Friends and family know when best to avoid me; in the early hours of the morning before ingesting my daily caffeine dose I am a self-acknowledged, cappuccino-deprived horror. They know how to please me; they bring me a mug! They know how to tease me; they deny me a swig! So, it goes without saying, that my move some years ago to Italy, the land of caffeinators’ dreams, was deemed most appropriate by my loved ones who knew very well that my coffee obsession was to finally be fulfilled.
Coffee, which was first imported into Venice in the late 16th Century, kicked up a craze amongst the City’s people. Each republic of the boot-shaped peninsula followed suit in their love for the infamous bean. The year 1870 saw the unification of beautiful Italy as we know it today and infused a solidarity between states and their practices: thus a coffee culture, to champion all others, was born. The Italians beat to the rhythm of this roasted confection; it is their clock, their soul, their pride and joy. Enter one of the country’s innumerable bars and with a glance at its occupants, and their coffee of choice, the time is told. Il Cappuccino for breakfast, Il Macchiato for a mid-morning perk and at 2pm the bars will be heaving once more with a rather drowsier, carb-overfed crowd in dire need of their after-lunch shot, Il Caffé.
Having spent my first few months in Italy observing and naturally happy to partake in the country’s coffee-clock schedule, I caught on to a certain unwritten yet unanimously followed rule of no cappuccino after breakfast. Italians are perhaps paradoxically equally obsessed with good food as they are with bad digestion and a milky beverage after certain hours is placed top of their list of taboos. Unwilling to receive discerning remarks from my new and much-loved Italian acquaintances, I somewhat begrudgingly adopted this habit. But from then on, a new quest began; to suss out alternative options for a good and creamy caffeine fix that the nation would not only approve of but encourage. Much to my joy my pursuit proved successful in the form of Italian Dolci, spiked with a shot or two of espresso. Here are some of the country’s most famed and delicious caffeinated desserts:
Gelato al Caffé
The obvious answer to an afternoon treat and a good kick to boot in Italy, is opting for the coffee variation of the infamous Italian dessert when pit-stopping at one of the country’s copious gelaterias. Coffee, dairy and sugar come together to create creamy caffeine perfection; a “yum!” or “che buono!” with every lick. Remarkably Gelato, with its higher proportion of milk to cream than its American counterpart, makes for less fat, yet a more flavoursome punch; a win-win situation all around!
Granita al Caffé
An excuse in itself to get yourself to Sicily, the Granita is this southernmost region’s famed invention. Although often compared to its close relation, the Sorbetto, it is quite frankly on another level of mouth wateringly scrumptiousness. Originating in the Middle Ages during the Arab domination of Sicily, the nivaroli (men of snow) are the ones to thank for this most refreshing of all culinary confections. They would gather snow from atop Mount Etna, store it in stone containers, keeping the ice at freezing point and would later flavour the mixture with honey and various fruit juices. With the invention of the modern refrigerator and centuries of Granita chefs and experts alike who have helped perfect the recipe along the way, Granita today has much improved from its snowy origins. Despite its absence of dairy, the high-speed blending of ice, sugar and various flavourings gives Granita a wonderfully creamy consistency. Available in an array of different flavours, it is the coffee variation which naturally comes up trumps in my books. Popular as a breakfast choice for Sicilians, the cold coffee delight will be topped with a dose of whipped cream and you can forget the spoon, opt for a brioche instead to scoop up the stuff; it’s highly recommended.
On first discovering this Italian hybrid between dessert and drink, the name itself already had me hooked. Directly translating to ‘drowned’, I began to envision myself totally submerged in the deep-brown liquid of joy. Although understandably my fantasy is perhaps only for the hardcore coffee lover, this Italian dolce will have all charmed by its ingenious marriage of just two simple ingredients; a scoop of vanilla or fior di latte gelato topped with a shot of hot espresso. The Affogato should be served in a chilled glass or bowl and eaten immediately after the coffee pour, resulting in spoonable bites to begin with and a chug of the melted milkshakesque concoction to end.
Another Italian dolce, with utterly irresistible ingredients and name, is the Tiramisù. Meaning ‘Pick me up’ in English, this now world-famous dessert consists of espresso soaked Savoiardi sponge biscuits (also known as Ladyfingers) layered between dollops of sweet Mascarpone cream and topped off with a light dusting of cocoa. If these match-made-in-heaven components have not yet converted you, perhaps its alluring origins will seal the deal. The Tiramisù, if legend be true, can be credited to an 18th Century brothel house madam in the northern province of Treviso. She pronounced her invention a powerful aphrodisiac and served it in generous measures to reinvigorate her clients. Although I swear my knowledge of contemporary brothels and their dessert of choice is naught, I have scarcely found an Italian restaurant that doesn’t prize Tiramisù as numero uno on their list of dolci. So, even if your Italian friends denounce you if you try to have a cappuccino after high noon there are plenty of ways to get your caffeine intake. Grab a spoon and tuck in!