Un frate entra in un bar. Barista: “cappuccino?” Il Frate: “No. Francescano!”
The Cappuccino is sacrosanct—– above and beyond criticism, change, or interference! And yet, like with pizza and sauce Bolognese, we have persisted in attempting to alter its inviolable nature. As it began to cross borders, this wonderful morning drink became an after-dinner dessert, a mug of boiling, sudsy milk and coffee, and, horror of horrors, an “ice-cap”!
I am a self-proclaimed Cappuccino lover; an Italian DOC (denominazione di Origine Controllata), and, I’m making it my mission to set North Americans straight on what makes a good cappuccino! My ally is The Italian Espresso National Institute or INEI, an organization that is trying to reclaim the right to determine what makes a good espresso and cappuccino and prevent large chains such as Tim Hortons and Starbucks from calling their hot coffee drinks, which do not remotely resemble the Italian original, by the Italian name.
The cappuccino comes with baggage: a whole culture surrounds the drinking of this singular brew. Firstly, its mellow creamy goodness is something to be savoured at the café bar counter, not, god-forbid, consumed on the run in paper or styrofoam cups. Secondly, and most importantly, it is a morning drink. In fact, ordering a cappuccino in Italy after 11 am, may elicit derisive laughter from Italians who only drink it for breakfast or for a mid-morning break. How we came to enjoy cappuccino like a dessert topped with whipped cream and chocolate after a full dinner, in the evening, remains a mystery. The Italians believe, you see, that any milk product consumed after a meal would upset the digestive process.
However, while these cultural/gastronomic customs are good tips to remember while travelling in Italy, it must be said that they have no bearing on how this delightful drink is made.
So what constitutes a good cappuccino? The simpatico barista at Tazza D’Oro, the café bar in the heart of Rome reputed to serve the best cappuccino in town, once, with a smile and a wink, gave me these pearls of wisdom and tips:
To start with, the colour of this milk beverage should be the tawny beige colour of a capuchin monk’s robe for which it was named; Its temperature must be mildly hot, and not scalding which makes the milk taste “cooked” and leaves a bitter aftertaste; the foam must be of the perfect viscosity, —a micro-foam which is thick and creamy— please, spare me the 3” high dish soap suds that most cappuccinos here are topped with. The higher the foam, the better the cappuccino? Uh?
I don’t think so!
So where do we go for a decent Italian style cappuccino in Toronto?
These are the places I’ve found that make the best:
There are two locations for this little coffee house: on Oakwood at the corner with Davenport, and down the street at Davenport and Dufferin.
While the first of these two espresso bars lacks seating, and the second offers a few tables and chairs, they are definitely big on dishing out some mean cappuccinos! Ross and John are producing in fact, some of the best coffee drinks in the city, using Rufino’s Super Bar Blend beans for their creamy espresso and then delicately layering the hot milk and microfoam to wonderful perfect results. Fantastico! It’s worth my 1/2 hour drive just to get there and enjoy this heavenly drink, even if it’s after 12!
The smell of the fresh baked Pugliese bread as you enter transports you to the pasticcerie (pastry shops) of southern Italy.
The pastry counter here is also filled with delectable confections from Nutella filled cookies to Italian cornetti (croissants). And oh be still my beating heart! Is that artisanal ice cream I spy?
The cappuccino is served, as it should be, in a thick ceramic cup and saucer, meant to preserve its temperature. It has a dense and rich microfoam, upon which the agile and skillful wrist of the barista has left behind the shape of a heart. The cappuccino goes down easily, coating the throat with its creamy texture. The coffee is mellow and well rounded.
It’s a complete experience here at Sud Forno: the ambiance, the smells, the sounds of the whirring coffee machine, and the cappuccino. It’s where you want to be on a Sunday morning.
This little espresso bar in Yorkville is the closest thing to any you’ll find in Italy. Its sign outside gives a playful salute to the two giants of the Italian comedic stage: Totò and Eduardo de Filippo drinking an espresso. Once inside, you can squeeze and sidle across the miniscule space over to the counter and ask simply for “un caffè” as they do in Italy, and you will be handed an authentic short espresso. The Italian barista with the misguided notion that he needs to flirt with all the ladies who come in (I’m old enough to be his mother), tells me that the cappuccino he places before me is called the Caravaggio. He explains that the light and dark foam is in homage to the painter’s chiaroscuro technique. I think that it’s a bit of a stretch, but, never mind, the cappuccino is damn good.