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Sipping Italy's Cups of Gold

Based around its fresh, local ingredients, Italy clearly boasts one of the world's greatest cuisines.

That said, it's not difficult for a hungry traveler to find a soggy slice of pizza, a vile vino or a poorly treated plate of pasta. Having just returned from a week in the regions of Lazio and Abruzzo, I can attest to a wide range of quality on offer.

Cup of Gold
Tazza d'Oro... a cup of gold

But Italian coffee is a different story altogether. Espresso on every corner. Freshly ground beans in every tiny village. Lattes, cappuccinos and macchiatos sipped by members of every social strata.

In Italy, superlative coffee isn't reserved for the well-born. It's drink of the people.

But why Italy? Coffee beans don't grow there. Wouldn't it make sense for the modern-day center of coffee culture be a little closer to the source of the beans? Like, say... Ethiopia, from whence the coffee bean is supposed to have originated?

Coffee Bags
Coffee bags from Crop to Cup

As it turns out, Italy may not be a source of coffee beans, but the country's been an enthusiastic importer for centuries.

The port city of Venice, Italy, sucked up goods of all kinds from North Africa, the Middle East and beyond. Coffee beans made their appearance there in the 1500s, and by 1645, the first European coffee house had opened (by this time the Turks were already old hands at the bean-slinging business, having opened Constantinople's Kiva Han, their first official coffee house, in 1471).

But clearly, this dark, bitter drink from foreign lands must have been the work of the devil. That's precisely what priests who petitioned Pope Clement VIII tried to claim in 1600.

Fortunately for coffee junkies everywhere, the Pope tried a cup and proclaimed it “so delicious that it would be a pity to let the infidels have exclusive use of it.”

He determined to “cheat Satan by baptizing it,” and a bloom of European coffee house openings followed. Caffè Florian, in Venice, was established in 1720 and remains one of the oldest houses still in operation.

Caffe Machhiato
Caffè Macchiato

That said, I'm told that Captain John Smith, one of the founders of the colony of Virginia, brought coffee to Jamestown in 1607, and I know that The Boston Tea Party the New York Stock Exchange and the Bank of New York were all conceived in the New World's early coffee houses, so why do I still find weak, insipid coffee as I travel these United States?

I have no firm answers, but my best theory is this: we expect less.

When cloth sacks of green coffee beans sailed into Venetian ports all those centuries ago, they were probably a just few weeks old. By the time those beans traveled through Europe and overseas to the colonies, months had passed. They'd grown older, less nuanced and all the more expensive.

Colonists in what would eventually become the United States grew accustomed to a weaker cup.

That's what they made, and that's what generations thereafter recognized as coffee. The drip machine in the break room. The diner pot resting on the hot plate. We milk it and sugar it. And why not? We usually can't taste the coffee bean's more delicate flavors anyway.

Some claim the Caffè Americano (espresso with extra water added) was created as a more palatable beverage for American soldiers who marched en masse through Italy during World War II. It's probably an apocryphal story, but it sticks around because it illustrates an important point.

Drinks at Cafe Grumpy
Cortado and Cappuccino at Cafe Grumpy, Brooklyn

Though at least 54% of Americans sip coffee every day, the drip pot still reigns supreme. We don't need our morning cup of joe to have delicate flavor. It's about the caffeine.

But in the wake of the Seattle coffee revolution of the '70s, espresso-based drinks are far more widely recognized and consumed in the States. That seems like good news. As a nation, we're learning more about the bean, where it comes from and the subtlety it can show.

And who knows? With any luck, in a few more decades, we might begin to find proper espresso machines posted in all the truck stops and diners of rural America. Four hundred years after good coffee became working-class in Italy, everyone from miners to meter maids might regularly enjoy all that a fresh, well-treated bean has to offer.

Hey, a junkie can dream, right?

Cheers,

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7.09.2008