Italian Food Facts: Cappuccino

Pouring CappuccinoCiao ragà! It’s time to learn some more cool stuff about the Italian foods (or beverages, in this case) that we all love.

Hot n’ frothy! No, it’s not the name of an adult film … well, actually it probably is … but that’s not the point! Today, we’re talking about cappuccino!

Ok, so you know what a cappuccino is, right? Sure you do! You’re a card-carrying citizen of planet Earth! How could you not? But do you know the meaning behind the word “cappuccino”. No, no you don’t. That’s why you need me.

The word “cappuccino” means “little hood” in Italian. No, I’m not talking about a small urban area known for its tough streets. I mean “hood” in the, “head covering attached to a sweatshirt” sort of way.

Capuchin MonksThis famous Italian coffee concoction got its name because of its light brown color – the result of the espresso and steamed milk coming together. This shade of brown is the same as the one found on the robes of the Capuchin monks, they themselves being named after the hood on their robes. See the connection? There are tons of pictures I could show you of real Capuchin monks to illustrate this point. I, however, have opted for the salt and pepper shakers that my grandparents used to have.

These sure bring back memories!

These sure bring back memories!

A few more quick points on cappuccini (note the correct plural form in Italian is “cappuccini” and not “cappuccinos”):

  1. Good luck trying to order a cappuccino in Italy after 11 am or (horrors!) after a meal! That’s sort of against the rules here. Something to do with Italians believing that milk will block your digestion.
  2. Have you ever gotten a cappuccino with cinnamon on it? Mamma mia! It’s good stuff! Try it!
  3. There are some real cappuccino artists out there. Baristas who decorate the top of the cappuccino with the foam or cocoa powder. It always puts a smile on my face when I order one and it comes with a little extra care put into its aesthetic quality. Here’s a few examples of cool cappys!
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Italian Food Facts: Tiramisu

Tiramisu is among the most popular of Italian desserts. I, personally, don’t go crazy for it, but I think a lot of people out there are decidedly way more into this chocolaty-coffee dessert than I am.

You can find it in just about any Italian restaurant in Italy or America and I’d be wicked surprised if you, dear blog reader, have never tried it at least once in your life.

It’s basically lady finger cookies soaked in espresso coffee and then layered with sweetened mascarpone cheese and topped with cocoa powder. Easy!

The interesting thing about Tiramisu is the meaning, in Italian, of its name. It translates into “Pick Me Up“. Not in the sense of “give me a ride home” or “I’ve fallen”, but in the “put some pep in my step” way. Given that this dessert is loaded with espresso, it gives you a little coffee buzz, which is exactly what you might need to help you get up from the table after a nice long Italian meal!

Coffee Culture

Espresso time!

Before I start, I just want to let my Italian readers know that I am not bringing into discussion the quality of Italian coffee. Caffè Italiano is delicious and potent. What I am talking about here is the culture that surrounds coffee in Italy and how its different from the one in the USA. So, no hate mail or angry comments from the Italians, okay? I love my espresso as much as anybody. :-)

Let’s begin:

Wanna grab a cup of coffee? This is something that you can easily hear all over the USA. What follows is usually two (or more) friends sitting down for a while to a cup of coffee and a piece of cake or a giant muffin or a frosted cookie or some other unhealthy American sweet thing that I am definitely craving in this exact moment,as I write this phrase (doooonuts…). These people chat about their family, jobs, love life, or “catch up”, all over a nice hot cup of American coffee.

Even if you are by yourself, you can walk into any Dunkin’ Donuts, Starbucks, or any slew of local coffee shops and sit down for hours at end. While you sip on your coffee you can read the newspaper, surf the web with free Wi-Fi, wait for the rainstorm to pass, or simply just people watch. The best part is that even if you only buy one cup of coffee, you can still hang out in your American coffee shop for hours and hours without the staff trying to throw you out the door or other customers looking at you weird.

Now, on the other side of the ocean here in Italy, coffee entails, more often than not, an espresso. With an espresso (which Italians usually throw down the hatch like a boiling hot shot) the whole “wanna grab a cup of coffee” experience lasts exactly 12.7 seconds. Let’s look at the following script to help give you a better idea of what I’m talking about:

The scene opens on two smartly dressed Italian friends who meet on a typical Italian sidewalk, littered with vespas and cars parked at improbable angles, covering most of it

Giuseppe: Hey, wanna grab a cup of coffee?

Carla: Sure! Sounds great

They enter into the nearest coffee bar

Giuseppe: One espresso please.

Carla: Same for me!

Two espressos are served in about 5.3 seconds by a barista with a typical, almost comical, Italian moustache

Giuseppe: (stirring sugar into his espresso) How have you been?

Carla: (adding just a drop of milk to her espresso) Good, you?

Giuseppe: (tossing back his espresso) Can’t complain.

Carla: (doing the same) Well, that nice. Ok, good seeing you. Bye-bye!

Both Italians place their empty espresso cups on the bar and walk out

END SCENE

Did you time it? See, 12.7 seconds flat, just like I said!

You’ll also note that neither of the characters in that artfully written script ever sat down during the scene. This is because Italian coffee is had while standing on your feet. The brevity of an Italian coffee break makes it impractical to sit down. You’ll have finished your espresso before you even get the seat pulled out from under the table. And you’ll look pretty foolish going around Italy pulling seats out from under tables for no good reason.

Another interesting point on why Italians will have their coffee on their feet (and take note of this, dear reader, if you have never been to Italy and plan on coming). Coffee costs more if you are sitting at a table. I know I make a lot of sh!t up, but I swear this one is true! It costs more because of the service of having someone actually bring the coffee over to you, instead of just placing it on the bar, and because after you leave, they need to go collect the cups and wipe off the table.

Well, guys, I don’t know what time it is for you, but it’s early here, so I’m gonna go have a coffee. I prefer mine macchiato. The word “macchiato” in Italian means “stained” and this coffee is called that because basically its an espresso with a dollop of frothy steamed milk “staining it” on the top (but no milk poured into the coffee itself, like with a cappuccino). Now, if I could only get a honey-dipped donut to go with that..

Mmmmm.... buono!

***August 30th, 2011 – UPDATE ***

This weekend I found a place in Milan called Arnold Coffee. It is a-maz-ing!! It’s kind of like a Starbucks …. in Italy!!! This is BIG news guys (those Americans living in Italy would totally understand me!) I had an iced caramel macchiato, and it was wonderful! They also have donuts, cheesecake, giant muffins, and free wi-fi! I seriously felt like I was in America for a minute! This changes everything! :-)