Here's an interesting piece of food anthropology: when the majority of Italians migrated to the U.S., it was before the popularity of espresso. The espresso machine was invented in 1901, but the mass-produced, hot water model used today wasn't made until 1948; the surge of Italian immigration to the U.S. took part mainly between 1880 and 1914. Post-war Italian immigration was largely diverted to Australia, and after 1948 many Italian immigrants brought a taste for espresso, and some brought their espresso machines with them. As a result, Australia has a thriving and authentic cafe culture dating back to the early 1950's.
All this is to say, I grew up with really good coffee. Specifically, I developed a taste for cappuccino early in life, spoonfuls of foam scooped surreptitiously from my father's cup when he wasn't vigilant enough. When I was 8 I spent all year saving my allowance to buy my dad a "cappuccino machine" for Christmas. The resulting milk frother was well received, but I immediately recognized the difference between what we got on tiny tables outside street cafes in Melbourne and the coffee-with-a-bunch-of-steamed-milk-on-top we were able to make at home with my first large consumer purchase. One was cappuccino. The other was not.
I bemoaned the lack of decent cappuccino from the second I set foot on American soil. I had hope when the coffee revolution swept the nation, but didn't expect immediate results. But folks, it's been over 10 years since we got a decent cafe culture in the U.S., closer to 15 depending on which coast you're on and in which state, and there's still no such thing as good cappuccino in 99% of the cafes in this country.
What's good cappuccino? It's small. 6 oz preferably. This is because it's an espresso drink, espresso by its nature is small, and if you make the drink any larger than 6 oz you dilute the espresso with too much milk, lessening the strength of the espresso's taste, making what is in essence a frothy latte. That's what you're getting at most cafes when you order a cappuccino - a big, frothy latte. Cappuccino should be one part espresso, one part milk, one part foam, in equal parts.
I've taken, when ordering a cappuccino, to asking for it "short," meaning less foam and milk than usual, but this rarely works. I get quizzical looks. "I just don't want a lot of milk," I say.
"Oh, you want it dry? More foam?"
"No, I want less of both. Just fill the cup up half way." This rarely works. I usually get a big cup of foam.
I know this is America, and Americans like things big, and it's a tough job for baristas to train customers to understand that smaller is often better when it comes to coffee drinks. I also understand that my plight is nothing compared to the plight of the macchiato lover, who's drink of choice has forever been bastardized by Starbucks to resemble something completely different from its espresso-with-a-dollop-of-foam simplicity. I'm just saying, that even if many customers want the crap version of these drinks, baristas should know how to make the real thing when someone requests it.
(Photo from Wikimedia Commons)
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