Category Archives: coffee

Stubborn September Summer

Good Gelato Goes Well With Anytime

Mid-september is when they start taking down the umbrella farms that cover the long sandy beaches that stretch up and down the Abruzzo coast. The crowds of people tempting skin cancer, like many of our fake-palm tree neighbors or hiding in the shade (me) are giving way leaving behind the few of us who insist on ignoring Fall home chores to keep their feet in the salty sand.

It’s dusk today and although the shadows are long the sun still seers, forcing me to turn my shirt-collar up. The waves are just strong enough to compete with the din of scattered card players getting in one last game of Burraco or Briscola before the games must be moved indoors until Spring.

I’m allergic to cards, so I have to fight against the coming Autumn my own way. The choice fell, of course, on the best gelato on this part of Pescara’s northern riviera.

Plinius has always been one of the neighborhood’s more consistent beachfront concessions and it’s seafood restaurant, unlike many in this tourist town, is open all year round. This year they teamed up with downtown Pescara’s upstart artisanal gelato and espresso bar “L’Altro Gelato e Caffe”. The mother store, in Piazza Salotto in the heart of the main evening passeggiata street and square (look up “Piazza della Rinascita”, the square’s official name, if checking on a map) goes out of its way to make tasty, rich gelato with local fruits, Sicilian almonds or pistachios or chocolate and vanilla from Madagascar. The coffee is arguably the best in town, although only one varietal at a time makes it the mile-or-so up the Adriatic coast to the Plunius.

Tell me then, who is enjoying this September Sunday evening more: my friends and family playing cards around the beach cot to my left; or me, with my feet in the cool sand as I gaze towards Dalmatia (too far away too see across the soft waves) and slowly savor Italian ice cream with ingredients from the Indian Ocean?

Or does it really matter?

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Convenient Comfort – Innocent Love in a Jar

A few thoughts for World Nutella Day

Everyone has their comfort food. I have friends who zero in on the nearest pint of Haagen Dazs or Ben & Jerry’s ice cream. Growing up in Wisconsin my consolation for being dragged out to cross-country ski during saturday morning cartoons was a cup or two of hot chocolate with marshmallows.

One of the problems with some comfort foods is get they are not always there when you need them. Good pizza and quality draft beer need the right restaurants or pubs, ice cream needs a fridge, and hot chocolate needs something to heat it up.

Good Chocolate, be it Swiss chocolate, boeri and gianduia chocolates from Piedmont, or your favorite fix can do the trick, but then you risk falling afoul of the dark versus milk-chocolate debate…and why choose one when you can have them both?

As American pop-culture foods like colas, colorful breakfast cereals, corn chips (crisps!) and McDonalds spreads across the globe, an Italian multinational has been quietly spreading its comforting paste the other way….like a tasty plague.

With Nutella, you don’t need anything tools or instruments to reduce depression whilst widening your waistline; if your fingers are clean not even a spoon is needed (and like chocolate-covered pretzels a little bit of salt makes it more savory).

And there are more benefits. It doesn’t melt like ice-cream but you can mix it with your favorite gelato (or even use it to correct the bad stuff), and if a stretch you can place a dollop in your steaming-hot espresso for a double pick-me-up.

But the best part of Nutella is that you can keep a jar hidden away for emergencies….like being snowed-in like we are today, or after an unpleasant Superbowl game.

Just reached for the jar…and a spoon!

February 5th is World Nutella Day (http://www.nutelladay.com/ )

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Nutella Day was founded by the great people behind Bleeding Espresso

http://bleedingespresso.com/

and

Ms. Adventures in Italy

http://msadventuresinitaly.com/blog/

Drinking With the Enemy – Could Starbucks Make it in Italy?

Beware of Yanks Bearing Pastries (and Free Wi-fi)

Emily loves Starbucks, which is not easy for her because we live in a country without a single Starbucks: Italy.  She was 11 when she first tried a Mocha Frappuccino.  We were at the Louvre in Paris resting between visiting exhibits and the line was short so I grabbed their largest size, a Venti, and we passed it around the whole family.  It didnt seem like I was acting against my love of Italian coffee, because I wasn’t thinking of it as a coffee drink at all.  It was a light dessert drink (light because there were four of us).

Emily in Geneva (Starbucks?)

Starbucks has since become one of her minor fixations – and she forced us to take her to one in both Chicago and Geneva. Like many adolescent Italians she has her favorite bits of american popular culture and where in the 80s and 90’s she might have chosen Levi’s and McDonalds, she likes Abercombie & Fitch and Starbucks.

She was therefore quite let down when she found out that the advertising poster announcing the imminent arrival of a Starbucks store last week in Milan was just a prank by a design student (who, by his youtube video, seems to really want a Starbucks to come to Italy).  Thousands of Italians and Italy-lovers fell for the provocation, and virtually no-one had a mild opinion on it. What was also striking that a store that does not even exist in Italy is so well known – even hated or loved – here.

Emily in Chicago (Starbucks?)

Although Starbucks is inspired by Italian coffee culture, it is in essence an American model – from the sizes of the drinks to the recognizability of their stores throughout the world. Entering into one of their stores is however an experience light years away from what would happen most coffee joints in Rome or Milan.  The Italian relationship with coffee is different as defenders of true espressos and cappuccinos claim very different, and it has nothing to do with drinking out of disposable cups.  Most of it boils down to image and price.

But all need not be lost for the Seattle-based chain. If they do decide one day to break into Italy the price of failure for a company that says it draws inspiration from Italy would be high.  It can be done, if the corporation is willing to turn its business model on its head.

Sofia in Chicago (Starbucks?)

Three reasons why Starbucks would fail in Italy with its current model and two ways it could succeed.

Why it could fail: 

1) Cost. Not that Italians are cheap. At home or abroad they will go out of their well to spend a fortune on quality food and drink, especially if it familiar to them. But staple foods – pasta, olive oil, bread, coffee, and others are a more delicate matter. They will pay for high quality pasta made from the perfect mix of grains that is cut with bronze-edged tools and then slowly dried in the cool micro-climes found in the mountains in Abruzzo (De Cecco and others) or in the rising lands near Vesuvius, the volcano overlooking Naples that destroyed Pompei (Gragnano), but the everyday pasta found on every corner store also has to be excellent AND affordable. It’s the same with espresso and other traditional italian ways of drinking coffee – they will pay for the right mix of caffè bar real estate and selected beans, but even in the best parts of Rome an excellent espresso will rarely go over 1,10 a shot at the bar.

2) Size.  At most java shops in the US, not just at Starbucks, the small espressos are too big and watered out.  Of course it you are paying three to five times as much as they are used to back on the Boot, the temptation to get a lot bang for your buck is strong for Italians too.  Most Europeans, however, don’t binge their favorite poison.  (A glass of wine or a beer with lunch on a workday is still considered as normal as drinking water).

3) Simplicity.  Drinking coffee is an essential experience, a simple excuse for a break in the day to recharge both physically and mentally, either through a moment alone, or a quick pause to shoot the breeze with a friend or coworker. Not that there are not choices –  ceramic or glass, sweetened naturally, synthetically or bitter, a touch or milk, etc. – and they can speak volumes about a person.

I had a colleague who’s order – an caffè d’orzo (not really coffee but a roast barley coffee substitute), a small shot in a large cup with extra hot water, warm milk and unrefined sugar on the side… i would get a black unsweetened espresso (“caffé normale”) just to realign the heavens

It’s also usually a short experience (it’s called “espresso” for a reason), unless it’s one of those rare moments when you sit down and hang out with a friend for a while.  Coffee in Italy is simple and elegant, if not sweet.

Christmas edition cup

They could succeed by playing to their strengths:  the desserts and the ambiance.

1) Desserts.   Last time I was with Emily & Sofia in a Starbucks not far from Watertower place in Chicago I chatted with the barista (it was an off-peak hour on an August Saturday.  He confirmed my suspicion that most Italians that came through stayed away from  espresso, cappuccino, and their Starbucks derivatives.  They preferred normal brew coffee if caffeine was their goal. But the loved the pastries (muffins, banana-bread, cookies, scones) and sweeter milk-based concoctions (“Frappuccinos” and their ilk). The solution could be to turn the menu and the marketing upside down. Starbucks in Italy would be an up-market pastry-shop and gelateria that also sold international sandwiches and salads and milkshake-like drinks with coffee, if you really insist, to go with it.

2) Ambiance & comfort.  Although coffee is quick-fire experience, it is one of the few things they like doing in a hurry (driving is the other).  And despite their love for hanging out with friends and strangers there are surprisingly few places that offer a calm, relaxing environment with couches, free wi-fi, and big windows to the street in front of you.  And it goes well beyond hanging out and snacking. Just like the places where Starbucks is strong a working people are always on the lookout for good place to wait between business meetings or eve to hold them, and too many bars in Italy are just not comfortable enought.

Or cool.

For those of you reading this on Facebook or elsewhere, it was first published on carbonara.wordpress.com

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Zaffè, when impure coffee is purely satisfying.

Saffron Seduction III – Coffee Consciousness VI

I usually like my coffee black, be it a good American brew or Italian espresso. I understand the appeal of massively large thermal cups with some sort of warm concoction with coffee hidden away somewhere, but it’s hard for me to really consider it coffee. For me it’s coffee like coffee cake is coffee. Something related and even enjoyable, but not the same.

I do make exceptions when a spice or some other flavoring that sparked colonial expansion, pirates, or just very long journeys on camels or wooden sailing ships. Chocolate, cinnamon, nutmeg and similar concoctions are permitted, because they are part of the same tradition.
There is one spice that still commands the same astronomical prices per gram as it did at the height of the spice rush that sent Christopher Columbus sailing. Saffron. Real saffron, especially that from places like the Navelli high plain just outside L’Aquila, is quoted at over 2500 a kilo this year (about 4000$ a kilo. That’s about 25 euros (40$) per paper clip in weight. Fortunately, you don’t need that much of the little red threads to taste it. And, unlike other costly products from flowers, it’s safe and legal.

San Pio delle Camere is the largest town in the saffron-growing plains around Navelli. It has a real supermarket, a large hardware store, a florist, a bar that serves pizza by the slice and many other amenities that the medieval hill towns surrounding it lack. When the extended family is in town for the holidays, it’s where we go for supplies.

I was on a supply run, when the pangs of espresso abstinence started creeping over me. So, as soon as my daughter and I had finished loading the groceries into the car, we hopped over to the bar.

Zaffè! in San Pio delle Camere, Abruzzo

It was one of those moments when I wanted something more than just an espresso pick me up, but smaller than a cappuccino and different than a veneziano, so I asked for suggestions. “That’s easy, the barista replied, a zaffè”

I didn’t watch the entire process, but it’s basically an espresso with cappuccino foam and, somehow, a noticeably but not overpowering flavor of real saffron. I peaked over the barista’s shoulder as she plucked a red strand of Navelli saffron from a little jar and positioned it on its foamy bed. The look of the zaffè” was inspired by Fontana or Mirò and the flavor was also a bit artsy – fun from time to time, but not the way I want my daily coffee. Perfect for when I want something special.

For those of you reading this on Facebook or elsewhere, it was first published on carbonara.wordpress.com

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Coffee is King, Especially When He’s Got No Clothes

Coffee Consciousness V – Don’t hide what you love

I am not coffee purist, although I do love my coffee black and unsweetened – be it Neapolitan espresso or good American brew. I feel that if I don’t enjoy it straight up, I’m not fully qualified to comment on coffee that is doctored up with milk, sugar, chocolate or whatever else they are offering.

Espresso a Scaturcchio


It goes the other way around, too. My grandfather would alway say you could tell a good ice cream parlor by it’s coffee ice cream. If it tasted like good coffee, you could trust everything else they made.

Please don’t take this as yet another attack on that giant international coffee bar giant – that’s not my goal here. Even though I am very critical of the whole concept of the place, that did that did not stop my daughter Emily and I from enjoying a chocolate and coffee concoction at atrium to the Louvre this summer. Similarly, my love for locally grown and cooked Italian food does not stop me from getting my Big Mac fix about once a month. It’s benchmarking for research.

Espresso, again


So even though I usually prefer coffee straight up and black, there are times when you want something a little different. Since when in Italy drinking a cappuccino in the afternoon or evening will instantly brand you as American, I suggest ordering a marocchino or veneziano (“moroccan” or “venetian” – the name changes depends on the town or bar) will get you around this. Usually served in little glass mugs and poured so that the coffee, chocolate and foamed milk are layered, it’s the afternoon pick-me-up that won’t buy you amused looks when you order.

Even in the birthplace of espresso, coffee companies and bars are on the lookout for new ways to get you to drink more, and the veneziano has blossomed into scores of other versions. Adding other aromas like cinnamon and liquor like sambuca and grappa have been around for ages, but I believe that the coffee has to stand out. Coffee is still king.
As I write this I have the good fortune of getting to spend a lot of time in Naples for work. Naples is one of Italy’s hardest but most beautiful cities, surrounded by a coastline (Sorrento and the Amalfi coast) and islands (Capri, Ischia) that attract Hollywood movie stars. But tourists often shy away from the city – most recently because its trash collection problem makes the nightly news the world over.

Garbage is a problem, although not enough to keep you away. Same for traffic, inconvenient visiting hours, inefficient public transportation… what holds down the tourist in Italy is the same in Naples, but more so. But it goes the other way around too.

In need of Espresso, Scaturrchio & p.zza San Domenico Maggiore, Naples


This is also part of why so many other things in Naples – from the pizza to desserts to coffee – can be better than in the rest of the Boot. So after an afternoon of running along the Spaccanapoli from the cloister of Santa Chiara to the traditional crèche piece market at San Gregorio Armeno, you can feel a bit woozy. That’s when you can slip into Scaturchio, one of the city’s most famous cafes in piazza San Domenico Maggiore and a nice cup of black, bitter espresso brings you your own little cup of nirvana.

And if you need it sweet or alcoholic, try eating it with a sfogliatella or a babà. But that’s another story.

For those of you reading this on Facebook or elsewhere, it was first published on carbonara.wordpress.com

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Scaturchio (Italian only): http://www.scaturchio.it/home.htm

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Pisa: Down and Online in the Borgo Stretto

Tuscany is Best Savored Unplugged

With the advent of smart phones, ever lighter and connectible notebooks, and other mobile devices, we are no longer constrained, or artificially chained down, to a cubicle or dark office. Now, we can take our work on the road. PC manufacturers and phone providers sell this to us as “freedom.” Of course, this kind of freedom, depends on the work you do, whether you are the boss, or not, and so on. I once worked in a consulting job where the threat of being called back from your vacation was so real most of us took our vacations in as remote and out-of-the-way places, as possible –– jungles or on the high seas!

Borgo Stretto from http://www.pisamueoaperto.it

Always being on is not as great as some (the before mentioned PC manufacturers and phone providers) would have you believe. Especially, if you’re in Pisa, on a Friday afternoon. Last fall, I had the opportunity to accompany Silvia to Pisa when she attended an annual history conference. At the time I planned the trip, work was supposed to be slow. Murphy’s Law saw to it that it wasn’t. Fortunately, Moore’s Law (the one that predicted the increasing growth in computer power and accessibility) meant that I could go along. So, when Silvia was inside the Normale di Pisa, Galileo’s alma mater, I was at an outside table at l’Antico Caffè Pasticceria Salza along the Borgo Stretto, plugged into work, and drinking too much tea, as I shifted from my mobile to my MacBook and back.

Enticing temptations from Salza

In the USA, and even some parts of Milan or Rome, this sort of behavior is, by now, common. Still, as I worked, I felt more and more like a loser. Borgo Stretto is Pisa’s main walking, talking and shopping street. People might have been talking and doing business around me, but if they were, they were doing it in-person, with live humans, not with a voice or a line of text from across the world. They were plugged into the world around them – the arcades covering the sidewalk, the eye candy, the feel of a hand on an arm as a companion stressed a point.

The cappuccino’s, at Salza, are good enough, but it’s the small, sugar cookies and other pastries that make it a place worth stopping at, if only to stare at the wonders that fill the glass counters inside. I’ve been told Salza’s not as good as it once was – but I was happy there. And, although, I may have been a loser compared to those sitting next to me, I was much better off than many of those on the other end of my phone.

I was in Pisa.

– Joshua Lawrence

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Espresso in Naples – Great Coffee in a Not So Great Area

Some Things Realy Are Better In the Shadow of Mount Vesuvius (Coffee Consciousness IV)

Italians believe in food, and Neapolitans are the true believers. Naples, as it has been for centuries, is a chaotic, bustling metropolis lining the Italian coastline, climbing over the bluffs above the bay. But, even in this crazy city you can find small corners of tranquility and solace –– almost always tied to something edible or, drinkable, like coffee. Expresso, to be exact.

I normally don’t trust restaurants near a big city’s central train station. These establishments are either soulless, standardized outposts of a branded chain or the sort of place that makes you wonder if you should disinfect the flatware as it’s laid out in front of you. But, last Monday night I was tired, and when the kind, small woman at the reception of my hotel told me that the place across the street was good, I decided to trust her. The kindness of strangers may be something to be wary of in the movies, but in southern Italy it is almost always a good thing. That, and that the place ––Trattoria Ettore –– had a few tables full of railway workers happily eating and laughing told me that I had made the right choice.

The crust of the pizza at Trattoria Ettorre’s was the perfect mix of chewy and tasty that has made Naples famous since Chef Rafaelle Esposito served the first “pizza margherita” to Queen Margherita of Savoy, when she was in town, in 1889. And, the lemon cake I had for dessert was fluffy and tasty. Paper thin slices of lemon skin decorated the chantilly cream on top, ensuring a light citrus scent with each forkful.

I have low expectations for coffee served in restaurants. There’s really nothing wrong with it ––industrial improvements in commercial coffee roasting and home espresso machines have made sure that coffee will usually be satisfactory. And, it is almost impossible to find bad coffee in Italy, but truly excellent coffee is found in bars, not restaurants

Although, not, it appeared, in Naples.

The tiny cup of espresso the tired looking, grey-haired man, in his timeless Italian waiter’s uniform, served me made time stop. Or, at least, move in slow motion. It wasn’t sugared (coffee, in Naples, is often served with the sugar already in the cup). Nor, was it bitter or acidic. It was so full-flavored; you could sense the taste of it with a wider part of the tongue. And, there was a hint of macadamia nut (part of the coffee, not an added spice). How could it be? They must have been cheating. Sure enough, as I left the restaurant, I noticed a small doorway to a very worn but traditional coffee bar next door. Mystery solved.

Coffee, or rather, espresso, is part of the fabric of Neapolitan society. Antonio, a friend from my studies in Venice, and my housemate when I first moved to Milan, was very, very attentive when he filled his Moka espresso pot.

On my way out of town the next day, I decided to test my luck. Across the square from my hotel a big orange sign read “Mexico.” With a sign like that it could only be a cheesy snack bar or a traditional espresso bar. The sun was as aggressively hot as the concrete jungle around the station, and I was feeling a bit too sweaty for coffee, but as I had survived the walk across the road, there was no turning back.

When I stepped inside I knew the bar was a promising place. Young men wearing the same uniforms, haircuts and chiseled expressions that their predecessors wore when the place opened decades before, worked behind the bar. Stainless steel and glass counters (worn but as shiny as when they were new) were probably the originals. Tins and foil blocks of ground coffee and beans lined the back wall ––the labels hadn’t changed for decades.

My espresso was even better than the night before. It was made with sugar, but the sugar was resting at the bottom, and not foamy like at St. Eustacchio’s in Rome. I drank it without mixing, then scooped up the coffee-soaked sugar crystal at the bottom of the cup with the demitasse spoon placed on the saucer for that purpose.
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They say that when you go to Rome, if you throw a coin over your shoulder into the Trevi Fountain, you will return some day. When you leave Naples, have a wicked cup of espresso before you get on the train or plane. You’ll soon be dreaming of coming back for another cup. If you’re lucky, you will.

The Restaurant with bar is Bar Ristorante Ettorre, Piazza Garibaldi 95, Naples
Bar Mexico Henry Coffee is also in Piazza Garibaldi, but at 72 on the other side of the square.

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