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Real Espresso Coffee
December 23, 2002 8:34 AM   Subscribe

Will 2003 Be The Year Of Real Espresso In America? With the wealth of good machines, fresh coffee beans and online knowledge now available, not to mention tempting offers like Illy's subscription (though the pods turn out expensive in the end, it allows absolute beginners to make acceptable espresso) it's surprising Starbucks-style coffee (big, milky, watery and sweet) hasn't yet been dethroned by the pleasure of straight espresso (tiny, thick, creamy and intense), preferably restretto. I should add that, despite many efforts over the years, I've never had a decent cup of espresso in America. In fact, outside Southern Europe. What gives?
posted by MiguelCardoso (61 comments total)

 
I have two La Pavoni Europiccolas at home but it took me almost a year (a lot of burns, frights and coffee splatters) to master them. I bought the second because it's impossible to make more than two good cups on one... Add the problems with grinding and I'd say what's keeping people back is the difficulty. So perhaps pod machines like Illy's are the answer.
posted by MiguelCardoso at 8:41 AM on December 23, 2002


Difficulty is certainly an issue -- it takes a whole lot of work to do espresso right at home, while making a cup o' joe is sleep-walkingly simple.

Now, I do have to take issue with your assertion that you can't get real espresso in America. Sure, Starbucks does a terrible job, but there are independent coffeeshops across the country that make a fine, authentic demitasse of espresso to satisfy the most discerning connaiseur. (My old haunt, Yvette's, would even do an espresso cubano -- a spoonfull of sugar added to the grounds before steaming -- on request.)

The reall problem, Miguel, is that espresso as a taste hasn't caught on. Your average American coffee drinker is afraid of its strength and (potential) bitterness; that's why capuccinos and lattés are so popular here.
posted by me3dia at 8:51 AM on December 23, 2002


I should add that, despite many efforts over the years, I've never had a decent cup of espresso in America.

Well, I'll put it this way: Either you're an insufferable espresso snob, or you really haven't tried.

There are a number of fine cafes in my town, Montreal, which serve espresso in the fine Italian style. (C'mon down. I'll show you around.) I cannot believe similar places do not exist in other towns with sizeable Italian immigrant populations, like New York, Chicago, etc.
posted by lupus_yonderboy at 8:52 AM on December 23, 2002


I should add that, despite many efforts over the years, I've never had a decent cup of espresso in America. In fact, outside Southern Europe. What gives?

Even with an experienced barista, at Starbucks you'll never get a good espresso. The beans, man. Find a coffeeshop that does not jet-roast, that roasts or uses a supplier who roasts a couple hundred pounds at a time old-worlde-style, and you can get a good demi-tasse. The barista may not understand restretto or breve, and may not even have a restretto setting on their capp machine. Tell the barista to pack the filter-basket tightly with as much espresso as possible, and you can at least aproximate a restretto.

lupus has a good idea, too: find an Italian joint. I'll never forget the horror and disgust on the faces of the baristas at a local Italian shop when, due to lack of funds, I ordered a cheap cup of regular Joe instead of my regular single-cappucino/double restretto espresso. "What!? You want.. an American coffee?" They never respected me quite as much after that.

*Phew!* I'm all italic-ed out now. Need an espresso...
posted by Shane at 8:57 AM on December 23, 2002


I think Italian-American espresso, like Italian-American cooking is quite different from Italian Italian. It's bitter and watery, rather than thick, creamy and Arabica-sweet. But that's only my limited experience in Manhattan and LA so I accept I'm probably wrong. Shouldn't have generalized, sorry.
posted by MiguelCardoso at 9:00 AM on December 23, 2002


I think Italian-American espresso, like Italian-American cooking is quite different from Italian Italian.

I should have been more specific: Find an Italian place owned by recent immigrants, and you're probably set. The owners will depend on consuming their own caffeine fix in the manner to which they were accustomed in Italy, and will probably have the means to produce such caffeine somewhere on the premises. Such was my lucky experience in a certain college-town, anyway...
posted by Shane at 9:07 AM on December 23, 2002


Why bother with coffee? Im hoping 2003 will be the year that freebasing really catches on.
posted by H. Roark at 9:14 AM on December 23, 2002


Now if only we could get people to stop calling it "expresso." Every time I hear someone say it, I want to say "What, is it a really fast espresso?"

Mainly I guess I'm more of a language snob because I couldn't gag down an espresso unless my life depended on it. Blech! But carry on.
posted by witchstone at 9:24 AM on December 23, 2002


H. Roark - or freebasing espresso, even!
posted by jazon at 9:26 AM on December 23, 2002


I've had one good express in America. It was in Staunton, Virginia of all places. You just never know where you'll find a decent café (in both senses of the word).

But, for Miguel, I suppose my taste holds no weight. Last I checked, Paris was not located in southern Europe.
posted by Dick Paris at 9:27 AM on December 23, 2002


no, no, no. turkish coffee and a hookah.
do the hammerlock you, mefites.
posted by VulcanMike at 9:30 AM on December 23, 2002


Well I'm going to reveal that I'm the coffee equivalent of trailer trash, then. After several years of damn fine coffee from a steam-driven "espresso" machine, I bought myself the Starbucks Barista, and I'm pleased as punch with it.

The steam machine didn't make espresso of any sort at all. But it did make far better coffee than those horrible drip machines. And as coffee goes, it was enjoyable enough.

The Barista makes decent, real espresso. It has a solenoid pump that pushes enough pressure and -- if I give it time -- the temperature to bring it all together. My biggest challenge is getting consistently-ground bean, and I'm getting frustrated enough that I'm going to end up buying a good grinder.

I'll wager that 90% of the time it pulls shots every bit as good as the La Pavonis -- because I'll bet that 90% of the time, Miguel isn't pulling off godshots.

Very occassionally I'll be able to pull a really fine shot of espresso, and slam it. The rest of the time I end up making milk-based drinks, which is fine: it gives me something to sip. I prefer that to slamming the drink; it extends the enjoyment.

Why did I say I'll be viewed as trailer trash? Because there's a real snobbery in the coffee circles. The Starbucks Barista is actually made by Estro, a well-enough respected manufacturer, but the bias against Starbucks tends to overwhelm all rational thinking. Sigh.
posted by five fresh fish at 9:37 AM on December 23, 2002


Heh, Dick Paris. I include the whole of France in Southern Europe. Espresso in Paris is delicious. Perhaps I should have said Mediterranean Europe (though Portugal is Atlantic).
posted by MiguelCardoso at 9:37 AM on December 23, 2002


"I've never had a decent cup of espresso in America. In fact, outside Southern Europe. What gives?"

You seem to be asking why other regions of the world don't do things just like your region. I suspect you would think this is a *good* thing in other culinary areas? Perhaps it's best that Japan, New Orleans, India, etc don't just drop their favorite dishes and switch to Spanish cuisine?

Americans like lots of different things. Some like Starbucks. Some like espresso just like they'd get in southern Europe. Some don't like coffee at all. As others have said, if you can't find it here, you aren't looking. Here we like a huge variety. A good thing, no?
posted by y6y6y6 at 9:58 AM on December 23, 2002


Why bother with coffee? Im hoping 2003 will be the year that freebasing really catches on.

Heh, touche!
posted by rushmc at 10:18 AM on December 23, 2002


Why bother with coffee? Im hoping 2003 will be the year that freebasing really catches on.

Yeah, same thing. One day you're trying your first cup of Columbian or Guatemalen Antigua, the next thing you know you're nearly broke, cruising the streets for a cheap dime-bag of Mexican robusta.

It's a drug, kids. Withdrawal DTs and all.
posted by Shane at 10:27 AM on December 23, 2002


What gives?

Have you considered the hypothesis that Espresso, even properly made, is a vile concoction whose principal allure is it's ability to evoke a European street cafe, and that once that illusion is dissipated by repetitive drinking, you're just left with a vile dark liquid? Huh?

C U in IRC : )
posted by ParisParamus at 10:28 AM on December 23, 2002


America, you have some 'splainin' to do.
posted by iconomy at 10:29 AM on December 23, 2002


I find Starbucks to be acrid, bitter stuff, but for home use, i'm digging my french press--and you don't even need electricity!

although freebasing has it's merits too!
posted by amberglow at 10:31 AM on December 23, 2002


oops-forgive the apostrophe mistake (it was the freebasing)
posted by amberglow at 10:32 AM on December 23, 2002


My experience with home espresso machines is that you need to either spend upwards of $4,000, or go with Nespresso, which is annoying because it's a proprietary system and not all varieties of cofee can be used, just ones in Nespresso format.

And for Miguel I agree that the best espresso is in Italy, Spain, France and Portugal, but I have had some amazing, perfect cups in Switzerland and Germany.
posted by cell divide at 10:32 AM on December 23, 2002


What's the deal with the French press? All it's ever gotten me is weak, cafeine-poor coffee.
posted by ParisParamus at 10:32 AM on December 23, 2002


Paris: either let it steep a little longer before you press down, or use hotter water, or more grounds (or coarser ones)
posted by amberglow at 10:35 AM on December 23, 2002


"I've had espresso is Paris, and I've had espresso in Paramus, and frankly, it all tastes about the same.
posted by ParisParamus at 10:38 AM on December 23, 2002


will 2003 be the year quonsar finally gets banned from mefi?
posted by quonsar at 10:45 AM on December 23, 2002


If you don't like espresso, Paris, try a proper coffee maker, like this one. It's easy, fun to watch and makes the most delicious coffee.
posted by MiguelCardoso at 10:52 AM on December 23, 2002


Miguel: I'll put it on my wish list.

Recently, I've taken up mixing three scoops of espesso coffee with one of non-espresso: consistently good coffee which has the added advantage of making most of you cringe.

The thing that's unacceptable about espresso is that the quantity is so small. An espresso, even a "double," doesn't buy you enough time to seriously flirt, or write a letter, or do work.

There used to be something, at least in Paris, called a café créme: They'd bring you coffee, espresso, maybe in one carafe, and hot milk or creme in another. you got lots of liquid for the franc; a quantity you could actually do something (or seduce someone) with.
posted by ParisParamus at 11:01 AM on December 23, 2002


"Meet me a 3pm on Saturday at the food court in Garden State Plaza; I'll buy you an espresso."
posted by ParisParamus at 11:02 AM on December 23, 2002


"I've had espresso is Paris, and I've had espresso in Paramus, and frankly, it all tastes about the same."

Well, clearly you lack the sophistication to truly appreciate a fine espresso. To enjoy espresso requires a refined palette and much study of the proper formulation. You can't just drink it, you must *understand* it. Don't fall into the idea that just because people all over the world make strong coffee to their own tastes that there isn't a best way too do it.

Clearly espresso made in Southern Europe is superior to that made anywhere else. Opinions to the contrary are simply wrong. You might think you like your local version, but you don't. The sooner you realize this the sooner you'll stop being an uncultured boob.

(sorry...... shutting up now....... moving along......... I'll be good......)
posted by y6y6y6 at 11:03 AM on December 23, 2002


Y6: work on acquiring the sophistication to discern that I'm not being serious. How's this as a phrase:

I really like the coffee made by my Mr. Coffee Roma espresso maker. It was only $49.95 at COSTCO. Goes great with a Stella Doro cookie.
posted by ParisParamus at 11:09 AM on December 23, 2002


I have had espresso made by people born in Italy, with a machine brought over from there and beans purchased at a local Italian import deli, and I must say, I wasn't impressed. It's not bad, just isn't something I would enjoy on a regular basis.

I suspect the lack of espresso isn't due to Americans being physically incapable of producing it. It seems more likely that more americans simply prefer their caffeine with milk and sugar.

It really annoys me that nearly every time someone points out a difference between American culture and any European country's culture it is only to illustrate how backwards, ignorant, and generally wrong all Americans are. Different doesn't necessarily mean wrong.
posted by Kellydamnit at 11:17 AM on December 23, 2002


All your caffeine belong to US. Now. We begin grinding in five minutes.
posted by ParisParamus at 11:23 AM on December 23, 2002


The thing that's unacceptable about espresso is that the quantity is so small. An espresso, even a "double," doesn't buy you enough time to seriously flirt, or write a letter, or do work.

True. Here in Portugal espresso is a stand-up quick fix, before going to work, at eleven as a pick-me-up; then after lunch; around five and finally after dinner. It's cheap - about 35 cents - so it's part of life.

Funnily enough, it is flirtatious because it's so ostensibly a blatant excuse. Invite someone for a coffee, drink it in one gulp and then get serious. An accompanying mineral water is used by the more timid.
posted by MiguelCardoso at 11:30 AM on December 23, 2002


ParisParamus: Ditto.

(Is something wrong if my sarcasm is so disguised it sails over the head of ParisParamus? I think so. This could be a bad thing. I might need meds.)
posted by y6y6y6 at 11:36 AM on December 23, 2002


As for the usual accusations of snobbishness, no Southern European ever romanticized espresso. For us it's just our usual coffee fix. Warhol said the rich couldn't buy a better Coke - the same applies to espresso here. It's Americans and Brits that look on it as some sort of embodiment of the Latin way of life - and pay ridiculous sums to drink it.
posted by MiguelCardoso at 11:37 AM on December 23, 2002


Hee hee - we do the same with tea. It's horrible here but people think it's oh so civilized so they fork out.
posted by MiguelCardoso at 11:38 AM on December 23, 2002


Miguel, is espresso in Portugal the same as the 'bico' (think that's what it's called), the stand-up, sweet tiny get-up-and-go?
posted by cell divide at 11:41 AM on December 23, 2002


Yes, cell divide - bica. Restretto is italiana. There are dozens of other variations. My brother, for example, always orders a italiana, dupla, descafeinada, escaldada, pingada: a double decaff espresso, in a scalded cup, with a drop of milk.

I'm against double espressos as they just use a little extra coffee and charge double. Same applies with ordering two espressos. It's better to order one and, when the guy's hand is already on the lever, say "And another one after, please." He'll give you a look, but it's worth it. ;)
posted by MiguelCardoso at 11:58 AM on December 23, 2002


Like Angelo Badalamenti's character in "Mulholland Drive", I advise anyone to ask for a napkin before trying what North Americans call coffee. Great link, Miguel-- I'm crazy about the bean and, oddly enough, I've had better espresso cups in France (Cannes) than in Italy.
posted by 111 at 12:09 PM on December 23, 2002


Fascinating tangent: the rise and fall of instant coffee. From, I suppose, the late 1960's, to the early 1980's, I remember adults regularly drinking the swill known as instant coffee. Maxim, Sanka, Taster's Choice, Maxwell House, Yuban(?), Folger's...a dark river of weakness. And then, at some point in the 1980's, the stuff became totally unacceptable (save in some ethnic communities). Coffee machine technology didn't progress that far in the 1980's, so I'm just curious what happened. Any ideas?
posted by ParisParamus at 12:17 PM on December 23, 2002


I'm no espresso expert (espert?), but I'll put the cafe cubano you can get at any little walk-up cafeteria here in Miami (or make yourself with one of those little two-piece aluminum steam pots) up against any espresso I've had at a nice Italian restaurant, or a coffee boutique.

Also, it's economical - usually $1.10 for a colada, which is a regular styrofoam coffee cup, accompanied by 4-5 little thimble-sized cups for sharing. For those wanting something a little smoother, there's cortadito and cafe con leche, the same active ingredient cut with milk.

Buzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzz!!!!
posted by groundhog at 12:21 PM on December 23, 2002


Actually, groundhog, it's esspretto. ;)
posted by MiguelCardoso at 12:34 PM on December 23, 2002


Well I'm going to reveal that I'm the coffee equivalent of trailer trash, then.

No, that would be me. When I need a little extra pow in my morning mug (which is spangled with pictures of the Superfreinds, natch) I just double the number spoonfuls of instant and give it an extra 30 seconds in the microwave. I'm also one of the few people walking around new york who actually prefers deli/bodega java to the gourmet shit. Call me carzy.
posted by jonmc at 1:03 PM on December 23, 2002


..or call me Crazy. No call me Carzy. Sounds very eastern european refugee...
posted by jonmc at 1:04 PM on December 23, 2002


Well, I'll put it this way: Either you're an insufferable espresso snob, or you really haven't tried.

Or both.

Obviously, none of you fools has had espresso in Santa Ana, California. Not another peep out of any of you until you've tried. Until that time, I'd advise some serious humility.
posted by shoos at 1:13 PM on December 23, 2002


So, this espresso, do you have to have $50 dollar hand-blown glasses to drink it out of in order to experience the fullness of the flavor?
posted by briank at 1:20 PM on December 23, 2002


Water is 99% of a cuppa joe. Maybe that has something to do with the difference in taste.
posted by lasm at 1:35 PM on December 23, 2002


I love two creamy shots of espresso (milk? bleh). I've tried it all over the Western U.S. and must say that the espresso sucks just about everywhere. If I haven't brought my own machine I settle for Starbucks because, at least, the flavor is relatively constant. Thanks for the tip about doubles Miguel, can't wait to get back to Europe and some decent shots.
posted by rotifer at 2:03 PM on December 23, 2002


Check out Cafe Vivace, Seattle. The best.
posted by GaelFC at 9:00 PM on December 23, 2002


Bar Italia on Frith Street is one of those places that would draw a reputation for being snobbishly authentic if it weren't for two things: its proximity to Old Compton Street (and, coincidentally, the Algerian Coffee Stores) which disarms the snobs; and the fact that it's just a damn good Italian cafe. Cheaper than StarCostNeroRepublic too.
posted by riviera at 9:58 PM on December 23, 2002


mmmm....Bar Italia. great place to watch calcio and hang out in the wee hours.

It's right near Angelucci, a great coffee roaster. (which, incidentaly, was immortalized by Mark Knopfler in the Dire Straits song "Wild West End.")

And TV was invented across the street, too.

I miss London.
posted by Vidiot at 11:21 PM on December 23, 2002


I had a steam-powered espresso machine for 10 years, thinking it was beyond my means to own a machine capable of making a cup of espresso as satisfying as that in a good cafe (We have Starbucks here, too, and it's just as mediocre, however we don't have that amusing Tall = Small, Grande = Medium thing). But last month I bought a pump espresso machine, a DeLonghi, which is at the low end of pump machines. For a couple hundred bucks I get a machine that makes a lovely cup with golden crema. It'll take some devious work to sneak it past my wife at $400+, but I want to move up to a Rancilio Silvia next. Pro quality innards on a consumer machine.

(Shoos, I'm from Santa Ana, the east end of 17th St. As an honorary Mexican, I must say that the best drink in Santa Ana is Ibarra hot chocolate.)
posted by planetkyoto at 2:24 AM on December 24, 2002


Last year my brother sent me a big bag of Seattle Mountain coffee which was magnificent in the drip maker and the press. Highly recommended...no website, in Seattle? Somebody pitch them a website.
posted by planetkyoto at 2:30 AM on December 24, 2002


Cardiff has sprouted numerous Cafe republic and Starbucks type places in recent years. Starbucks espresso is, in my experience (essperience?) , undrinkable. The other places are not too bad, but still not good. The thing that vexes me most is that I am asked, every time, if I realise it comes in a tiny cup. Someone will get a very uncouth reply one of these days.
Good espresso is available in Cardiff by the way, at Topo Gigio, they will probably expect you to buy a meal as well though
posted by Fat Buddha at 5:57 AM on December 24, 2002


Starbucks is to coffee what McDonalds is to food.
posted by zaelic at 7:55 AM on December 24, 2002


No kidding around, more than once I've gotten an espresso in a chain place in a mall, Starbucks, Barney's, what have you, and I've overheard other customers ask if they can have samples, too.

Of course, I live in Florida, The Short Bus State.
posted by dong_resin at 8:03 AM on December 24, 2002


By the way, dong_resin, thanks for the Coffee Research link - I didn't credit you in the post because I wanted all the glory it looked a bit too chummy. :)
posted by MiguelCardoso at 5:47 PM on December 24, 2002


planetkyoto: Holy shit, dude. And here I thought you were from Japan. I'm around Fairhaven/Grand area. That dorky white guy.

Man, if I had a few minutes to get snobby about espresso, I'd spend it doing something else.
posted by shoos at 11:45 PM on December 24, 2002


Quite right, Miguel.
The proper place to get chummy, if not downright romantic, is the ass end of a long dormant metatalk thread, of course.
posted by dong_resin at 1:33 AM on December 27, 2002


My experience in Italy taught me that Italians have no sense when it comes to coffee. The average Italian will stand at the bar and spoon ten to twelve kilograms of sugar into an espresso before downing it in a single swallow. That's not coffee drinking--it's suicide. And probably goes some small way to explaining why Italian politics are so screwy.
posted by vraxoin at 9:46 AM on December 27, 2002


And why every third light switch does nothing.
posted by dong_resin at 10:41 AM on December 27, 2002


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