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The Perfect Cup: Espresso

Good espresso is hard to find in U.S. coffee bars. While a trip to Italy is one solution, another may lie closer to home
Sam Gugino
From the Print Edition:
Vince McMahon, Nov/Dec 99

It's surprising, astonishing really, that five years after the espresso craze swept across the United States, it's still difficult to get a good cup of espresso here. Yes, there are plenty of espresso bars. In my neighborhood on Manhattan's Upper West Side, you can't walk more than a few blocks without encountering one or more of these establishments. While the quality of coffee that these java joints put out today is far better than the daily swill most Americans drank a decade ago, the espresso is often shockingly mediocre.  

How do coffee bars get away with serving substandard espresso? One explanation is that most espresso served in these lounges is buffered by oceans of hot milk, foam, whipped cream and flavored syrups in lattes, cappuccinos, moccaccinos and chinos that we don't even want to think about. Some of these drinks look more like ice cream sundaes than variations on espresso.  

"Espresso is nowhere near what it ought to be. It's like a soft drink that isn't quite formulated properly," says Ted R. Lingle, executive director of the Specialty Coffee Association of America, a trade group for coffee retailers, wholesalers and roasters based in Long Beach, California.  

Order a simple espresso at one of these bars and what will you get? If the barista, the person who makes the espresso, asks "Single or double?" or "How many shots?" you could be in trouble. Any good barista knows that an espresso is just one shot of coffee, ideally no more than 1 to 1 1/2 ounces. A barista in Italy, the birthplace of espresso, would never ask you how many shots you wanted. But in the United States it's a different story.  

"From my retail experience I can remember when people asked for a grande espresso but what they really wanted was a latte. So we had to educate them," says Aileen Carrell, coffee education manager at Starbucks Coffee Co. Starbucks' chief executive officer, Howard Schultz, had visited espresso bars while traveling through Italy in 1983 and wanted to duplicate the concept in the U.S.  

To Starbucks' credit, its single espresso is usually about 1 1/4 ounces, just the right amount. Unfortunately, it looks a bit forlorn sitting at the bottom of a wide 4-ounce cup. This may make you feel as if you're getting cheated, but it's better than if the barista extracts more espresso, sometimes up to three ounces from the same amount of coffee grounds. The irony here is that more is less with espresso. The additional ounce or two is composed of compounds that you don't want in your espresso, compounds that will only make the espresso bitter and unpleasant. That's why many people think of espresso as harsh and why some places still serve it with a lemon peel to counteract the bitterness.  

Rarely in the five years since I last wrote about espresso for Cigar Aficionado have I had a decent, let alone outstanding espresso in the United States, and that goes for some pricey New York restaurants as well as humble espresso bars. Last fall, in the lounge of New York's legendary Le Cirque 2000 restaurant, Ernesto Illy, chairman of illycaffè, the famous Italian espresso roaster, ordered espressos for us. Illy supplies Sirio Maccioni's restaurant with coffee and the machines to make it.

The espressos arrived in snazzy, 5-ounce cups. But because these cups were more than twice the appropriate size for good espresso and because the regular barista wasn't on duty, our espressos were mere echoes of what they could have been. There was no crema (the caramel-colored froth on top of all good espresso) and the flavor was flat and one-dimensional.

"I've been trying to get Sirio to use our [2-ounce] cups, but these [Le Cirque's cups] were designed by Adam Tihany, who designed the restaurant," Illy says with an air of resignation.  

A few months earlier, a perfectly made espresso was set in front of me at San Tommaso 10 in Turin, a city known for its great caffès and the home of Italy's largest coffee roaster, Lavazza. The crema was a deep nut brown. The cup and saucer were exquisite, although the size of the cup didn't seem much bigger than a thimble. The coffee was delicious, smooth, rich and pleasantly bitter, and it was gone in two gulps.  

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