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Capuccino Blues

Capuccino Blues

I've just returned from a trip to the United States, where I discovered that I don't know how to order a cappuccino.

In Italy I know the rules. The base of cappuccino is espresso, freshly made by a machine that forces water at 20 degrees below boiling (as I learned in Corby Kummer's superb book The Joy of Coffee) through finely ground coffee. An espresso ordinarily fills half of a demitasse and is crowned with a burnished foam called crema. Modifications are ristretto(short), lungo(with extra water), macchiato ("stained" with milk), and corretto ("corrected" with a shot of liquor).

For cappuccino, consumed in the morning only (the minimalist breakfast of champions), espresso is made directly into a cup, which is then filled with steamed milk. The milk has a tight, silky foam on top. Italians do not sprinkle anything on cappuccinos. Well, a few baroque types may dust theirs with unsweetened cocoa - never cinnamon!

Some Italians now have pressurized espresso machines at home, but most use a stovetop brewer that shoots boiling water through the ground coffee. In the morning this coffee is mixed with heated (not steamed) milk, and called caffè latte, often served in a bowl. In bars, caffè latte is a cappuccino made with extra milk and served in a big cup or a tall glass, and latte is simply milk, hot or cold, served in a glass.

This knowledge got me nowhere when ordering coffee in Seattle. I couldn't even understand the questions. Wet or dry are not among the Italian options. I now know that "wet" means topped with milk and foam; "dry" is foam only. A patient friend explained "skinny" (skim milk) and "no-fun" (no caffeine). I discovered that size does matter - short is small, tall is medium, grande is large, and venti is a bucket of cappuccino, enough for an Italian family of four.

Most of the coffee beans on display were shiny dark brown, evidently overroasted. They make a bitter espresso that cuts through cups of milk. This sharp brew could explain why Seattlites are wild about foam and serve cappuccino with a bigger head than on a beer. There's also a choice of syrupy flavorings that Italians would combine with mineral water, not coffee. While he or she may add a little grappa to a simple espresso, the only thing - besides milk - an Italian will put into cappuccino is an enormous amount of sugar.

It took me a few days, but I finally figured out how to get an Italian cappuccino in America: Order a ristretto in a large cup with a
pitcher of steamed whole milk on the side, and mix it yourself. But there's no place like home, in Florence, where ordering a coffee is easy.

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