Things Italian April 29, 2004


April 29, 2004 It is almost May, spring has arrived, the windows are open to the street, the breezes, and the racket of the daily packs of school kids walking by. In Italy it is the same as in America: If the kids haven’t learned it by now, they aren’t going to pick it up during the rest of this school year. Best to wait for some maturation over the summer and then they will come back fresh for the next year. But legislators everywhere, with parents’ blessings to be sure, dictate that the schools will continue for another month or so. How do the teachers deal with this problem in Italy? The same way they do in America—Field Trips!

Since I know there is no equivalent to a Butter Crust Bakery in centro storico Verona, I followed one group just to see where they were headed. This group of middle schoolers, all in blue baseball camps, was being shown the architectural details of a renaissance palazzo. Another group was peering down at the Roman ruins that were excavated a few years back. Surprisingly, most of the kids were paying attention.

Besides the noise of the passing schoolkids, the open windows let in the ubiquitous ringing (squillo in Italian) of cell phones. Since the Italians are always using them (there are 2,000,000 more cell phones in Italy than there are Italians), I figured that they must be getting a better rate than my 40 centessime (almost 50 cents) a minute. Wrong. After shopping around, the best deal I found was that for every €20.00 that I spent on calls made in Italy, I get a free €10.00 recharge. This is still rather expensive for saying, “ciao mamma, I’m at the stazione. You can put the pasta water on now.” And as near as I can tell, that is about as profound as most calls get.

[The rest of this piece is about one of my addictions, coffee. If you are a tea drinker or your doctor has told you to lay off the caffeine, I’ll see you next time.]

As any of you who have traveled in Italy know, the coffee experience here is very different than in America. First of all, I doubt if there is a single Starbucks to be found. The founders of Starbucks used the ubiquitous Italian bar as their business model and then Americanized it to a fare-thee-well. The Starbucks execs are not dummies. They know there is simply no need for a franchise in Italy. On my short street alone, there are five bars. And on my ten minute walk to the supermercato, there are an additional three opportunities for caffeine injection.

In the typical Italian bar, you have the same dizzying number of choices that you get in a Starbucks except most of the time there is no menu. Also, you don’t get your choice of blends—you get whatever bean the bar chooses to serve. Order a cup of coffee (Vorrei un caffè, per favore) and you will be served what we call an espresso, a thimble full of a rich brew in a small cup. This is not a drink where you sit around clutching your mug and sipping for twenty minutes. Most Italians walk in, order, pay, and two gulps later are out the door having mainlined their caffeine fix.

The variations to the basic caffè are myriad and you will recognize most of them:
Caffè macchiato = an espresso with a little bit of frothed milk
Cappuccino = same as above, only in a bigger cup with more milk. This is my favorite drink (more later)
Caffè corretto = an espresso that has been “corrected” with a shot of grappa or a liquor
Caffè decaffeinato = surprisingly good for anyone who needs to limit their caffeine intake but still wants the flavor
Caffè latte = espresso with milk in a glass, served either hot or cold
Caffè Americano = in a bar, they will take an espresso and “dumb it down” by adding hot water. In a restaurant you might get brewed filtered coffee, just like at home.
And of course there are variations to all of the above: corte, lunga, doppia, con panna (cream) and/or cioccolato and so forth.

As mentioned earlier, my favorite choice is cappuccino. When I walk into “my” bar, Tubino’s, about four doors down from the apartment, they look up and without a word being exchanged, in less than a minute I am enjoying the frothed milk with a nice caffeine jolt at the bottom of the cup. And a minute later I am out the door to the frutta e verdura or the macelleria (butcher shop). Yes, I could save €0.39 by getting a caffè macchiato, but I will gladly pay the difference for a good capuch. To me, the joy of cappuccino is the frothed milk. You take a spoon, stir it around to get a mix with the espresso and then enjoy. After the coffee is gone, inevitably there is a little bit of milk to finish off with the spoon. One of life’s little pleasures.

Unfortunately, I have just about given up ordering cappuccino outside of Italy. The Spanish turn it into a dessert, complete with whipped cream and a cherry on top. The Brits for the most part haven’t a clue. The Moroccans, Greeks and Turks can’t get the foam right. However, the worst cappuccino I ever had was in a Starbucks in Seattle, of all places. The size and proportions were all wrong. Somewhere down at the bottom of a 16 oz paper cup (!!?), underneath eight inches of foam was the coffee. Bigger is better is the American way, but it doesn’t work with a cappuccino. By the time I had dealt with enough of the foam to be able to find the coffee, it was was cold. For a good cappuccino, you have to be able to mix the coffee and the foam and still have a hot drink. The Italians have the proportions right. That is their secret. This is not a knock on Starbucks as they have opened up a huge market and do a fine job, for the most part. But next time I will stick with their medium size dark French roast coffee latte and give the cappuccino a miss.

The conservative Veronese frown on anyone drinking cappuccino after 11:00 in the morning as they consider it a breakfast drink. But I do notice that they will order caffè macchiato at any time during the day. Excuse me, but what is the difference except by degree? I do see their point after a long Italian meal, complete with many courses, wine, and dessert. Here, the biting, bitter taste of un caffè is much better than a cappuccino. Incidentally, if you do order coffee at dinner in Italy, it will not be brought to you until after dessert. Coffee during the meal is considered barbaric.

When I first arrived in Verona, when I would ask for coffee, I would get a condescending reply of, “I assume that you want American coffee,” with the “American coffee” part of the sentence dripping with even more condescension. But I have yet to go into a kitchen in Italy where there has not been an American style filtered coffee maker. Perhaps we Americans have made at least one contribution to the coffee culture. (back)