It's well known that cyclists love their coffee. Perhaps we are drawn to it as socially-approved dope. Or maybe it follows naturally from our inner nature, in love as we are with tradition, fancy gear, and pretty much anything European. In any case, I'm no exception. Traditionalist, esthete, and cyclist that I am, I also spend a fair amount of time seeking the perfect cup of rich, strong coffee. For months, as our recent trip to Italy approached, I became ever more excited by the opportunity to experience a culture famous for perfecting both of these mysterious arts. Italy did not disappoint.
Americans think they have gotten the art of coffee down pat in the last 20 years. News flash! The Italians have been working on it since the Dutch were stealing Manhattan from the Indians. Their coffee is so perfect, I nearly wept as I drank my final cup in the Rome airport, knowing that I was not to taste its like again until the next time I touched that distant shore.
In Italy, prendere un caffe, taking a coffee, is an old and gracious ritual, redolent with national character. Here are some of the principles I gleaned in my short time there:
- Do not go to Italy if you prefer brewed coffee to what Americans call espresso. Brewed coffee doesn't really exist in Italy -- and where it does, you don't want to drink it. If you belly up to the bar and ask for un caffe`, you will receive an espresso. There are many other styles of coffee available there, but, with the exception of an occasional cappuccino for breakfast, I never saw anyone order them.
- Less is more: I had something like 20 coffees while in Italy, and I never once was served more than an ounce or two. Four or five delicate sips is a serving. More would only confuse your ecstatic taste buds. That's why they use the iconic tazzinas, the tiny cups and saucers usually marked with the brand of the coffee served.
- Less is more, II: You only need four minutes to enjoy the perfect caffe` in the perfect way. But you must never rush. You are engaged in a ritual far older than you; show respect.
- Less is more, III: There's no need to order a second cup. (I never saw it happen.) Five sips, a brief chat with the barkeep, and you're off, trailing a merry "Buon giorno!" in your wake. Taking a coffee is a pause in your day, a chance to chat with friends, or to quietly savor and reflect. There are many moments during the day ideal for pausing. Best is mid-morning, on your way somewhere. Four in the afternoon also works well, for a pick-me-up, hours before your 8:30 p.m. dinner.
- Finally, taste. This is clearly a more subjective topic, but my observation showed that the inky-black, super-bitter stuff young American "experts" have turned espresso into, you'll only find at the cheap, inattentive joints on the street in Italy. The best eateries -- the places where they make food the way we would kiss our own children goodnight -- served a three-dimensional, aromatic cup, easy on the tongue, yet strong. It was never burnt or overpacked with "flavor."