Coffee Glamour: Italians Do It Better


Photo by j.reed/Flickr CC

What is it with the Italians and espresso? Their coffee culture spurred a nation's reawakening, in the form of Starbucks, co-founded by our own Jerry Baldwin; Peet's, whose legendary founder, the Dutch trader and roaster Alfred Peet, had inspired Jerry and his co-founders and which Jerry went on to lead, and many other coffee roasters sell better quality coffee every day than almost anything you can find in Italy (which, to be fair, is having an artisan-roaster revival inspired, I would guess, by America).

And yet, and yet. Having run out of my bag of Peet's for my morning stovetop espresso, I broke out a can of ground coffee from Sant'Eustachio, one of two rivals as Rome espresso legends, which is now marketing its coffee all over the world, thanks to an ambitious and relatively recent owner named Raimondo Ricci, with whom I chatted at the Fancy Food Show earlier this month. When I wrote The Joy of Coffee, Sant'Eustachio was known for its gimmicky Gran Caffe, with a mysteriously healthy head of crema foam whose secret is shielded behind steel-screened coffee machines that prevent peering. (A Rome taxi driver swore he knew the secret from an ex-barista, and as it sounded plausible to me I repeated the story.)

Like Illy, the pioneer of quality coffee and glossy marketing in Italy, Sant'Eustachio now buys its beans direct from coffee farms, not from distributors, and is concentrating on international marketing; you can order the cans from, the purveyor of hand-chosen, high-quality Italian foods. I remembered the quality of its espresso as, frankly, not very high, and chalked up the reputation to the water in its neighborhood behind the Pantheon. Water is, of course, the secret to pasta, pizza, and coffee too in Naples, and my favorite water in the world comes from the volcanic springs between Rome and Naples. But this espresso surprised me: gentle, unassertive, but balanced and very good. I plan to make it a pantry staple for when I can't get to my local roaster.

But then, skillful blending and roasting has always been the Italian hallmark, rather than the quality of the beans. And, of course, that Italian sense of style. As Faith writes today, seeing a uniformed barman make anything in a cocktail shaker is a thrill, and the idea that you can have something non-alcoholic but decidedly adult has its own thrill too. The drink itself might not quite live up to its name, at least not to anyone vaguely expecting a coffee milk shake: a shakerato is a sweetened iced coffee, with no milk, and, like all true Italian espresso drinks, shorter and sparer than Americans expect. But it also offers an incomparably quick and cold jolt, especially on a hot summer's day.

The cold jolt I live for is granita di caffe, shaved espresso ice, from Sant'Eustachio's historic rival, Tazza d'Oro, closer to the Pantheon and able to draw on the same, or almost the same, water supply. Many Italian espresso bars have granita in the summer, though too many of them are using slush machines of the kind you'd find at a carnival trailer. Proper granita is fine chips of ice that tingle on the tongue and provide a light bite. It's not easy to make by machine to get the right consistency, and when you find a place that has it, in a cold tin tub, you celebrate. It's easy to make at home, and better than anything you get elsewhere, because you can get the right consistency with nothing more than an ice tray and some table knives; the recipe is in the back of The Joy of Coffee.

Still, Faith has set me dreaming of being back at the Pantheon, where I always find myself several times a day to order granita con panna--a plastic cup that in fact wouldn't be out of place at a cocktail bar, filled with sweet shaved espresso ice and topped with a generous swirl of whipped cream. You fold the stiffish cream into the shavings, which hold their texture for almost as long as it takes you to sip/bite each little flat spoonful. Then you walk into the Pantheon, look straight up at the open round oculus letting in the sun or the rain, and understand why Rome will always be eternal.