Why Nothing Kicks Like An Italian Espresso

“No, wait, uh – I ordered a coffee?”

It’s the mid 90s, and I’m in Italy for the first time in my adult life. Tragically I’m only in transit, so all I’ll see of this magnificently handsome country on this trip is gray, functional-looking train stations – a world away from the Italian countryside that will capture my heart a few years later. All that architecture, all that green. Alas, I knew none of it.

But I certainly knew about the coffee. It was legendary, wasn’t it? I was apparently going to have my mind blown, even in a tiny railway-station cafe like this one. 

So I ordered, and instead of the mug I expected to be sipping from for the next half-hour until my next train arrives, I got something the size of a thimble, containing a squirt of what looked like crude oil.

Crude oil or coffee?
Crude oil or coffee?

Was this part of some weird coffee-related ritual I’d never seen before? Was the hot water coming in a separate pot, accompanied by a normal-sized cup? Had I ordered the wrong thing?

No, I’d got it right. I’d said caffè. Thankfully this was the era before coffee-houses really took off in the part of the UK I was from, so I was in no danger of asking for a lattè – which, in Italy, might get you a glass of milk and nothing else.

I looked around to see what other people were drinking. Yep: same tiny cups on tiny saucers. Maybe this was just the way they did it here. In which case, how absolutely rubbish. This “coffee” was barely a mouthful – and I noticed that everyone was knocking theirs back like they’re downing shots, or getting some unpleasant dose of medicine over with as quickly as possible, so I decided to do the same.

And that was how I had my first Italian espresso – the beverage that has quickly conquered European coffee culture and forms the base of all the trendiest varieties in all the big chains across the world.

Wherever you go in Italy, if you like your coffee, you’ll be drinking espresso. They serve it in Tuscany, where Wheel & Anchor are heading in just over a month’s time, and again in April & May of next year. They serve it on the Amalfi coast, our destination for our 2-week LiveAway programme next year. And they especially whip it up by the bucketload in Trieste, home of the popular brand Illycaffè S.p.A. (usually shortened to “Illy”), where the inhabitants consume roughly 10kg of coffee beans per person per year (twice the Italian average).

Enjoy coffee at Amalfi's coast
Enjoy coffee at Amalfi’s coast

About those beans: when you’re in your supermarket and see coffee advertised as “espresso beans” or what have you – it’s something of a marketing ploy. There’s no espresso-grade. You can make espresso from any type of coffee bean, roasted to any level. Sure, quality matters, but that’s not what separates ‘normal’ coffee from espresso.

If your first Italian espresso is at a high-turnover establishment – say, a busy railway station cafe – and if you’re used to the two or three minute wait of the average Starbucks, you may be in for a shock. This is a process that looks more like a pit-crew changing tires in a Formula 1 race. It should take a minute tops, maybe even just 30 seconds – and that’s probably the speed you should drink it, too. Fast, fast, fast, same again please.

The trick is the simplicity. The espresso process, which is over a century old at this point, involves blasting (“expressing”) super-hot pressurized water through coffee powder, done by pulling a lever on a machine.

What you end up with is quite different to the coffee derived from other forms of preparation: the foamy head, the ‘creme’, that rests on top of an espresso is made of emulsified oils, giving it that signature super-strong oily thickness that you can feel against the back of your throat as you chug it back…

'Creme' on the coffee
‘Creme’ on the coffee

And it is, of course, powerful. There’s more caffeine per volume than other types of coffee, which is why coffeehouse baristas use espresso as the undiluted base of most orders, adding other ingredients or more water to create the variety. Yet compared with the average big, wide cup of coffee you’ll drink in the U.S. or elsewhere, you’ll get less caffeine per cup of espresso. (That’s why you need a second one.)

So okay, there’s not much of it, but it’s so powerful, this tiny cup. It races through my nervous system like a steam-train. I might the urge to fling the cup to the ground and yell, “ANOTHER!”. It’s that kind of kick – really brings the amateur dramatics out of you. 

I’d ordered correctly because in Italy, it’s hard to get your order wrong. A coffee is an espresso is a coffee. If you know your terminology, you might know the difference between a liscio (full single espresso), a doppio (a double), a ristresso (even less water used, expressed through finer powder), a lungo (a watery espresso) or a corretto, which comes with a splash of grappa for the truly adventurous… 

But sentences like “I’ll have a quad long shot grande in a venti cup half calf double cupped no sleeve salted caramel mocha latte with 2 pumps of vanilla…” have no place in Italy. It’s not cool, you’re holding up the queue, and life is just too short. Do you want coffee or what?

So, don’t be shocked if your cup is small, or how quickly it arrived. Don’t be surprised that its contents don’t seem to have the right colour or viscosity, and leaves a dark slick around the sides of the cup that reminds you of footage of industrial accidents. Accept it for what it is: a moment of super-refined caffeinated joy that will help you with the rest of your day, while delaying the commencement of it as little as possible. 

If you’re thinking about all this, you’re taking too long. This is Italy. Everything is moving and you have somewhere else to be. Drink!

See? Wasn’t that a good idea? Now you have the time to drink another. Molto bene!

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