It can be enveloping and warm like a hug, but it can also be strong and pungent. If not prepared properly, it tastes almost burnt. With a drop of milk it softens, but with sugar it transforms. Every cup is a journey: its bean comes from far away, but has found its favorite home in the boot of the Mediterranean. Coffee. Long, short, double. Ceramic or glass, standing or sitting. At home or at the bar. A ritual. A good coffee is home–for us Italians, a form of love. Legend has it that in the late 1500s, Pope Clement VIII, among the first great lovers of coffee, blessed coffee in order to not leave this delicious drink to unbelievers. Since then, coffee has spread throughout Italy, becoming the national symbol of relaxation, a harbinger of conviviality and the heart around which to exchange opinions and ideas.
“Shall we have a coffee?” is now a common way of saying “let’s spend some time together and have a chat.” Coffee time is special: a unique, suspended, almost magical time, and for us Italians, there is always time for a coffee enjoyed alone or in company. At the bar counter, coffee is quick: some Milanese enter without even taking off their scooter helmets. Instead, at the table, coffee is often drunk according to the rule of the 3 Cs–caldo, comodo e in compagnia (hot, comfortable and in company).
Whether at the counter or the table, coffee is the perfect mid-morning accompaniment to a newspaper and “brioche” (“cornetto” from Rome south); or in the afternoon for a well-deserved break; or in summer, to be ordered strictly freddo shakerato (cold shaken) or in a glass with ice. Of course, there is coffee and there is coffee. Nothing is more discouraging than drinking a bad one. Almost like insisting on using an unsharpened pencil. A properly made coffee has very specific characteristics. The cup is preferably white ceramic. The crema must be light hazelnut in color and two or three centimeters high, and it must linger for a long time. The aroma must be pervasive, tending either towards chocolate or fruit depending on the bean. Finally, the flavor: a perfect balance between sour, sweet and bitter. Beware of sugar and milk because they alter it all profoundly.
At home, coffee is synonymous with hospitality. When you go over to someone’s house, an Italian will offer you not a glass of water but a cup of coffee, a way of opening one’s home to the guest, giving him or her the right amount of time and attention.
The queen of Italian homes is the moka (the Bialetti brand over all). Even the most hardened lovers of the coffee served at the bar recognize the undisputed magic of the moka. An aluminum machine perfectly designed to maintain aroma, the moka requires care in preparation–you need to add the exact right amount of water, and the coffee powder must be pressed to the right point–and patience–you need to wait for the water to boil to the exact right point. The fragrance of coffee as the water boils and mixes with the powder is second to none. This whole ritual and the time spent waiting are the reasons why the moka is at the core of Italian conviviality. It is precisely during this waiting time that chatter starts naturally and the silence of the kitchen is filled with advice, stories, laughter. We talk about life and perhaps, why not, gossip! The ritual of coffee is so intimate and yet so convivial. What I find wonderfully fascinating is that while the coffee is brewing, it’s more than normal to suspend the conversation to ask if one wants sugar or a drop of milk, and then resume the discussion with the same wonderful naturalness. The secrets to making the best coffee are passed down from generation to generation: when I was in high school, a friend of mine used to take two teaspoons of the first drops of coffee, add a little sugar in a glass and stir them together quickly to create the crema, added on top of the cups. Her granny taught her this trick and she’s done so ever since.
For centuries, the ritual of coffee has been intrinsic to Italian DNA and lifestyle. Indeed, there is nothing more Italian than choosing a small table outside, setting down the newspaper, finding the right position for your chair, ordering a coffee and watching the day begin.
Here are five caffès for enjoying some of the best coffee in Italy:
Caffè Ginori in Castiglioncello
Caffè Poliziano in Montepulciano
Grand Caffè Gambrinus in Naples
Caffè degli Specchi in Trieste
Bar Cucchi in Milan