so-called "third-wave" cafés in America, the U.K., and Australia (among other places).
Di Pietro, a native of Italy's Abruzzo region, comes from a long background in espresso coffee, having worked with the Rome-based roaster Danesi Caffè, and is excited and opinionated about espresso without ever once being bullish. Disappointed in the lack of successful Italian-style coffee bars, he opened his own in the East Village more than 10 years ago, following it up with a classic daytime-nighttime café and wine bar just outside Union Square, and another one on the Upper West Side. (For the record, the downtown location of TeV was one of my regular coffee-shop haunts when I first moved to the city; it was where I developed the caffè Americano habit that's with me to this day.)
Focused on Italian espresso, pastries, wine, and little bites, the spots do smack of Rome—where the local population knows when to pause for just the amount of time it takes to down an espresso, and when to settle in to linger for hours over bottle after bottle of Frascati.
While Di Pietro's philosophies about the preparation of espresso coffee might differ from the norm at barista-forward third-wave cafés around in New York ("Why do Americans use so much coffee?" he asks me almost immediately—a complaint so common as to almost be a joke among the U.S. specialty-coffee community), he thinks Italians and "hot-shot baristas" can learn from each other's love and devotion to the bean—if we actually care to, you know, learn instead of keeping up the silly pissing contest that's been dogging on for ages.
How can we do that? By examining a few ways that third-wave specialty coffee differs from its traditional Italian counterparts, and putting both styles into their proper—and, yes, delicious—context.
"Too much coffee"
To Italians, the recipe for espresso coffee is as simple as counting uno, due, tre: A single espresso takes 7 grams of ground coffee, so, naturally, a double espresso takes 14 grams. Why? Because that's the way it's always been done, and if there's one thing you don't mess with, it's an Italian's tried-and-true recipes. (You might as well argue about how to make a better meatball than somebody's Nonna, and see where that gets you.)
One of the reasons (but certainly not the only) that this relatively low-input recipe is so common in Italy is that espresso coffee is a beverage created out of necessity: It's a brewing method by-product of the Industrial Revolution, invented as a means to quickly invigorate a working-class population whose stomachs were empty before lunch and, subsequently, whose productivity slagged around midmorning. Coffee breaks were the perfect solution to the lull, but they took too long; lo and behold, espresso—a small, concentrated, made-to-order drink prepared quickly under pressure and consumed in a swallow or two—was born.
What that means is that, well, the coffee needed to be drinkable, but historically it didn't need to necessarily be delicious. No one was standing around at the bar on his break waxing romantic about the notes of cherry compote and semisweet chocolate in the cup. The coffee was thick, warm, bittersweet, and stimulating, which helped workers push through until lunch time, when they might enjoy their first bite of real food for the day—and that was good enough.
Here is the main culturally contextual difference between espresso coffee in Italy and other places worldwide: In the former, it is an essential element of a full life, and speaks to generations' worth of Italians going about their business, living well, working hard, and, frankly, being Italian.
In the latter, it's an adopted art, one without as wide or deep a root system, and one that is constantly being shaped into something different and distinct, with only a whiff of history behind it. Third-wave coffee doesn't have as real a need for the practical utility of coffee, and so is extended the opportunity for development, analysis (some might argue overanalysis), and consumption purely for enjoyment. When you consume something purely for enjoyment, of course you want to taste complexity, sweetness, or brightness—in order to achieve or enhance those elements in an espresso, a barista might cram more coffee grounds into the mix.
Whether or not more ingredients do equal more flavor is obviously up for debate, but the approach to preparation does imply a different perspective, outlook, and desired end result. At the end of the day, however, I'm of the opinion that the way you handle the ingredients you work with is significantly more important than how much of one or the other you use, and that less can in some cases equal more.
Grinding: Fresh vs. Fast
"One click for a single, two clicks for a double," says Di Pietro authoritatively—and basically every other Italian barista or coffee-lover I've ever known agrees with him outright. The "click"s here refer to pulls on the coffee-dosing chamber of an espresso grinder, which will dispense a predetermined amount of grounds when the chamber is full to the brim. (Of course, that predetermined amount, as we just discussed, is 7 grams. Hence, one click for a single, and two for a double.)
Di Pietro takes umbrage with the specialty-coffee assertion that ground coffee starts to become stale within seconds, and is instead fond of the fill-'er-up-and-dose-'er-out style of keeping the grinders full and ready for action at any moment. In a busy Italian café, he argues that the coffee won't sit in the grinder's doser for more than five minutes, and any perception of flavor loss is largely imagined.
"Here [in America's specialty-coffee cafés], it takes 20 minutes to get an espresso," he laughs, explaining why baristas might have a different perspective on the preparation required.
It's true that at every coffee bar I visited while I was in Italy, the baristas cranked shots out like caffeinated robots. One cup followed the other in rapid succession for hours at a clip, while a steady stream of regulars wander in and out of the waiting line across the bar: Click, click, tamp, brew. Click, click, tamp, brew. Repeat ad nauseam. The efficiency of the shot-pulling was mind-boggling, and certainly puts even the busiest American cafés I've worked out or patronized to shame.
If you want fast, efficient, and consistent, there's nothing to compare with 'click, click, tamp, brew'—but you could never maintain that speed of production by grinding fresh every time, so why niggle about the quality loss by doing so? In a third-wave coffee bar, however, customers are more accustomed to waiting a few minutes (okay, sometimes more than a few) for their order to be prepared expressly for them and served—and if they're going to wait, the coffee may as well be as fresh as possible.
Which is better? Again, it depends culturally and personally on your preference, as well as context. I find (and Di Pietro agrees with me) that letting ground coffee rest a while can minimize acidity and even help balance out the crema on that finished brew, letting more bittersweet chocolate and toasted nuts shine through. On a lighter, brighter, fruitier coffee, however, the staling properties of air exposure on the coffee grounds can steal some of the sparkle off a single-origin espresso. (I also prefer to know roughly when my coffee was ground, so if I don't hear a grinder going at some point while I'm in a coffee bar, I tend to be skeptical.)
Robusta or no robusta? That is the question
Crema, crema, crema: Di Pietro and his countrymen sing the praises of the stuff to high heaven. You know, that thick head of amber-colored foam, a mouth-coating collection of aromatic oils and fizzy CO2 that marry thanks to the pressurized meeting of finely ground coffee and very hot water.
The national obsession with crema and its palate-lingering qualities are one reason the vast majority of Italian coffee blends contain robusta: a lower-altitude-grown, cheaper species of coffee known for its markedly higher caffeine content and its incredible crema-boosting properties. In the third-wave world of coffee, however, robusta is essentially a forbidden word. Baristas turn their noses up at it, and many coffee connoisseurs are put off by what is perceived as an abrasive, rubbery flavor it provides a coffee.
Why crema is particularly valued is, from a flavor perspective, a hotly contested subject among coffee people. Tasted on its own, the stuff is pretty foul, though mixed with the liquid coffee underneath it can add depth and balance. And more of it in the pour and in the cup can be indicative of freshness. (At least where robusta's cousin—the higher-grown specialty-coffee species arabica—is concerned, only fresh coffee will create much in the way of the stuff. The older the coffee, the smaller the head.)
Because of robusta's significantly lower price and higher disease- and pest-resistant qualities, it's abundantly available as a cheaper "filler," which allows a coffee roaster to cut costs. This is part of the reason that espresso in Italy is so, how do you say, affordable—about 1 EUR (about $1.30) practically everywhere, which would be financial ruin for any U.S. café worth its salt (or worth its beans).
Remember, though, that coffee in Italy is not the luxury item it is here; instead, it's a fundamental, basic part of everyday life—almost the right of the working man, as much as water, or air, or a Nonna who makes the best meatballs. That dark, almost char-like flavor that robusta contributes to an espresso coffee is as fundamental to the ritual as the the parsley in Nonna's recipe; without it, whatever you're putting into your mouth might taste pretty okay, but it's just not espresso. (In some minds, not in all—and not in mine!)
The Perfect Pause
Of course, probably nothing horrifies an Italian espresso purist more than seeing someone walk down the street carrying a 20-ounce paper cup that holds of a splash of coffee drowning underneath a sea of scalding-hot milk. Even worse when that 20-ounce concoction is given the name "cappuccino," which in its birthplace is a small, velvety breakfast beverage, and is always—always!—taken while the drinker is stationary. That means not walking, not driving, not riding on the train. It's sipped either at a table (where one will pay a premium for the service and the real estate) or, preferably, while leaning up against a marble bar, flipping through a newspaper and commenting on the stories out loud to no one in particular.
To Italians, the espresso coffee should be a break, plain and simple: while you're taking it, there is nothing besides the pause, nothing besides the coffee and the conversation that accompanies it. Coffee is a momentary escape from work, not a companion on the way to, during, or from it.
Not only does that Italian philosophy dictate the consumption of coffee while standing or sitting still, but it also implies the length of the beverage itself—just enough to slow things down, knowing that life resumes once the last drop is drained.
Here in the US, coffee is a kind of moving break: it's a constant (or a near-constant) source of fuel for our overstimulated lives. We need it to wake up, sure, but then we also need it to sustain a level of productivity throughout hours of staring at a computer screen, driving a bus, or dealing with customers. To sit and savor that cappuccino (even, blasphemously, in the afternoon) or to linger just long enough for an espresso and a quick joke with the barista is a foreign thing to many Americans. We tend to be convinced that we're "too busy" to take five minutes for a coffee. (Alternately, others of us seem to think that a cup of coffee is a rental agreement on a table, and plant ourselves for hours—another thing that baffles the Italian coffee-drinker. Lingering is for food, wine, conversation, and friends, but never coffee.)
In the end, which side wins? It's hard—maybe impossible—to really say, because every approach to espresso has its purpose, its place, its romance, and its cultural importance. In my mind, an espresso made deliberately (that is, by a barista who is giving it any thought at all) and with respect, presented with a bit of hospitality, and consumed in a friendly atmosphere is all I want out of life—pretension, arguments, bickers, and anything-you-can-do-I-can-do-betters down.
Do you prefer classic Italian or more third-wave style espresso coffee? Sound off in the comments.
About the author: Erin Meister trains baristas and inspires coffee-driven people for Counter Culture Coffee. She's a confident barista, an audacious eater, and a smiling runner, but she remains a Nervous Cook.