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  • Drink It Up: Italy's Delicious Obsession with Espresso
    Our Paesani

    by Francesca Di Meglio

    I never cared much for the taste of espresso, although every once in a while I crave a cappuccino. I know this is a blasphemous thing to say to Italians. Whenever I do say it in front of a native, he tells me that I just never had a good enough cup. Of course, he forces a shot of his espresso down my throat to prove that he's right. No one has changed my mind yet. But, for me, the aroma of a "tazzina" of dark black espresso is Sunday afternoon, talks with my cousin Gigino in Italy and Saturday night gatherings with my cousin Big John in New Jersey. It is a symbol of our family dinner table and, subsequently, a symbol of all that I love about being Italian.

    Italians in Italy seem to have even stronger attachments to the hot drink. It is both a social drink, something to sip while chatting up a neighbor at the local bar, and a necessity, a must-have to wake up in the morning or celebrate late at night.

    That's why people got downright mad when the change in currency (from the Italian lira to the euro in 2002) resulted in bar owners charging inflated prices for coffee. A retired man in Ladispoli, a town just outside Roma, took his case to court after his local bar went from charging him 1,500 lire to 1 euro, about a 30 percent increase in price, for a cup of cappuccino, according to the Associated Press.

    The outraged cappuccino lover won and validated a nation of people crying foul about the overall increase in prices brought on by the new currency's arrival. More than anything the fact that someone would go as far as taking a bar to court, without anyone thinking he was crazy, over a few cents difference in the price of coffee, speaks volumes about the Italian love affair with Italy's distinct java.

    There are even devotional songs celebrating the alluring "drug". Just last year, rising star Alex Britti scored a hit with "7000 Caffè," a San Remo Festival entry about a young man who consumes lots of coffee while waiting for his love. His adoration of this woman seems to make more sense to him with every cup. And his obsession with his beloved and with coffee comes from the same place: his heart. This is nothing new. "'O Ccafè," a 1957 song by the legendary Domenico Modugno, is an ode to Neapolitan coffee (and is sung in the Napoletano dialect). "Ah, che belle 'o ccafè! (Ah, what beautiful coffee)/Sulo a Napule 'o ssanno fà (Only in Napoli, they know how to make it)/e nisciuno se spiega pecchè (And no one can explain why)/e' 'na vera specialità (It is a real specialty)," sings Massimo Ranieri, who covered the classic on his recent Nun E' Acqua album.

    The rest of the world, apparently, is starting to agree that the best coffee comes from Italy. It's no coincidence that chains like Starbucks use Italian-sounding names to describe their beverages, even drink sizes. (A grande macchiato, anyone?) Most people realize that Starbucks is the Americanized version of Italy's true espresso or cappuccino.

    But just in case you haven't, head to "Espresso! My Espresso!" There, Randy Glass, an espresso lover, shares his knowledge on everything, from the difference between real espresso and just plain strong coffee to the proper way to purchase a professional espresso machine for your home. "Espresso is a quest, a goal," says Glass. "It is an art and a science. The process is detail oriented, takes time to learn and more time to perfect." You'll probably have to drink lots of coffee as you get acquainted with the method. Look at it this way: All that caffeine will keep you awake, so you can do all sorts of other things in the wee hours. Hmmmm, maybe that's the real reason Italians love a hot shot of espresso.

    What do you think? Do you have a favorite brand or a theory about Italy's love of espresso? Let me know here:


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