Just like you’d scoff at a European for putting mayonnaise on a hot dog, Italians might disapprove of your espresso drinking, as they have their very own, very serious coffee culture.
Yes, there’s both a right and a wrong way to drink espresso, which is why we tapped a real live Italian — Luca Di Pietro, coffee industry vet and founder of Tarallucci e Vino in New York — to give us the inside scoop on how to drink it like a local.
1. Understand what an espresso is
Coffee beans are coffee beans. Despite what the coffee industry (at least the American one) is trying to convince you of, there’s no such thing as an espresso roast.
The way coffee is extracted is what makes different coffee drinks — like brewed coffee, a French press, or espresso.
Espresso machines use 132 pounds per square inch of pressure to extract coffee, which differentiates it from brewed coffee, for example, which just uses gravity. One cup, traditionally, is seven grams of coffee, and should take no more than 25 seconds to make.
Di Pietro says that espresso should not be bitter, and shouldn’t give you heart palpitations.
“One of the huge issues I have with the new wave of coffee shops is that they make espressos with 18 to 20 grams of coffee. Basically, they give you two to three times the caffeine of a traditional espresso, and in that small dose of liquid… the ratio of caffeine per ounce is incredibly high and makes the coffee over extracted and bitter,” he says.
2. Be a snob
Italians are serious about their coffee, so you should be too.
“These new wave coffee shops, they say ‘oh we use a local roaster and he uses only small batch,’ and that’s all good and fine, but how consistent is he? How is his packaging?” Di Pietro asks. “Coffee goes stale very quickly if not treated properly. There are a lot of misconceptions about coffee, but the big equalizer is taste. Coffee needs to taste good, and needs to taste good 365 days a year.”
3. Have it made expressly for you
Di Pietro explains that espresso means express, as well as made expressly for you. It should be made to order, and fast.
4. Order it at the bar
Very rarely would a coffee drinker in Italy sit down and order an espresso.
5. Drink it quickly
“Espresso needs to be made expressly for you, but it also needs to be drunk very quickly,” Di Pietro says, explaining that it needs to be drunk while the “crema” is still on top. The crema is a creamy emulsion of the coffee’s oils, and acts as a lid covering the espresso, keeping all the aromas in. That said, it dissipates quickly.
6. Never drink an espresso that doesn’t have crema on top
Either it’s been sitting around for too long or it’s decaf. “That’s why coffee purists would never order it at the table,” he explains. Because the crema thins out and disappears so quickly, ordering it anywhere that’s not the counter means you’re likely to get it too late. “By the time they make it, and it gets to you, especially if it’s busy, it’s done and the crema is gone.
7. Take a second to enjoy the tradition surrounding it
“Order it at the bar and start a conversation with the barista” Di Pietro says. “It’s about the conviviality, it’s the little taste, the pick-me-up in the morning, and it’s something quick.
8. Know that you can drink espresso anytime, but never order a cappuccino after breakfast
You can have an espresso any time of day. Cappuccino, however, is frowned upon after 11am. “In Italy, people will look at you very strangely if you have a cappuccino after 11. They absolutely frown upon someone who has a cappuccino after dinner or with a meal, as milk based coffees are reserved for morning and breakfast.”
9. Don’t add milk
If you add milk you’re making it an espresso machiatto, and shouldn’t be drinking it after 11 am. However, Di Pietro does encourage turning your espresso into a caffe corretto by adding liquor. But that’s for much later in the day, of course.
10. See it as a way of life, not a special occasion
“Have a quick espresso, maybe a little pastry, exchange some words and you’re on your way. It’s not something you linger over for a long time,” Di Pietro says. “Having an espresso in the morning is not a special occasion, it’s a way of life. Some people here treat it as a special occasion and so they’re willing to wait for a barista with an attitude, who’s going crazy with the grinder. Cut your mustache, take off your wool hat, it’s summer. It’s not about the show, it’s a way of life.”