Friday, July 10, 2015


Last year, my sister visited from Italy, and I took her to a beloved neighborhood coffee place. We placed our order for two espressos, and then I stood back to analyze the various stages of shock she was bound to experience. The reason? The espresso making took FOREVER. My sister stared in increasing disbelief as the barista took all the time in the world to go through the 7 Steps of modern American artisanal espresso-making:
  1. Pour ground coffee into the handle in atomic increments.
  2. Press the coffee down with complete concentration in carefully-applied 30-lb thrusts.
  3. Polish the border of the handle until it shines, completely speckless.
  4. Let the coffee drip into the cup with monastic patience.
  5. Examine the espresso closely for possible flaws that would nullify the process.
  6. Send a silent prayer to the coffee gods to ensure future blessing.
  7. Place the finished espressos on the counter for the costumer to finally enjoy. (Avoid eye contact.)
You know what it's like: It took at least 10 minutes from start to finish. My sister looked at me, her brown, life-filled Italian eyes wide open, and said, "We need to open our espresso bar. We'll be millionaires!"

See, espresso in Italy (we call it coffee) is actually a very quick experience. Even in the nicest torrefazioni (cafes where coffee is roasted and served), it might take a minute at most for a perfect espresso to appear in front of you after your order. It's not only that Italians barista are quick, it's that they have to be. We Italians are physically and culturally addicted to coffee and to its almost instantaneous kick, so much that we don't even care about sitting down at a coffee bar. We need our espresso, and we need it NOW. That's why at home we use the little stovetop moka, because it produces a concentrated coffee in a matter of minutes.

Anyway, my sister thought Americans would love to have their coffee just as fast. She thought, arent' they addicted, too? Well, as much as her fantasy of opening an espresso bar appealed to me, I knew it would never work in America. Nobody cares about a fast espresso here. Instead, a carefully-poured espresso is popular because it reminds American of the artistry and tradition of coffee. An express espresso would not have the same charm.

So I started thinking, and I realized there is a major difference between American and Italian approach to food and coffee that I summarized in this handy infographic:

Italians will happily wait 20 to 30 minutes for the appetizers to show up and would never dream of having lunch in the car, but need their espresso right away, preferably standing up, and five minutes later they're already on their way. In Italy, a barista is as swift and invisible as a ghostly apparition, seen only with the corner of your eye.

Who is right, then? Well, Italians, of course. We're always right on food. But I will concede that slow coffee has its charms. I very much appreciate the dedication that American baristas are giving to our home staple, and I am definitely thankful to them for taking espresso seriously enough to transform it from a bitter soup to a creamy deliciousness that is often just as good as the original. And as soon as you get addicted as Italians are, I know you'll learn to make it quick. See you on the other side.


  1. Oh my! We are headed "home" to the U.S. for an extended visit for the first time in more than 3 years. I was already fearing culture shock. (Can I even eat the food?!?) You have confirmed my worst fears: fast food and slow coffee! I am looking forward to some good ethnic food -- Thai, MEXICAN -- that is impossible to get in Roma. Maybe I can get a great omelet in Portland, but I'll never be able to eat the whole thing! Will we be allowed to share portions as we do some often in Italy? So many worries going to the country of my birth. At least I should be able to understand most conversations around me. :-)

    1. If you're going to Portland, then I don't think the culture shock is going to be so bad. I'm pretty sure that, of all American cities, they must have a slow-food approach there, right? And I think you'll have a blast having all kinds of cuisines at your disposal again. But drink all the coffee that you can while you're in Rome! If baristas in Portland are as slow as baristas in DC, then that might drive you mad! (May I suggest Sant'Eustachio?)