Whilst coffee was being traded by Venetian merchants in the 16th century and the first coffee shop opened in Piazza San Marco in the 17th century, modern Italian coffee culture really came about after the Second World War with the development of high pressure espresso machines.
Drinking coffee was popular long before this time across Europe, although in the early days coffee was so expensive that it was drunk as a medicine and was affordable only to the wealthy.
By the 19th century coffee drinking was hugely popular, but a long way from the coffee experience that we know today. Brewing a coffee could take at least five minutes and there was no consistency as to the flavour achieved. Being the age of steam, inventors started to create machines that, for the first time, pushed steam (and sometimes water) through a bed of ground coffee to make an almost instant shot, but many of these boilers worked over a naked flame making controlling temperature and pressure difficult, so that consistent caffè still eluded coffee makers. Many machines were also industrial in scale making a thousand cups of coffee or more in a single session, itself a severe limitation.
Although espresso machines were being produced in large numbers by the 1930s they were not producing the espresso that we know today. Often only steam was passed through the ground coffee giving it a burnt flavour, and pressure was limited to 1.5 bar, a long way from the 9 bar of modern machines – such low pressure does not extract the oils and essential coffee flavours from the grounds. It was in this period that ‘caffè espresso’ entered the Italian language – although today an Italian would never order an espresso, asking only for ‘un caffè’. One major breakthrough in the 1930s was the creation of the household stove top percolator, or moka, produced by Bialetti and now ubiquitous throughout Italy.
Also another word entered the Italian language about this time, the word ‘barista’. The most common word in use at the turn of the century was ‘barman’, but this was considered too American by the fascists who made an Italian version of the word, which of course has now been exported back to the USA and elsewhere!
After the war Gaggia invented a hand pumped espresso machine operating at modern pressure thus extracting the oils and colloids from the grounds. This came with an additional bonus – the ‘crema’, now considered essential to every good caffè. This new drink revolutionised coffee drinking and created the Italian coffee culture that remains almost unchanged today. Every morning it seems that the entire Italian nation makes their way to their local bar or pasticceria, orders a caffè, which is drunk with little ceremony, and then heads off to work or their next appointment. Two or three trips to the bar each day is not uncommon.
The final piece of the coffee puzzled was completed in 1961 when the famed Faema E61 came into production, the true mother and father of all modern espresso machines.
Want to drink coffee like a local? Here’s a quick guide.
Order caffè, not espresso.
A cappuccino is a drink for the morning, not the afternoon and never after a meal (you can expect a restaurant to refuse to make you a cappuccino as an after dinner drink). The plural is cappuccini.
Ask for a latte and get a confused look and a glass of warm milk – it’s what you asked for.
Un macchiato (a stain) is a caffè with a dash of steamed milk.
A latte macchiato is a glass of warm milk with a dash of coffee.
Caffè lungo – caffè with a bit of extra water
Caffè corretto – caffè ‘corrected’ with a shot of grappa, sambuca or, in our region of le Marche, anisetta.
Americano – the name says it all. A long coffee made for tourists.
Finally Italian coffee culture is a world apart from the large coffee chains that are common in the UK, USA and elsewhere. Forget coffee in a to-go cup, coffee is to be enjoyed ‘al banco’ (at the bar), and a swimming pool of milk with a bit of froth that masquerades as a cappuccino would be looked at in horror by an Italian. Come to Italy (an even better Villa Rosa Bianca) and treat your taste buds to coffee as it should be.