BY MARK MATHOSIAN
In my search for excellent espresso (and don’t ever call it eXpresso!) I have visited many coffee shops in North Carolina and other states. Most of the time the shots were good but not necessarily outstanding. Sometimes they were terrible. Other espresso drinkers told me (mostly bloggers online) that if I really want a truly excellent espresso, I would have to visit Italy. Well, OK then. Since my wife, Kathy and I were planning a European vacation anyway, we decided to vacation in Italy. We booked a trip to Rome, Florence, and Venice. Surely I would find the perfect espresso in an Italian coffee bar in one of these famous cities.
After our airplane touched down in Rome, the first thing I did after our 8-hour flight was to go immediately to a coffee bar. I decided to try a cappuccino since I wasn’t sure how to say half and half in Italian. The barista took my order and whipped out a wonderful, tasty cappuccino using a very large and expensive looking espresso machine and wand milk steamer. How did it taste? Great! In fact, amazingly great considering we were still in the airport terminal. I wondered if they would be even better once we visited a “real” Italian café.
For the next week, we were on a bus to all of the famous sites in the three cities I mentioned. I took the opportunity to drink straight espressos or milk based espresso drinks once or twice a day. I drank espresso in cafes and restaurants, and at rest stops near highways in-between cities. Surprisingly, even the rest stop espressos were great. Truckers, travelers and tourist all lined up at beautiful espresso bars and we waited our turn as the baristas (men and women servers) pulled shot after shot from immaculately clean and shiny large espresso machines bearing Italian names like Gaggia and Illy. This went on for the entire week until it was time to go home. As a souvenir, I purchased a bag of whole bean coffee grown in Italy and convinced a barista in Florence to sell me an espresso cup, saucer and spoon for about $5.
After this fun vacation, I took some time to evaluate my espresso drinking experiences in Italy. Did I find the perfect shot of espresso? Was Italian espresso better than espresso made here in the U.S.? My answer may surprise you. It is “no.” The fact is, here at home many of the coffee shops and restaurants that sell espresso use similar espresso machines and high-quality espresso coffee beans. The world today is quite small. Cars, clothing, televisions, smartphones and thousands of other consumer products are made and/or shipped all over the world. Coffee and coffee machines are no exceptions. What I found is that it is actually the barista who makes the difference. If you have a barista that cares about making a great shot of espresso, then that is what you will get. No matter where you are. This is good news for us here in the U.S. You don’t have to take an expensive trip to Italy to get a decent shot of espresso. Just pick your coffee shop carefully and make sure the barista knows you expect the best.