Italians are famously passionate about their food and drink.
They’re also rather protective of it (which you’ll know if you’ve ever cooked pasta for an Italian guest – it can feel like you’re in a Masterchef final). To ruin Italian food is to insult their very heritage, and rightly so. Italy has a well-deserved reputation for producing the finest of Mediterranean food and drink, and its citizens are suitably proud of it.
Italian cuisine is hugely diverse, with a variety ranging from cannoli in Sicily to ossobuco in Lombardy. And then there’s the wine – it’s the world’s largest wine producer, making up a quarter of total production. Going back to ancient Roman times, Italy has long been known for its incredible abundance of high-quality wines.
That said, Italians are also renowned for their love of all things coffee. The classic espresso has its roots in Italy, and it’s a place where simple, high-quality coffee is revered, rather than complex concoctions and gimmicky high-sugar drinks. (A certain global coffee chain has famously had a lot of trouble opening branches in Italy due to its residents’ discerning tastes – even though it was inspired by Milanese coffee shops in the first place.)
The authentic coffee house itself is a staple of Italian culture. The image of an espresso sitting on a marble counter, accompanied by a copy of la Repubblica and a pastry, is a familiar one across the country. An artisan barista’s gaze over their finely crafted caffè is a symbol of the care put into each cup.
But how did this love for coffee come to be? Coffee beans certainly aren’t grown in Italy, flourishing in the equatorial regions instead. Historical quirks – and the invention of the espresso – are the answer.
The History of Italian Coffee
Back in the 16th century, as the global coffee trade was exploding, coffee beans were first introduced to Europe through trading ports in Venice. Coffee shops started to open in the cities, becoming meeting places for the local intelligentsia, then becoming more of a social space for wider society.
By 1763 Venice alone had over 200 coffee shops. There was, of course, a backlash against the bean, with the Catholic church initially labelling it as the “Devil’s Drink” – but Pope Clement VIII gave it his blessing after trying a cup himself. (Can you really blame him?)
Things really kicked off in the 20th century, though.
In 1901, the espresso was invented by Milanese engineer Luigi Bezzera – a turning point in world coffee history. His idea of forcing pressurised water through a small puck of ground coffee to produce a concentrated, strong drink was a stroke of genius. It was named the espresso due to the express nature of its brewing, as it can be made in mere seconds. This brought about the emergence of saloon-style coffee bars, where patrons could sip their espresso while standing and chatting business or catching up with the newspaper. From these, serving staff were referred to as barmen, which later became the barista we use today.
Moka pots and suspended coffees
The caffè scene died down during the second world war, but Italians soon had a reason to drink more coffee at home.
In 1933, Turin’s Alfonso Bialetti invented the moka pot. It’s the angular, metallic stovetop pot that became a worldwide phenomenon, allowing regular folk to make café quality espresso at home without the need for specialist equipment. The name was inspired by the city of Mocha in Yemen (not the chocolatey coffee drink of the same name, which also got its name from the city). By the 1940s, Bialetti’s son had grown the family company to sell millions of Italian moka pots around the world, cementing Italy as a global coffee icon.
There can be a bit of a knack to it – check out our guide to getting the most out of your Moka pot.
The city of Naples also became an iconic coffee destination, due to its influence as a large trading port receiving large quantities of beans. Culturally, Naples has long been associated with the drink, with Neapolitan art, literature and music celebrating the bean in various ways. It was revered as a highly social drink (due to the caffè working as a place to meet), and so the ’suspended coffee’ was born. This is the practice of charitably paying in advance for a coffee for the next customer. The caffè sospeso – a coffee “given by an individual to mankind”, according to Neapolitan philosopher Luciano de Crescenzo – is still given around the world to this day.
The legacy of Italian espresso
Just don’t call it expresso, okay?
The legacy of fast, strong coffee lives on today in Italy. You can even pick up an excellent espresso on the move at petrol stations around the country. While we might shudder at the idea of machine-made coffee (especially those of us working in offices), Italian machine coffee is a source of pride due to the engineering tradition of their industry-standard espresso makers.
Ordering coffee in Italy is quick, and to the point. Just state your preference: espresso, doppio (double), ristretto (with added hot water), macchiato (with a bit of milk), cappuccino (with foamed milk), or a corretto (with added spirit, like grappa or sambuca).
You won’t be asked a load of questions afterwards, either. Coffees are served in a single size, without syrups, sauces or sprinkles. Simple.
Bring it home
If you’re not planning a trip to Italy any time soon, why not bring the espresso experience to your own home?
Espresso Yourself is our very own Neighbourhood espresso blend. Our most popular variety, it’s a Brazilian / Colombian blend that’s perfect for making espresso whether you’re using a barista-level Marzocco or a humble Moka pot. It’s got a deep, rich, chocolatey body with notes of caramel and toffee – a tasty way to start the day. Head to the online shop to pick yourself up a batch – available as whole beans or finely-ground specifically for espresso.