Photo Essay: Espresso Italiano
It's a few minutes past 8 a.m., and I'm about to embark on the longest espresso break of my life. It's been nine years since I arrived in Italy, leaving behind California, and my morning Starbucks grande, with its 20-25 minutes of reliably scalding, takeaway brew. Instead, the authentic Italian experience of a 3-cm dose of concentrated caffè has a full cycle enter-consume-exit that lasts less than five minutes. This morning, however, I've decided to linger.
Like most Italians, I prefer straight espresso, and I've come to count on its magical aroma and flavor at the café in Italy, it's simply called a bar around the corner from where I live. I've sampled the stuff from Turin to Naples, and across a hundred towns in between. This ancient peninsula both benefits and suffers from regional rivalries and particularities in every imaginable creed and custom, and certainly in its endlessly varied cuisine. But the consumption of espresso at the local bar is a rare example of standard fare, identical throughout the country: a brief but intense pausa from life's travails that is a national bond.
Though I may have sampled espresso all over Italy, nowhere have I thrown back more coffees than at the bar 30 m from my home. There are in fact eight bars within a 100-m radius of my place, in this southwest Rome neighborhood. That's a typical supply in a country that counts one coffee joint for every 400 residents. Like many, my regular spot doesn't have any particular name, but surely has a face. Vincenzo is my barista, as he is for several hundred others who live and work nearby. In Rome's outlying areas, bars tend to be of a common, sometimes sad, linoleum-driven decor. But Vincenzo's is polished clean, simply adorned, neither too bright nor too dark. The owner, age 46, is casually dressed, with a black apron and short-cropped, thinning hair, a sharp nose and intense eyes. Along with his right-hand man, Riccardo, 29, Vincenzo serves up easy conversation and the reassurance that your java will always arrive just as you like it.
Over the past four years I've chatted with Vincenzo, who preferred that I not print his last name, about politics, fatherhood, the weather, health, sports and the local elementary school where his daughters and my son are students. The conversations tend to be brief but direct, to match the stuff he serves. Today, we'll cover a subject that we've never really addressed before: the coffee itself. I warn Vincenzo that the conversation would go well beyond the usual arc of an espresso break, to help with my quest to better understand the Italian people and their beloved brown elixir, and to explore the tensions between national customs and global trends.
As I start to talk, Vincenzo continues to serve his morning clientele. In the next 60 minutes he and Riccardo will serve some 50 espressos and a dozen cappuccinos (they average 400 coffees in the 14-hour workday). There is a steady stream of customers coming and going, with always just enough space at the counter for everyone. In some bars in central Rome, people will line up two and three deep waiting for a crevice of counter space. Here the pace and space seems ideal. Still, all of Vincenzo's movements are subtly quick and perfectly calibrated. For about half the customers, the order is "the usual." The range of usuals is vast, varying according to the quantity and ratio of coffee to milk. Some even include a splash of liquor. One man orders for himself and a woman friend: two espressos, each with schiuma (a spoonful of the foam from the steamed cappuccino milk), one of which is to be served al vetro (in a shot glass rather than the standard cup). The foam requires a bit more labor, but is also ready in a flash. Still, Vincenzo estimates that 80% simply ask for un caffè your standard espresso.
Vincenzo served up his first coffee when he was 12, in his native Calabria, and has owned or worked in six different bars in Rome: "When you start out, they let you do the base for cappuccinos. It's easier to hide errors." By now, he doesn't make mistakes, working with the precision of a sushi chef and passion of a symphony conductor. There are a series of mechanized movements in making an espresso that should take some 55 seconds from the ordering to Vincenzo's delivering it with a clink (not clank!) on your porcelain saucer. He pulls open a spring-release lever twice to drop some 7 g of freshly grounded roast into the steel filter, compresses the coffee with a one-quarter rotation of his wrist, attaches the filter into the espresso machine and presses the button to send through 90� water. In the five seconds before the narrow stream of coffee begins to flow, Vincenzo places the cup underneath; and in the 25 seconds it takes to fill, he puts saucer, spoon and sugar in front of the customer. In busy moments, there are multiple orders to manage at once. Espresso, in fact, is named not for the speed in which it is consumed, but that in which it is produced. If any part of the process is bungled, the coffee can lose its aroma or get burned. "Yes, speed is important," Vincenzo clarifies. "But it's not about doing it as fast as possible. It's about correctly following every step, in the right time."
A barista's skills go well beyond making good coffee. "There is the technical aspect and the human aspect," Vincenzo explains. On any given day, he hears it all, albeit almost always briefly. One older woman comes in to talk about the relationship between her dog and her deceased mother, a wife gives her husband a hard time about his diet, others talk about politics and sports. Often the familiarity comes simply in how he greets the customers, many of whom get to know each other. "Buongiorno Gianpo'. Stefanello, carissimo!," Vincenzo says, welcoming two regulars Gianpaolo and Stefano with his own invented nicknames. One quips back: "Do you still have a caffè and a cappuccino back there?" Already cranking up the lever, Vincenzo says: "Let's see what we can find ..."
It was this kind of atmosphere that first gave Starbucks founder Howard Schultz the idea to standardize an intimate café experience in America. What was once a Seattle coffee-bean retailer became the giant chain it is today after Schultz's 1983 trip to Milan. "I saw this sense of community and humanity," he said in a recent interview. In his autobiography, Pour Your Heart Into It, Schultz summed it up this way: "The Italians understood the personal relationship that people could have to coffee, its social aspect. Starbucks could be a great experience, and not just a great retail store."
That was a noble goal and it's easy to forget the extent to which Starbucks succeeded. In the early 1990s a new Starbucks often did not only provide a U.S. neighborhood's first decent coffee, but also became one of those "third places" not your home and not your place of work that we all need to nourish a sense of community. But in a leaked memo last February, Schultz lamented a "watering down of the Starbucks experience." Today's coffee bars, Schultz worried, "no longer have the soul of the past and reflect a chain of stores vs. the warm feeling of a neighborhood store."
Maybe it was that depressing trajectory that explains a curious fact: Starbucks is everywhere from China to Chile, but you won't find one in Italy. When I first arrived here, there was a flurry of newspaper stories about the chain's imminent arrival. It was billed as globalization come full circle, the inevitable victory of American-led corporate culture over homespun traditions. It hasn't happened. A company spokeswoman told Time: "Although we are excited about the opportunities that Italy presents, we do not have any announcements to make at this time regarding the Italian market."
I have enough nostalgia for California not to knock Starbucks. And now that they've identified the need to rediscover authenticity Schultz even bemoaned the loss of aroma in his stores from the use of flavor-lock bags I'd not bet against the company's ability to do something about it. But authenticity isn't easily won. It depends on certain rhythms and aromas, on neighborly advice and a guarantee that the coffee will always be good and the jokes often will not. And, most of all, authenticity depends on the daily labor and infinite decency of men such as my barista, Vincenzo. Grazie.