When to Choose Espresso Over Cappuccino (and Other Italian Rituals)
Make that a large
Thanks in great part to Starbucks, we have become a culture of Italian-style coffee drinkers. We drink cappuccinos, we pour honey into caffe lattes and sprinkle cinnamon on top, and a few of us even know the words "espresso macchiato," which is a quarter of an inch of mud-like coffee topped with a little milk and a tiny dollop of foam. Or at least that's the definition I'm going with. The very concept of macchiato is troubled by controversy.
What we haven't done is adopt Italian coffee habits. For instance, my guess is that no one you know would think it strange to step out of the office at, say, 3 p.m., and come back with a cappuccino. Or a latte, for that matter. Italians think it very strange. (And they think it's verging on the insane to adulterate a coffee with honey and cinnamon.) The rule in Italy is don't order a coffee with milk in it after 12pm. In fact, any coffee with milk drunk after breakfast has been finished arouses at least some suspicion. With Federico one morning, I ordered a cappuccino at 10:30 a.m., and his reaction was, "Ehh, cappuccino?"
A day or so later, I addressed the matter with Federico. "What's wrong with having a little milk in your coffee in the afternoon?" Federico made a sour face and said, "Mark, the milk is not good for the digestion."
Italians, it so happens, spend an inordinate amount of time thinking about digestion. The predilection towards a before--dinner drink-known as an apertivo--is due in large part because Italians believe a drink such as Campari and soda "opens the stomach." If you launch into your bruschetta--followed by pasta, followed by grilled fish, followed by panna cotta--without first awakening the digestive tract with an apertivo, you're just asking for trouble.
When digestive trouble strikes, Italians have a remedy at hand. They call it Mangiare Bianco, which translates literally as "eating white," which is just what it means. When afflicted by an upset stomach, instead of reaching for the Pepto Bismal, Italians put themselves on a strict regimen of food that is white. Rice. Chicken. Pasta in a cream sauce. As long as it's white (and, therefore, bland), it's okay. I asked Federico, who subscribes to the mangiare bianco model, what it means to mangiare bianco. He said, "It's so you don't eat food like tomatoes or red meat that is hard on the stomach." He placed particular accent on tomatoes, as though to eat the red fruit, which is at the heart of so many Italian dishes, is to play peristaltic roulette.
Such 19th-century food superstitions are not uncommon in Europe. My grandmother, who lived in Poland for the first third of her life, could often be found issuing various food-related warnings to her three grandsons. The gravest alimentary combo of them all was cherries and milk. If, on some sweet summer afternoon, you ate a bowl of cherries and followed it by downing a glass of milk, there wasn't even any point in calling an ambulance. You were a goner.
Italian eating habits are more like and aesthetic than a science, and surely this tendency towards apparently baseless food rules is also what lend Italian cuisine so much character. Perhaps the most curious thing about Italian eating practices is that they work. If I eat a bowl of pasta at home, I fall into to a deep and involuntary slumber. In Italy, I function brightly through the whole afternoon. That could be because the pasta is always followed by a coffee. An afternoon coffee at home--a latte, usually--always leaves me simultaneously wired and exhausted. A stiff shot of espresso, on the other hand, gives me the perfect boost.
So I suppose if, during these travels, I come down with an upset stomach, I'll do as the Italians do and mangiare bianco. Unless, of course, by that time I'm in France.