What is Espresso: A Brief History of Italy’s Famous Coffee

Plus, what all those coffee terms actually mean.

(If you’d like to hear us talk about coffee (and drink) culture in Rome, check out our podcast! We don’t talk about the history of espresso, just the ins-and-outs of ordering coffee and what to expect.)

Chances are, at some point in your life you’ve seen, tasted, or at least heard of espresso drinks. Words like “latté” and “macchiato” show up on Starbucks ads and on the handwritten chalkboard of a local coffee shop.

cappucino and coffee cake on table
A cappuccino and cinnamon coffee cake in at Fedora in Florence.

In Italy, those words have specific meanings (what words don’t?) that correspond to different ingredients or proportions. Before we get into those, let’s discuss the history of espresso, because the history of it dictates why coffee is still enjoyed the way it is today.

Coffee has been around a while. The origins are clouded and often invented, but its a safe bet that the origin of coffee drinks started sometime in the 1500s around the Red Sea.

But what is espresso, specifically? 400 years of revolutionizing the coffee drink later, we come to Industrial Italy, specifically the northern areas around Milan and Turin. Modifying and perfecting Angelo Moriondo’s steam-driven coffee beverage maker, a mechanic by the name of Luigi Bezzera patented the first espresso machine. He thought the notion of forcing hot water through a metal basket containing coffee ground was a pretty good idea for making coffee. He later sold that patent to Desiderio Pavoni. Why is this important? Because at the time of industrialization, when workers had long shifts, caffeine was required. And what better way to serve up a coffee in a way that took less time than brewing a pot?

In 1945, with nothing better to do, Achille Gaggia invented the “piston-driven” espresso machine. Before then, it was all steam-driven. That meant forcing water through a basket containing coffee grounds through the use of steam pressure. It was good, worked well for 40 years, but Gaggia felt something was lacking. A certain oomph. If you’ve ever seen an espresso machine with a long handle, you’ve seen the work of Gaggia. The barista uses the lever, or handle, to create the pressure that forces the hot water through the grinds. This was called “pulling a shot” and, of course, the term still exists today.

Nowadays, most espresso machines are “pump-driven” which means a machine inside the machine pumps the water through the coffee grinds. Arguably, you can have more control over the water pressure, but there’s nothing like watching a barista pull four shots in a row with Gaggia’s brilliant device.

As a brief side note, coffee is usually taken (taken, rather than had) standing up at the bar in Italy. The culture of sitting down and sipping isn’t as common here as it is in other parts of Europe. And if we were to cast our gaze back to the Fascist regime, we would see that the country enacted a fixed-price on coffee taken at the bar. This meant a bar or café couldn’t charge more than a federally mandated amount for an espresso if it was taken at the bar. Although this could be seen as a sign of helping out the little guy, it can also be seen as “not wanting people sitting around and plotting at coffee shops.”

To this day in Italy, it’s not only far more common to have a coffee while standing at the bar, the seating price is often double (or 8x higher in places like Capri).

Espresso Terms to Learn

  • Crema: This refers to the froth, or cream, on the top of the espresso. It’s the emulsified oils from coffee bean mixed with air that sits on top of the espresso. This isn’t often important, but Gaggia’s machines used to make coffee called caffe crema because of the thick crema it would produce. Now that it’s normal, and most espresso has it, the word isn’t used as often outside of advertising. If you see it, it will most likely be on a package of coffee from the supermarket. (Pronounced: krem-ah)
  • Espresso: You came to this article because you wanted to know “what is espresso.” Well, I’m here to tell you that Italians don’t call their coffee “espresso.” And they absolutely do not, under any circumstance, call it “expresso.” What most of the world calls “espresso” the Italians call it caffe normale. Which just means “normal coffee.” It’s short, strong, thick, and bitter. (Espresso pronounced: es-press-oh and caffe normale pronounced: ca-fey nor-mall-ey)
  • Caffè Lungo: Espresso with extra water. (Pronounced: loo-on-go.)
  • Caffè Ristretto/Basso: I’ve heard this more commonly called “ristretto” but a few places have refered to it as “basso.” Either way, it’s a short espresso. Where a lungo uses double the water, a ristretto uses half the water. (Pronounced: re-stret-toe and bah-so)
  • Macchiato: This directly translates to “marked” as in “espresso marked with milk.” This will be essentially the same size as an espresso with just a dash of milk. Some places will use just a dollop of frothed milk, rather than steamed milk mixed in. (Pronounced: mahk-ee-ah-toe)
  • Cappucino: This needs to introduction, but I’ll offer one anyway. It’s espresso and steamed milk. Commonly had in the morning, usually before 11. Often dusted with bitter chocolate powder. If you want to feel really cool and Roman (the only place I’ve heard use the word) refer to the cappucino as a “cappucio.” (Pronounced: ca-poo-chi-no or for the Roman version, ca-poo-cho.)
  • Latté: This means “milk.” You will get a glass of milk. Sometimes it’s warm. (Pronounced: lah-tay)
  • Caffè latte: This is closest to what Americans would call a latté. This is coffee with steamed milk, usually twice as big as a cappucino. (Pronounced: ca-fey lah-tay)
  • Caffè con panna: Coffee with sweetened whip cream. Not available everywhere, but if you see it on the menu, I urge you to try it! (Pronounced: ca-fey kohn pa-nah)
  • Caffé corretto: This is a “corrected coffee” or an espresso with a shot of alcohol. Can be enjoyed at any time in the day, though often seen in the morning. (Pronounced: ca-fey core-eh-toe)

This is only a small part of Italy’s coffee culture and drinks. Many regions have their own twists and variations (for instance, Turin is famous for many chocolate-based coffee drinks) on existing drinks, or are constantly pushing the boundaries to perfect what’s already there.

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