The simplicity of Italian coffee in a complicated world

February 7, 2013


On my first morning in Rome I went to a bar on via Merulana for an initiation into the Italian-style colazione of capuccino e cornetti. There was a bustle of activity as patrons coasted in and out and staff plucked pastries from display cases to the tune of the gurgle and steam of the espresso machine. The coffee cups were diminutive in size, the coffee itself rich and strong and a little bitter.  I dropped a packet of sugar into my macchiato, stirred it up a bit, and took a sip.  Delizioso.

Over the course of our Italian journey, Matt and I sampled caffè and macchiatos and cappuccinos in Rome and Florence and Milan, and even a caffè freddo in a small bar in Assisi; this slushy iced espresso drink was the perfect jolt of caffeine on a warm, sunny day. In Italy the variety of coffee was relatively limited: you could get coffee, or coffee with milk, or coffee with foam, or coffee with a touch of alcohol, or chocolate, or con panna (whipped cream). Those were the choices, and you couldn’t go wrong because they were all good choices.

I wish that was true of life in general.

I feel like I have an increasingly difficult time making decisions. There seem to be so many choices in my daily life, so many opportunities and so many options that’s it’s a constant struggle determining which is the ‘right’ thing. And like De La Soul said many years ago, it feels like the stakes is high–all the time, for everything. I wasn’t surprised to discover that psychologists have found that the more choices people have, the more unhappy they are. The concept of having a choice is good, but the reality of too many choices isn’t.

At the moment, I’m fortunate to live in a neighborhood of small shops with a limited but excellent array of choices based on the proprietors’ idea of quality. When I set out to buy a new cookie pan I was relieved to discover that the nearby cooking supply shop carried one brand. My relief was born out of knowing that I wouldn’t have to stand there for fifteen minutes examining each pan, reverently weighing my choices and debating the odds. Instead, I  happily made my purchase, knowing with near certainty that it would prove to be a good choice.

This is  is what I appreciate about the coffee culture in Italy. Italians have high standards, so I can trust that whatever they are serving will be decent, and there’s no need to agonize. The myriad of gelato flavor combinations is, of course, another story altogether.


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