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Espresso as drama: the Americanization of cappuccino.

Espresso as drama: The Americanization of cappuccino

Espresso is drama as well as atmosphere and taste. Contemporary cafe society is equiped with austere electronic equipment. Where preparation of espresso coffee alone created excitement, the drama is now provided by the foaming of milk and the garnishing of a cappuccino rather than the brewing of the coffee itself.

The original coffee culture of the Southeastern Mediterranean was already adopting the use of sweeteners and other flavor additives when it began to move North and blend into the cultures of Europe. Black coffee, often improperly brewed or brewed from coffee roasted perhaps months before and improperly stored can be a jarring experience to say the least. Even as a curative (coffee was originally sold at apothecary shops in Europe) the hot black medicine could be hard to swallow.

It probably did not take long for Europeans to experiment by adding milk and cream to their coffee to alter its less attractive taste qualities. Often the milk was boiled and added to boiling coffee. Sometimes the brew itself was made with milk rather than water. Unknowingly the preparer was making the water and milk safer to consume through the action of boiling by eliminating active bacteria in their drinks. The Europeans were happy simply to be making the water and the coffee taste good. What was happening to the taste (and still does when we add milk to our morning coffee) is that the protein in the milk neutralizes the tannin-like acids in the coffee beverage; Also the butterfat of the milk or cream acts as a lubricant to help enrich the weight and smoothness of the coffee's taste in the mouth. There was an added bonus: the eye-appeal of the beverage that came to be known as "Cafe Au Lait" (France) was better than that of even well prepared black coffee.

These old traditions of Cafeczino (Brazil) and Cafe Au Lait were not lost on espresso cuisine where the blending of milk and coffee was quickly adapted for the presentation of the concentrated coffee in the little cups. The availability of steam when making espresso was seized upon as a wonderful source of heat for warming milk, to be added to the beverage. At first the steam escape valve and eventually a special long nozzle connected to a valve in the steam dome of the early espresso machines were employed to obtain steam for the milk. When the steam valve was opened, by unscrewing the valve knob, the pressurized steam hissed out of the nozzle end. The process of accessing steam has not changed very much to this day.

Steamed milk may be prepared in the cup (the original cappuccino) or in a tall narrow pitcher. The steam nozzle is inserted deep into cold milk (Pre-chilling the milk on ice is a good idea). With the opening of the valve the milk is heated and begins to froth. The deeply inserted steam nozzle makes tight tiny bubbles; a heavy, long lasting foam. Withdrawing the nozzle so that it is just below the surface of the milk produces larger bubbles and a lighter, more delicate froth that will dissipate more quickly but is most attractive as a crown on the finished beverage.

The capuchin monks are credited with lending their name to the most popular espresso variant. They may have been awarded this honor because they were first to make the beverage, or because they wore scull-"Caps," or because the color of the roast (or was it the beverage) resembled the color of their robes. One of these legends may have credence, or all of them may be true, or none of them may be true. Your guess is as good as mine. I have also heard that the shaved chocolate atop the beverage is supposed to be the "Cap." There is also a theory that the foamed milk and coffee beverage takes its name from the Cafe Capuchin of 18th Century Paris. But then from where did the Cafe take its name?

The Savarese brothers, Gennaro, Anthony and Joseph (Peppi), are credited with introducing cappuccino to the States from Italy. I interviewed Tony by telephone on November 26, 1989. During our conversation he related the story of cappuccino and its coming to America.

The Savareses were introduced to a wonderful coffee when, as young men in the early 1930's, they visited the home of the Cappuchin monks, on the road to Amalfi in Italy. The monks brewed strong coffee for their visitors; boiled milk until it foamed and then scooped off the foam and floated it on the coffee. Jiggers of home-made grape brandy were added when the weather was chilled. The monks added shaved chocolate atop the beverage. On subsequent visits chocolate was added in the beverage, too (This coffee/chocolate cappuccino is Caffe Borgia). Savarese related that after World War II he found "Victoria" machines at caffes in Naples which were designed with a nozzle for the steaming of milk. The cappuccino idea had left the cloistered life of the monks and joined society.

Cafe Reggio was founded on McDougal Street in Greenwich Village (Manhattan) in 1927. It was at first a social club, like many which to this day are sprinkled throughout the byways of Little Italy. Mr. Parisi, the proprietor, had named his place after his old hometown in the Calabria section of Italy. He catered to the after hours of leisure of the local restaurant cooks and waiters. A popular passtime at the club was a card game called Sweep. The wager was a cup of coffee (espresso).

The Reggio was a boisterous little place filled with yelling, espresso, and spitting on the sawdust floor. To no one's surprise Mr. Parisi, after almost a quarter century, got fed up. He threw out the customers, locked the door and leased the place to the brothers Savarese in 1950 for the then not paultry sum of $25.00 a month.

The Savarese boys had a good deal of street saavy. They would open the cafe to the public, and feature the cappuchino espresso that they knew from home. They also made a choice to alter the recipe. Instead of garnishing the froth with shaved chocolate, powdered cinnamon, which was much less expensive and readily available from the many local bakeries, would be substituted.

Original cappuccino, as introduced at Reggio in 1950, was made in a regular size (6oz) coffee cup using pre-chilled whole milk. The cup was filled about one third full, and extended by steaming until it filled the cup. Through the foam was brewed an "elongated" espresso until the frothed milk stood high above the cup rim. The trace of "amachiato" (the stain made at the coffee's point of entry in the foam) was obscured by the sprinkling of the powdered cinnamon. A cappuccino was 35 cents, a demi-tasse version was sold for 15 cents, and espresso was 10 cents.

The time of cappuccino had come, and as the Beat Generation took over the Village it was cappuccino that quenched the thirst of the thousands who came, in the 50's, to experience a taste of the bohemian life before going home to Forest Hills or Riverdale or Paris (Texas).

The Savareses experimented with other dessert recipes as well. One of them, Cafe Fantasia, made with grated orange peel as the cappuccino garnish, is still popular in Village cafes. Tony Savarese made the additional contribution to America's coffee cuisine when, after Cafe Reggio had been sold, he opened the Pampeian Cafe on West Third Street. Reggio is still operating today, alas the Pompeian has given way to a McDonald's restaurant.

I recently visited Cafe Reggio, with its wire-back ice cream parlor chairs, dark tin ceiling, and marble topped assortment of Victorian wooden tables. An Italian soprano filled the smoke-filled space with her recorded high notes. I sipped a cappuccino made not in the prescribed manner but the short way with the milk steamed after the brewing and spooned on top of the hot black coffee. I closed my eyes and tried to imagine the Village of long ago. I sat for a few minutes enjoying the cafe sounds, and then walked back to Bleecker Street.
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Author:Schoenholt, Donald N.
Publication:Tea & Coffee Trade Journal
Date:Apr 1, 1990
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