Espresso is what you get if you order a coffee (‘un caffè’) in any Italian café (or ‘Bar’ as Italians call them). Home-made coffee generally isn’t espresso, it’s a short coffee made with a stove-top machine called ‘Caffettiera’ (either ‘Moka’ or ‘Napoletana’). More recently, however, electric espresso machines have appeared in many Italian households.
Italians truly love their coffee and enjoy it several times a day: for breakfast (usually in the form of a ‘Cappuccino’, see below), at break, after lunch, and after dinner. However, most Italians drink single shots – saving the double (or ‘doppio’) for “extreme needs” to wake up (though these days people probably prefer energy drinks). In North America, double is more common.
The difference between an espresso and a coffee made with a Moka is the fact that an espresso machine quickly squeezes pressurized hot water through compressed finely ground coffee, whereas a Moka gently pushes the water through a smaller quantity of mildly compressed coffee. The difference made by the espresso maker is in the remarkable added creaminess and intensity.
Most Italians take their coffees with one or two teaspoons of sugar, some add cold milk or cream. If you add steamed milk to espresso, you get a Caffè Macchiato (not a Machiatto) – which literally means marked or stained coffee (coffee marked/stained with milk). If you add more steamed milk, you get a Cappuccino (not a Capuccino) – which literally means small cap. If you instead add espresso to a glass of steamed milk, then you get a ‘Latte Macchiato’ – which means marked/stained milk (milk marked/stained with coffee). ‘Caffè Latte’ is instead normally any warm milk (including steamed) with any type of coffee (including the regular home-style coffee). ‘Latte’ alone in Italy simply means cold milk.
Now, let’s focus on what can go wrong outside of Italy. Here are a few hints that your espresso experience is likely not going to be authentic:
1) If you enter a café, order an espresso, and the attendant (or ‘Barista’) asks you: “For here or to go?”
2) If you hear the attendant operate the grinder dispenser lever more than once for a single or twice for a double (or for two singles).
3) If you get your espresso cup filled up to the top.
4) If your espresso is lukewarm.
5) If your cappuccino is extra hot and the foam is heaping.
Here are some explanations:
1) Nobody in Italy would ask you if you want your espresso “to go”. Espresso to go exists served in special cups with a lid, but it’s very uncommon. An espresso takes 5 minutes at most to drink, generally while standing at the bar and would get cold if consumed any later.
2) The grinder has a dispenser that produces the exact amount of coffee for a single shot. Since quantity is extremely important for the end result, it’s not something that you want to mess with (too much coffee would give a thick cream that would come out so slowly to get cold before you have a chance to drink it; too little coffee would give a lighter tasting coffee without any creaminess). The dispenser operates correctly only when filled with freshly ground coffee; if almost empty, then you’ll have to bang on the lever to get every last bit out, losing control of the quantity.
3) Espresso cups are small, but this doesn’t mean that they have to be filled up to the rim. Perhaps, in North America, the customers might complain saying that they paid for a full cup, but about half is what Italians expect. Espresso cups are either made of thick ceramic and preheated, or thin ceramic, or even glass.
4) Properly made espresso (e.g. in preheated cups) is very hot.
5) ‘Cappuccino’ in Italy is normally not served as hot since the microfoam insulates the drink from the environment, keeping it at the right, sipping temperature. Proper cappuccino foam has small bubbles and looks like cream, not like beaten egg whites!