Well, found out the WordPress iPhone app only works so-so while I was in Italy for the past 10 days. Oh well! So, I haven’t been to Italy in 11 years and my knowledge and palate for coffee has grown and changed tremendously in that time. I definitely don’t think Italy is the “gold standard” anymore, but I was still pleased with the coffee I had there. Here’s my experience:
First off, I had to take care of coffee for eight (well, really only 4 regular and 2 once-in-a-while) coffee drinkers in the apartment we rented (in Trastevere… place was GREAT and very well-situated. LOVED it). As I suspected it had both a small and a medium sized moka pot, so that was nice. The alimentari (like a bodega/corner store/tiny local neighborhood convenience store but one with fresh meats and cheeses and breads!) at the bottom of the building didn’t have much to offer, but a quick trip to the grocery store (Conad, hard to find because it’s in the basement of the Oviesse clothing store on Viale de Trastevere) yielded a two-brick vacuum pack of Lavazza Oro for like four Euros (a little over $5). Yes, it’s preground, blah blah blah but that’s pretty much what you get in Italy where, if you’re making coffee at home, you have a moka pot and no grinder or anything.
It’s hard to beat the moka pot. It’s fast, simple and it makes good coffee (although people often mistakenly refer to it as “espresso” when it really doesn’t qualify, technically). There are a couple tricks to it… don’t tamp the coffee in the basket as much as you will be tempted to, and also don’t rush it. Take it nice and relatively slow. You should have a thin stream of black coffee coming up through the spout… don’t be tempted to try to blast water through there fast. Also, you’ll get a lot of stratification where the initial stuff that come up is nice and concentrated and the rest is pretty thin, so use a small spoon to stir it in the pot a little before you pour.
Our larger moka pot probably used 20-ish grams of ground coffee, if I had to guess, and that was enough for three good-size American cups diluted with some water. In fact, I was surprised to learn that I liked the moka coffee cut with about the same volume of very hot tap water more than drinking it straight. That was definitely the way to go. I made 1-3 moka pots every AM and we still had most of the 2nd brick of coffee left over, so it doesn’t use much and it’s terribly affordable there. I was tempted to buy Illy, too, but I am a sucker for those cool vacuum packed bricks which remind me of the days I lived in Rome as a kid, so I skipped the Illy can that was also available for a couple more Euros at the Conad.
You may get a little confused by the Lavazza offerings. I saw only Oro (gold) and Rossa (red) available in the shops I noticed it in. As you would expect, the Oro is a little pricier and is supposed to be higher quality. In fact, the packaging says “100% Arabica” as Italian blends very often contain robusta beans, which the Rossa does. Lavazza makes a half dozen other blends but I didn’t see them anywhere.
If you’re renting an apartment in Italy and they don’t have a coffee maker, don’t despair. I saw moka pots everywhere, although they seemed to be a little fancier and have a bit higher price than I expected, although it could be a nice souvenir to take home, too. Or, just do what most Italians do, skip it and go to the bar for it. If you’re staying in a city you can’t walk a block without running into a bar with an espresso machine and Italy regulates the price on coffee, so as long as you’re standing at the bar to drink it, you’ll pay about one Euro (€1) for it universally. A couple places charged me as little as €0.90 (90 Euro cents) and as much as €1.20 but you don’t have to worry about running into a $4 espresso like you do in the States. Except in Piazza San Marco in Venezia where a real asshole runs one of the bars, but that’s for Part 2…