Cultural Italy Blog: Art, Coffee & Love

Espresso, macchiato o cappuccino?


Coffee is undoubtedly one of the most popular beverages in the world. It made its first appearance in Venice in 1570 thanks to Prospero Alpino, a physician from Padova, who returning from a trip to the far East, took a few bags of coffee with him, and had the Venetians taste some of that mysterious black concoction.

From that moment on, coffee underwent a continuous evolution, from ‘lungo’, to ‘corretto’ – that is with an addition of “Grappa” or other liqueurs –  to ‘macchiato’ with a drop of milk, and so on. Truth be told, America – forever a land of opportunities and infinite choices when it comes to food combinations and ingredients – has the greatest variety of coffee-based drinks that I’ve ever seen. However, in Italy, we may keep things a little more simple (for once!), and besides the ‘ristretto’ (a very “short” shot of espresso coffee), ‘macchiato’ and ‘corretto’ variants, coffee literally boils down to 2 versions: the espresso served at the bar* and the regular coffee made at home with our typical ‘caffettiera’, essentially a small steel steam machine featuring of a bottom boiler. Offering a cup of coffee is a common courtesy when we have a visit, it’s our way to say ‘benvenuto’ and make you feel at home in our home.

Every Italian home has at least one of those, and most likely two or three more, from the single serving size, up to seven, so we can choose any, depending on the number of guests. We never wash it with soap, only a quick rinse: many of us believe that the older the caffettiera is, the more flavorful coffee it delivers.

Sometimes we may have a cappuccino for breakfast, and the art of frothing the milk at perfection or not can tarnish a bar’s reputation, to say the least, and start a rumor with the imaginable consequences: a barista’s skills can really make or break a bar’s business in Italy. And although we love lengthy and hearty good meals, believe it or not, we don’t usually have a cappuccino as a dessert after lunch or dinner. However, an espresso at the end of the meal is imperative for us coffee drinkers.

Lately, many families have come to own an espresso machine as well, yet the bar remains the most popular coffee break spot, starting from the early hours of the morning, where a five minutes espresso and croissant breakfast is taken standing, often bumping elbows and sharing the sugar bowl with a perfect stranger. Then there’s the after-lunch coffee ritual when Italians prefer a bar stop for coffee before returning to work after lunch. And on Sunday afternoons, some of us (mostly men), will head down to the local bar to have an espresso and an excuse to meet with friends and talk sports or politics for hours on end in front of the same empty coffee cup or the fifth one. How many cups it will end up being, our coffee is never to go, and almost always comes in a tiny ceramic or glass container. It’s a three-minute stop, yet still a stop, even if just for an espresso minute.

“Coffee is the balm of heart and spirit”. Giuseppe Verdi

Nicoletta Lucia Paganucci

*A bar in Italy is a business establishment where patrons purchase and drink coffee, wine, and liquor either standing at a counter or sitting at the small tables provided. A bar also sells morning pastries and/or sandwiches called ‘panini’. In larger bars, many flavors of Italy’s famous gelato (ice cream) may be served.

Start planning your trip to Italy!