By Eleonora Baldwin
talians are regimented about their caffè. Neapolitans won't drink espresso outside Naples, deeming the "foreign" stuff vile and toxic. Espresso brewers throughout the country perform absurd propitiatory rituals to ensure their post-prandial Joe is just right. Some never wash the stovetop mocha pot to conserve flavor in the hardware parts. Others add a grain of rock salt in the water boiler. All will tell you never, ever to pat down the coffee powder in the filter. Cappuccino fundamentalists insist on not drinking any after 11 a.m., and especially after meals, when caffè rules.
Italian breakfast lovers prefer their caffellatte (Italian for café au lait) in large steaming bowls rather than in regular mugs to be slowly imbibed not at bar but in the privacy of their home, where dunking etiquette doesn't apply.
In Italy, the word "bar" is vital to any understanding of coffee. Yes, a bar is a place where you can enjoy a shot of grappa between hands of briscola, or a glass of wine with snacks; but it's also (in some cases, mostly) a café. It's where you, a. Stand at the counter, knock back a shot of caffeinated rocket fuel, and proceed with the day's other engagements; b. Purchase a carton of milk, bottles of spirits, drink freshly squeezed orange juice, eat sandwiches, pastries, cakes and gelato; or c. Take a seat at a small table and pay a little more for service to enjoy all of the above. Small neighborhood bars sometimes amount to a counter, cash register with no bar stools, and the occasional sad video-poker slot machine.
The Italian bar is a place where, if you're a regular, you'll hardly ever have to order. The barista will know your coffee preferences by heart. The level of trust between the average Italian and his coffee barista compares to that of Al Capone and his barber. The man at the espresso maker has the slant of whole days in his hands.
Some baristas are particular about how their patrons drink their products. I remember a kind gentleman in Naples who peacefully served delightful cups, smiling and addressing his clients in hushed tones. But he'd turn into Lucifer incarnate if they added sugar to the caffè, or — worse — took a sip of the complimentary palate-cleansing water after the coffee, and not before, effectively washing away the flavor. The pulsating vein in the center of the insulted barista's forehead and his hissed complaints would usually scare away the water drinkers. The rest of the locals would shake their heads in support, and after a moment of silence, resume their loud conversations.
Some coffee fundamentalists prefer their espresso without sugar to help keep the flavor intact. Others opt for a drop of warm milk to cut the bitterness.
Caffè espresso and cappuccino are normally taken quickly, often standing up, or during a short break. There is no "to go" in this equation. Concepts such as medium, large, tall, fat, slim, and the mysterious "Venti" are all totally foreign. Espresso and cappuccino are always served in strictly predefined sizes.
There's also a standard type of milk (usually pasteurized whole milk), though non-fat is starting to make an appearance. Some places offer soymilk, but such requests are normally viewed with suspicion.
Say you want a caffeine jolt, a round, toasted bold flavor in your midday mouth, just enough propulsion to last you for the next five hours, but you don't want to linger. A quick espresso fits the bill. But just the ordering process is a ritual that follows a certain protocol.
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