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A Roman Column

Coffee Break

Neeman Sobhan

Life is full of difficult questions. In Italy, the hardest ones concern that magic bean: coffee. For a country that produces no coffee beans, Italy has created, if not some of the best drinking coffee in the world, at least some of the most intricate coffee based attitudes and habits among coffee drinking societies.

So, you would think that in the list of Life's Tough Questions topped by "Who Am I?" the second position would be occupied by: "What kind of Coffee do you want?" Wrong. If you know what kind of coffee you want you don't even need to answer that first and primal question. And most Italians already know who they are because they know not only what kind of coffee they want but when and where to order it. Thus, after their shot of caffeine taken standing up at their favourite Bar at their usual time, they are free to concentrate on Life's Really Big Question. No, not "Who am I?" silly, but "How can I overtake that red car which dares to be in front of me?"

Therefore, the difficult question of what kind of coffee one wants is not for the Italians but those uninitiated to the coffee culture of Italy. If you know how to answer it, you are ready to face life and its lesser questions.

Actually, the most difficult question even for Italians is the deceptively simple "Coffee anyone?" And this is a tough one not from the point of view of the drinker but he who raises the question or takes the order. Yes, whether you are a Barrista, a waiter, a secretary or friend asking that question of a group of hard-core coffee drinking Italians, I truly don't envy the person taking the orders. There is a double cartoon that illustrates this. In part one captioned 'Elsewhere in the world' someone at an office meeting asks "Coffee anyone?" The answers are 'yes' and 'no' and a few dissenting 'teas'. The next cartoon headed 'In Italy' shows the same innocent question being answered by a cacophony of replies with ten speech balloons saying: 'un espresso,' 'un café doppio,' 'café latte', 'café macchiato', 'café corretto', 'café ristretto', 'café marocchino', 'café Hag', 'café Americano' and one 'café freddo.' You get the idea. And please note that unless the orders are being taken before 11 there are no orders for what the rest of the world think is a quintessential Italian coffee----the cappuccino.

That's the stuff mere tourists drink. Sure, Italians drink it too, but discreetly in the morning before lowly tourists are up and about indiscriminately ordering that milky stuff after 11, imagine! Scandalous! But more about cappuccino later.

Yes, the Japanese have their tea drinking ceremony and the Italians have their coffee drinking rituals. Here in Italy, coffee is almost a kind of religion, with a certain type of coffee for every mood, personality and time of day. The coffee taken during the day is treated like some kind of a drug, gulped down in one or two shots standing at the counter. Lingering over a café is done after dinner.

Now to quickly help the uninitiated navigate the sea of Italian coffee:
caffè (just a caffé means espresso) It is a small cup of very strong coffee. Note, the espresso is the base drink for the other variations that follow:

caffè doppiodouble espresso
caffè ristrettoespresso with even less water.
caffè macchiato'macchiato' means stained or dirtied and so this is espresso "stained" with a drop of steamed milk.

caffè marocchinoespresso with a dash of hot milk and cacao powder
caffè AmericanoAmerican-style coffee, but stronger; weaker than espresso and served in a large cup
caffè correttocoffee "corrected" with a shot of grappa, cognac, or other spirit

caffè freddoiced coffee
caffè Hagdecaffeinated coffee

Coffees for the morning hours:
caffè lattehot milk mixed with coffee and served in a glass for breakfast

cappuccinoespresso infused with steamed milk and drunk in the morning, but never after lunch or dinner.

The next question is where to go for coffee? Well, you enter the nearest BAR, and in spite of the alcoholic association of the name, most Italians go to the Bar for their regular dose of caffeine rather than a stiff drink. In fact it's in a Bar that many people go to buy milk, cigarettes, phone cards, ice cream, fresh cornetto/croissants, and sandwiches. Once there, you name your poison to the Barrista behind the counter. With the above road map you now know that your choice of coffee lies between the various intensity of caffeine desired by your system, and your tolerance for the presence of milk in it. And these days you can even order a tea at a Bar.

Now to get back to the inevitable question of the cappuccino, which as mentioned above is considered a breakfast drink and thus inappropriate at other times, especially after dinner when so much milk is considered unhealthy for digestion. You might think that every Italian coffee bar makes a decent capuccino, but far from it. Every Italian discovers the perfect cappuccino and sticks to that bar for life. For the record, the perfect cappuccino should be made of 25ml coffee and 125ml of fresh milk, with the latter not heated beyond 55°c. The colour will also be regulated to ensure a 'tonalità nocciola tendente al colour testa di moro con riflessi rossicci ornati e striature chiare'. Less poetically translated, that's a hazelnut to a brown hair colour with reddish clear swirls. And for the history buffs, the name cappuccino derives from a friar called Marco d'Aviano of the Capuchin order wearing the cloak with a hood, which in Italian is called a cappuccio. A little hood is a cappuccino. He participated in the Battle of Vienna in 1683, and after the defeat of the Ottoman Turks, he recovered sacks of coffee from the scene and apparently invented the drink.

One of the strange things about Italian cafes and bars is the process for ordering a coffee. Many of the larger Italian cafes make you pay for your coffee before you go to the bar counter to get served. You first line up at the cash register and pay for your coffee. After you've paid for your coffee you will get a receipt which you will then have to take to the bar and when you give the reciept to the barrista he will make your coffee.

If, God forbid, you are at work and don't have the time to go for your coffee, it will come to you. One of the normal scenes during a weekday would be the sight of a waiter from a nearby Bar, expertly negotiating his way through crowds of people on the street, or crossing the road, with a tray of coffee in his hand, to be delivered to an office or a shop. Which also gives us a telling detail about Italian coffee drinkers, something I still cannot adjust to: they drink their coffee tepid.

In fact if you want your coffee hot, you have to request the bartender to make it not just "caldo" the word for ordinary hot, but “bollente”, or boiling. Mind you, this, next to ordering a lunch time cappuccino, is a dead giveaway that you are non-Italian. So, one learns to whisper this request or 'sotto voce'. Unless you get a waiter like mine the other day who shouted out my order to the barman, making a witty reference to the hospital San Eugenio in Rome that specializes in burn injuries: "For table five, one 'caffe al San Eugenio'!"


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