A Lesson in Coffee Italian

Invariably, if the coffee you ask for is misspelled on the menu or headboard in the café, what you end up with is a travesty at best. If “cappuccino” lacks a ‘c’, it is tantamount to removing the coffee and leaving the colour. These ‘cappucinos’ will have covered up their error with an avalanche of frothy milk, so you’re none the wiser. The error is caused initially by the ‘expresso’ used to make the ‘cappucino’. If the teaspoon of sugar takes less than three seconds to sink to the bottom before stirring, then you have an ‘expresso’, otherwise it’s an “espresso” The illusion is further enhanced by a liberal powdering of chocolate or cinnamon dust. As with all Italian cuisine, the ingredients are crucial . We’ll talk later about coffee beans.

The first time I returned to Italy, after thirteen years since I had been ‘forced’ to emigrate at the age of nine, I went to Rome with a group of university students. The following morning, in my best, standard Italian, I asked the waiter to bring me an “espresso per favore”. This was his answer, verbatim: “Black or white?” The word (or could it have been my bermuda shorts or the camera around my neck?), however perfectly it was pronounced, caused the waiter to hastily dispatch me back to some undefined American (Canada was not really known in Italy back in 1969) soil. “Espresso” in Italian is special delivery (express) mail. The waiter could have easily given me directions for the post office. What he offered me was at least the choice to have my coffee with or without milk. This was way before the term ‘americano’ referring to coffee came into being. Besides, an americano is normally taken black. The Tim Horton style coffee will be hereafter referred to as ‘canadese’, which allows for the choice of “black or white”. In Rome, as I learned later, the normal term for this type of coffee is “brodo” (broth).

The point being made here is that correct spelling of Italian style coffee preparations, is an aid in determining if your $2 + will be well spent on a genuine item or not. This is not to say that every Italian café is a sure bet, but at least they wont ask you want a double or triple along with the long or short. By the way, there is another term besides ‘long’ and ‘short’ which refers to the usual amount you get when you order “un caffé” in an Italian bar (the word the Italians use for café). The word is “normale”, an easy cognate of normal. Hint: if you want two espressos (or is it es?), have two; don’t ask for a double. Most of the time it’s just double the water. An americano would be cheaper.

A recap of the nomenclature used thus far:

caffé – coffee, expresso, espresso

americano – simply means American in Italian; a term coined in North America to indicate an espresso that has been overly diluted with hot water (would this be a quadruple espresso?). It must be said ,however, that there is usually more flavour and buzz in this type of coffee than in a mediocre ‘canadese’.

canadese – Canadian; the regular, or run of the mill (sorry) coffee available in places that end in cup, time and buck’s.

cappuccino – (pronounced kuhp:ooch:eeno – two p’s and 3 c’s. Think of ‘cup’ not cap) named after the Capucine order of monks, not expressly for the men but for their hoods (cappuccio; cfr also cappuccetto rosso, Little Red Riding Hood). Ino and etto are Italian diminutive suffixes. A cappuccino is made with a shot of espresso which becomes one with a copious amount of steamed, frothy milk. Try saying no to the dusting of chocolate or cinnamon. It interferes with a well made cap.

Latte – no accent on the final e, stress on the first syllable lat-. You know how to pronounce this one. This drink takes far more milk than cappuccino, hence the latte, Italian for milk . The Italian term is “latte macchiato” (luht:ay mak:yatoh) – the colon after the consonant means a more intense or doubled sound. A pause is made before pronouncing the consonant; something like “night table” without pronouncing two distinct t’s -> nigh:table.

caffé macchiato – Latte macchiato is ‘stained’ with coffee; caffé macchiato is ‘stained’ (macchiato) with milk. This means that the steamed milk is just enough to change the colour of the espresso. The amount should never exceeed that of the coffee. Sometimes, if you get, or ask for frothy milk, you end up with a mini cappuccino. All a question of proportion, symmetry, balance and harmony – some of the main canons of Renaissance aesthetics.

The caffé macchiato (remember muh:kyatoh) is best had in a thick, 2″ tall glass or in demi (espresso) tasse.

caffelatte (or latte e caffé) – there is some controversy regarding the proportions of coffee and milk. A rule of thumb could be simply asking for more or less of one or the other, as desired.

caffé corretto – an espresso that has been flavoured (corrected, as it were) with brandy, anisette, sambuca or grappa.

uovo sbattuto – literally ‘beaten egg’. Actually it is a caffelatte in which you whisk an egg youlk and some Marsala wine – the breakfast of choice for Italian school children (at least when I was growing up) before going to school.

caffee freddo – literally ‘cold coffee’. THis is actually espresso kept cold in the fridge to the point of being on the verge of crystalyzing, but not quite the consistency of a granita.

granita di caffé – a granita is coffee ice (or the popular lemon ice); a slushy really. A very soothing drink that causes instant ice headaches.

PS. gelato (sing.) – gelati (pl.); biscotto (sing) – biscotti (pl); and if you want a martini, you wouldn’t be asking for two 🙂

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