How To Drink Espresso Like an Italian
Espresso is the most popular coffee in the world and, therefore, the most scrutinized. Some believe it should be consumed bitter and black, as it’s made. Others stand by espresso as a concentrate that’s best enjoyed diluted or with a mixer.
I’m about to show you how to drink espresso the original Italian way, and then we’ll compare it to what science has to say. But first, we must take a look at the culture and history that led us here. Here’s what this article covers:
Espresso Culture Explained
Espresso is seen as coffee’s essence and the purest way to enjoy it. We’ve covered its uniqueness many times before, so I won’t sing the same song here. Suffice to say, espresso isn’t brewed the same way as regular coffee and it makes all the difference in how it’s meant to be enjoyed. Its fascinating history explains this.
Amid Europe’s coffee boom in the 1800s, an Italian inventor named Angelo Moriondo patented a design for a steam machine intended for the “instantaneous confection of coffee beverage.” There’s little evidence his invention ever materialized, and it seems it was simply a great idea that he made little of.
At the turn of the 20th century, Luigi Bezzera, a distiller from Milan, improved Moriondo’s design. These enhancements — most notably the brewheads and portafilter — are components still used in espresso machines today.
Bezzera’s design was more viable than Moriondo’s, but it still had a few quirks that made it difficult to sell. So Bezzera enlisted Desiderio Pavoni, the man mostly responsible for perfecting espresso as we know it. He not only added the staple pressure valve and steam wand, he also made it marketable. If not for Pavoni, espresso wouldn’t even have its name.
A Culture Is Born
Espresso’s history doesn’t seem all that unique at first glance. Person makes a discovery, sees a gap in the market, then fills said gap. Same old, same old. So why then is espresso singled out as the most culturally charged coffee of them all?
Well, it has to do with how Italians initially approached it. See, espresso was never meant to be savored. It was the world’s first instant coffee, and was therefore made to order. Baristas brewed it then and there for consumers to drink, standing up at the coffee bar, as a shot. Because of this, it enabled genuine interaction between baristas and customers, and so etiquette came into play.
Also, espresso was (and still is) much harder to brew than standard joe and there were no home machines at the time. It was an art— one so complex, enthusiasts had no choice but to flock to cafes to enjoy it.
Of course, as the machinery and the world progressed, espresso itself evolved from a simple instant drink into a norm that defined Italy’s serious coffee culture. When it spread beyond its homeland, its reputation spread with it.
How To Drink An Espresso: The American Way
You’ve surely been told that “you’re doing it wrong” at least once in your bean-loving life. There are many, many opinions on what the best way to drink espresso is, but most how-tos, it seems, remind you to order your joe, and then take a sip to taste it. I trust that you’ve got these steps figured out, so what the American way really boils down to is this:
- Break your espresso’s crema, but only if you want to.
- Add sugar and milk to taste, but only if you prefer.
- Give your espresso a stir, but only if you feel it necessary.
Friends, American coffee culture is a far cry from Italy’s. It seems that most of what we think is the best way to enjoy espresso is simply what we’ve been told, according to the preferences of others. There is no definitive evidence that any of our practices make a difference at all, beyond slightly intensifying (or weakening) the bean’s profile, and that too is a matter of personal taste.
How To Drink Espresso: The Italian Way
I don’t know many things, but this I know for sure: Italians find American coffee culture amusing (if not disturbing). If you’re looking for a laugh or two, this video by Briller perfectly portrays it:
Jokes aside, there are many American coffee customs that Italians frown upon. The most prominent example is the USA’s fixation with additives. Generally speaking, ordering coffee with pumpkin spice — or any spice for that matter — is simply unnatural in Italy, and you’ll be hard pressed to find a cafe that offers such extras.
Still, espresso is espresso no matter where you are, so the difference lies in the lifestyle surrounding it. If you believe that the best way to drink espresso is the original way, then here’s a crash course on how to drink espresso like an Italian:
1. Drink It at the Bar
The coffee bar, that is. As mentioned, Italians do not sip or savor straight espresso, so it’s a bit uncouth to order a shot from your table, or to drink it sitting it down. It’s good practice to converse with the barista while they prepare your shot, and to drink it straight away — in one sweep, while it’s warm.
Fun fact: Coffee “to go” isn’t prominent in italy. The expectation is that, if you’re in a hurry, you’ll have your joe quickly at the coffee bar. In fact, sitting down at cafes might push your bill up as attending to your table is a premium service that baristas charge extra for.
2. Don’t Get Your Drinks Mixed Up
If you ever travel to Italy and would like to order an espresso, you may want to learn some basic Italian to help you along your way. See, espresso is the default coffee in Italy, so there’s no need to request it specifically. Doing so may come across as pretentious or try-hard. It’s not the end of the world, but it’s worth keeping in mind.
Also, coffee is extremely standardized in Italy, to the point that there aren’t even size variations to choose from. Ordering a grande, venti, or tentra may fly at the local Starbucks, but it means absolutely nothing in Italian cafes. Likewise, ordering a “latte” as we know it, will get you a glass of plain milk in italy.
To avoid embarrassment, here’s what you should ask for:
- Caffe — an espresso shot.
- Caffe doppio — a double espresso.
- Americano — the closest you’ll get to a large, regular coffee.
- Macchiato — espresso with a dash of milk.
- Caffe latte — warm milk with an added splash of espresso.
- Cappuccino — espresso topped with milk.
3. Keep It Simple
No, you won’t have stones thrown at your head if you’d like to add sugar to your espresso, but there’s little need to because Italian espresso isn’t brewed to taste like tar. It’s much less astringent than what we’re used to, and therefore easier to drink as is. Italians won’t brew your espresso piping hot, so you don’t have to worry about cooling it.
Fun fact: Italians swear that espresso tastes better in glass and won’t serve it to you in a ceramic or porcelain mug.
4. Drink the Water
Have you ever seen espresso served with sparkling water and wondered what on earth the latter is for? That’s a palate cleanser for you to use as needed, both before and after your espresso shot.
See, if you drink the water first, it rinses away any residual flavors (toothpaste, food, smoke, or even other coffee) that may interfere with the espresso’s profile. If you drink it after, you’ll ward off coffee breath!
5. Don’t Drink Cappuccinos After Noon
It sounds absolutely ridiculous, but it’s serious business. Italy, of course, has many coffee addicts, and drinking espresso all day, every day isn’t scoffed at, but drinking cappuccino outside of what’s appropriate most certainly is.
There, milk is associated with breakfast and only enjoyed in the early hours. Cappuccino, which is milk based, is considered too heavy and too filling for the afternoon.
How To Enjoy Espresso: What Science Says
Italy may be the self-proclaimed coffee capital of the world, but do Italians really do it better? I took a look at what science has to say… and ran into a brick wall.
There are numerous reports on how we should be preparing espresso, and ample examples of how to serve espresso, but little research when it comes to actually enjoying it.
One report by Inc. claims that, scientifically speaking, the best and healthiest time to indulge in caffeinated coffee is between 9:30 am and 11:30 am (so the Italians may be onto something with their timed cappuccinos).
Beyond this, it seems that all of our practices — sugar, milk, slowly sipping espresso or grabbing it to go, flavoring coffee with all sorts of seasonings to make them more enjoyable, and diluting coffee to stretch it further — are a matter of preference.
Purists will surely denounce them, and they may invoke many confused faces in Italy, but for the most part, Americans didn’t ruin espresso any more than sliced bread ruined baking.
But, and this is a wildly important but, there is scientific evidence that the Italians have it the right way around. The Journal of Nutrition published a study that looked at the Italian population as a whole, and found that their coffee habits lowered cardiovascular disease and related deaths across the board.
Since Italy’s coffee habit is technically an espresso habit, it’s safe to assume that the Italian way is the scientific way, and therefore the best way to drink espresso.
Even when you’re not in Rome, you should still do as the Romans do, apparently.
Is the Best Way to Drink Espresso Like an Italian Would?
It’s probably not the answer that anyone was looking for, but there really isn’t a right, official, or proper way to enjoy espresso — beyond cultural sensitivity and preference, of course.
Espresso became such a big deal in Italy because of the traditions it gave birth to — traditions that were lost in espresso’s rise in other lands. One could argue that it’s not that we aren’t drinking espresso properly, but rather that we do so mindlessly.
To us, espresso is the ultimate coffee, but in Italy, it’s just coffee. It’s the experience that matters, not the fancies. Don’t appropriate Italian culture, but do take a leaf out of its book.
Now you know how to drink espresso. Honoring its origins may enhance your experience, but there’ll be a lot of norms you’ll have to let go of. According to its heritage, espresso shouldn’t be sipped, diluted, seasoned, or taken to go.
The American approach to espresso is still valid, though. Just as coffee itself originated in Africa, but was adopted into various communities across the globe, espresso is Italy’s contribution to coffee culture. There isn’t any need to practice Italy’s customs outside of Italy, though. So, the best thing to do is to enjoy espresso as you like it.
How do you drink espresso and will you try other ways? Don’t forget to share this article with your coffee-loving friends before you go!
Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have some Italian pronunciation to practice…
How To Drink Espresso FAQs
Is Drinking Straight Espresso Bad For You?
Not within moderation. There are many, many studies that prove coffee’s health benefits, so long as you don’t overdo it. Espresso is no different. You can learn more in our article about the strongest coffee in the world.
Is It Okay to Drink Espresso Every Day?
If the study presented earlier in this article is anything to go by, drinking espresso every day could actually improve your health! Espresso, in moderation, has been linked to the Italians’ excellent heart health and is presumed to decrease instances of cardiovascular disease.
How Do I Serve Espresso?
There are a number of ways to prepare and share espresso — far too many to get into here. If you’d like to learn how to serve espresso, take a look at our comprehensive brewing guide. You’ll become a home barista in no time!