In 1638 specialty shops in Venice began serving a stimulating black beverage called Kahavé made from Arabian “seeds.” Venetians flocked to these caffè to meet friends, gamble — and flirt. Soon so many illegitimate babies flooded orphanages that the state banned women from entering a caffè.
In other cities the caffè proved to be a hotbed of a different sort. In the late 1800s the young intellectuals who created Futurism operated out of Florence’s Giubbe Rosse (named for the waiters’ red jackets). In Rome Vezio’s caffè, lined with portraits of Lenin and his cronies, served as unofficial headquarters of the Communist Party. For decades Federico Fellini, who lived around the corner, considered the Canova caffè in the Piazza del Popolo an extension of his home.
The machines used to make coffee have a different history. In 1901 Luigi Bezzera, a Milan businessman, wanted to cut the time his employees spent brewing coffee. And so he invented a macchina espresso (fast machine), which produced an individual cup of coffee in mere seconds. After going broke trying to market his newfangled coffee maker, Bezzera sold the patent in 1905 for the equivalent of $8 to Desiderio Pavoni, who set up kiosks selling “la Pavoni-Caffè Espresso” across the country. The Italian coffee “bar” was born.
About thirty years later an engineer named Alfonso Bialetti was watching his wife do laundry. As boiling soapy water percolated upward through the primitive washing machine, Bialetti wondered. What if the same process pushed boiling water through ground coffee? His aluminum stovetop espresso machine, known as the Moka, made its way into almost every Italian kitchen. Its mascot — l’omino coi baffi (the little mustachioed man), a caricature of Bialetti — remains a national icon.
Every morning in Italy I begin my day the same way millions of Italians do: making coffee in a caffettiera (coffee pot). “Tanti italiani” (so many Italians), writes Maddalena Padovani in an essay in a charming book called Italianità, "associano fisicamente e affettivamente il momento del risveglio al rito quotidiano, intimo e tutto casalingo, della preparazione del caffè" (associate, physically and emotionally, the moment of awakening with the daily ritual, intimate and completely domestic, of preparing coffee).
The steps are always the same: pouring water into the bottom half of the coffeepot (la caldaia), inserting the flavorful grounds (polvere odorosa) into the filter, screwing on the top (l’avvitamento), turning on the flame (l’accensione) and waiting for the characteristic gurgling (l’attesa del caratteristico borboglio).
Then come the little pleasures of the intense smell (il profumo intenso), the tinkling of the spoon that mixes the sugar in the cup (il tintinnio del cucchiaino che mescola lo zucchero nella tazza), the tasting in slow sips (la degustazione a sorsi lenti), accompanied by reading of the newspaper (accompagnata dalla lettura del giornale). Aaaah! Can there be a better way to start a day (cominciare il giorno)?
I now understand why some Italians refer to caffè Americano (also called caffè lungo) as “acqua tinta” (colored water).
Words and Expressions
chicchi di caffè –- coffee beans
caffè nero –- black coffee
caffè tostato –- roasted coffee
caffè macinato or in polvere –- ground coffee
caffè corretto –- with a drop of anise liquor or grappa
caffè doppio –- double shot espresso
Dianne Hales is the author of LA BELLA LINGUA: My Love Affair with Italian, the World's Most Enchanting Language.
And here's some music to accompany your morning caffè: