[Homeroast] Why is espresso in America so bad? Italian perspective

Sandy Andina sandraandina at me.com
Wed Feb 24 17:29:20 CST 2016

I suspect that the Lavazza, Danesi, etc. beans used by coffee shops in Italy are much more recently roasted and thus fresher than those of the same brand available Stateside, even at the vaunted Eataly superstores. (Don’t even get me started on people who buy their espresso preground in cans and bricks. Ugh). Nevertheless, I’ve had both great and terrible shots all over Italy—in fact, some of the great ones at truck stops on the Autostradas—and even France & Spain, as well as here. (The best I’ve had in Italy are on a par with the “God shot” ristretti that my Chicago neighborhood coffee shop—which is an award-winning small-volume roastery—serves on a regular basis). I sometimes pull better shots myself, on my home rig (“La Cora,” aka Andreja Premium, Mazzer Mini, SM homeroasted or beans from Metropolis & Dark Matter) than I’ve had in Rome and Naples—especially in restaurants.  Interestingly, I had both a near-“God-shot” and a blah thin lukewarm pale crema too-long pull within an hour of each other at two places in Taormina, Sicily—the lousy shot came from a restaurant and the delicious ristretto from a Danesi pod (!!!) machine at a walk-up gelateria/pasticceria.  (In Italy, even the pods are fresher than over here)! There’s a reason why the tradition of caffe corretto (i.e., spiked with booze) started in southern Italy, and I suspect it has nothing to do with a desire for alcohol.

I also suspect that the reason baristi are more experienced and faster in Italy is that coffee (as espresso) is not a “culture” but a routine part of daily life. Therefore, volume is everything—most adults stop several times a day to down a shot rather than sit around nursing or haul around a takeaway cup of drip coffee (or, heaven forbid, a milk-based drink after noon). One thing I did notice in Italy was that I often got quizzical looks from the baristi for not using sugar. 

Some of the worst espresso served in the Chicago area comes from (otherwise) fine-dining restaurants that use superauto systems (and which don’t train their waitstaff or bartenders to appreciate what espresso should feel and taste like). But a couple of years before he died, Charlie Trotter gave me a tour of his kitchen—including his LaMarzocco, Mazzer Major, water filtration system and the staff he sent to Intelligentsia’s barista school for training in how to use them. Lord, how I miss that restaurant! Yet another neighborhood restaurant, that used to be an old-school red sauce joint and is now (helmed by the founder’s son) an upscale Baresi eatery, upgraded to a Rancilio machine and fresh beans from Metropolis—its shots (regular or decaf) are so good that I don’t mind not having to skip dessert. 

Peace & Song, 
Sandy Andina

More information about the Homeroast mailing list