This is her June 2022 edition on Italian Coffee Culture. Enjoy some content on the iconic espresso which includes a recipe for Affogato al caffe at the end! A perfect end to one of the multiple holiday meals instead of a rich dessert!
I am back in Italy for the first-time post pandemic and writing from Bari, Puglia. (I travel here regularly for my food & wine tours!)
Two weeks ago, when I arrived in Rome Fiumicino airport the first thing I searched for, was an espresso. For coffee lovers, there is nothing like an Italian espresso to wake you up after a long red eye flight from Toronto to Rome.
The coffee bars are always easy to spot as there is usually a line and a hub of activity. For tourists arriving in Italy for the first time the coffee bar experience may seem a little daunting. You simply line up and pay the cashier for your request. You then take the receipt to the barista at the counter. The barista may also present you with a small glass of water and then your espresso. No time to sit down. First cleanse your pallet with the water. Now, just add sugar if you like. Down it in one or two drinks. When in Rome, do as the Romans do!
My first experience with coffee was quite young as Italians don’t typically consume a hearty breakfast. As young children growing up in an Italian Canadian household our daily breakfast consisted of latte cafe and my mom’s homemade biscuits. (Nonna’s Lemon Cookies recipe can be found in my cookbook e-book) Latte Cafe is about a quarter espresso coffee to three quarters milk, heated in a pot and sweetened with sugar. We would dunk my mom’s biscuits in the latte cafe and then off to school! The adults had an adult version with little or no milk at all. In Italy today this is still the typical breakfast. An espresso or cappuccino and a brioche or croissant. Most are consumed on the run, at the local coffee bar, standing.
In North America where a typical cup of coffee is eight ounces or more, served with optional cream and sugar the Italian versions may seem foreign to the uninitiated.
History of espresso
They all start with espresso coffee which was born in the early twentieth century, Italy, when the first espresso coffee machine was invented. It was developed to simply prepare coffee faster. The method of adding steam pressure not only made the brew faster, but it was also stronger.
The espresso machine did not arrive in North America until 1927 in New York City. From there it expanded throughout North America with a lot of growth in the 1950’s modern era with artists, poets, and intellectuals noticing this European coffee trend. According to Zuccarini Importing Company Ltd of Toronto, Canada’s very first espresso machine arrived in Toronto in 1954 when Giacomo Zuccarini opened The Sidewalk Caffe at Yonge and College streets.
Here in Guelph, it was not until the late sixties that downtown had its own Italian coffee bar. Giuseppe Bombino, my father, who was affectionately known as “Joe”, opened Guelph’s first coffee bar offering espresso and cappuccino; The Bar Perla Nera on Quebec Street. (It was located on the portion of Quebec Street that is now the Old Quebec Street Mall, across from the Kentucky Fried Chicken.)
Not surprisingly, it attracted Italian immigrants craving the Italian ritual of meeting at the local coffee bar for the latest gossip and their caffeine fix. My father, now in his eighty ninth year, recalls in the early days that these beverages were also extremely popular with non-Italians.
“About fifty percent of my customers were non-Italians, many from the University of Guelph or others that had traveled to Italy.”
For twenty years Joe was a fixture downtown Guelph with four different establishments that always had an imported, Gaggia espresso coffee machine at the heart of the business.
In the 1980’s, Starbucks opened its first coffee shop in the United States and then in 1987 it arrived in Canada. It was during this time that the Italian coffee culture really became more mainstream. The rest as they say is history.
A single shot of espresso coffee is one ounce. A double, two ounces and so on. A cappuccino is typically one ounce of espresso, one ounce of hot milk and one ounce of foam. There are many variations such as a macchiato, which is one ounce of espresso plus one ounce of milk foam or the corretto, which means corrected. A single ounce of espresso is combined with grappa, sambuca or brandy. An Americano is a weaker version of the espresso with hot water added to a shot of espresso. The North American latte is like what I grew up with but in Italy if you ask for one, you will simply get a glass of milk.
In Italy, the Italians are particular about the rules. Italians will only consume a cappuccino before eleven am as it is considered a breakfast beverage. If you order one after that it is a sure sign that you are not a local.
Back home in Guelph I spoke to Kevin Polach, co-owner of Capistrano Cafe for ten years. Capistrano offers a full espresso menu at their St George’s Square location.
Polach told me that the traditional Italian coffee beverages are extremely popular with the older, well-traveled clientele. The latte is the most popular beverage amongst the younger crowd.
I can attest to the authenticity of their macchiato, my espresso of choice. It was delicious and the foam thick and rich. They use a Toronto based espresso coffee company that uses imported coffee beans.
Even if you don’t venture to Italy, you can still enjoy authentic Italian coffee beverages thanks to that iconic espresso machine now found all over the world.
Join me in Italy where we can enjoy food, wine, and coffee culture!
In the meantime, try this spin on espresso! Coffee, gelato, and liquor! A nice, light treat to end a rich meal. The Affogato al Cafe recipe is included in my cookbook, Natalina’s Kitchen: Bringing Homemade Back! Now available as a downloadable e-book!
Ciao for now, Natalina
Affogato al Caffe
- 4 scoops crema gelato or vanilla ice cream the best quality you can find
- 12 oz hot, strong espresso coffee
- 2-4 oz liqueur of choice amaretto, grappa, Frangelico
- Divide the hot espresso between four glass cups.
- Add a scoop of ice cream to each
- Pour desired amount of liqueur over the ice cream (.5 to 1 oz each)
- Serve and enjoy. Alternatively serve with a biscuit to dunk!