I have a predilection for coffee. In the morning, pre-afternoon, afternoon, pre-evening and night. I found it easy to get my addiction under control while I was living in a rural part of Kansas in the summer of 2013. It was like going to a detox clinic for heroin. There was absolutely no coffee of any interest to be found and I deliberately chose not to purchase a coffee maker or, as my ancestors prefer to use, a macchinetta. I was a fool to think I had kicked the fixation, the absolute mania I felt toward caffeine.
Upon leaving Kansas after completing my research into whether or not I could find peace in an existence founded upon country life, I went further east, I guess you could say, down south to New Orleans. I thought about going to L.A., but everything there, including coffee, is shit. All people can say, “The Mexican food is so good. And, oh, you’ll love the food trucks.”
While the coffee in New Orleans is, of course, nothing compared to my eventual discovery of the pure Italian kind, it certainly has more to offer than many other cities in the nation, including New York. There was the ambience of Church Alley Coffee Bar and the perfect mélange of pastry and coffee at Envie Espresso, and then there was the grandfather of it all, Cafe du Monde, which could have served the worst coffee in the world for all I knew, but masked any flaws in beverage with its beignets.
Though I enjoyed the small-time feel of New Orleans, working minimally as a waitress (never a barista, I felt it was pretentious) and living in a shack-like room along the Mississippi River, I again felt the itch of dissatisfaction. There was something missing. I stayed awake at night for more reasons than my injections of caffeine. An ingredient wasn’t there. A void needed to be filled. The next morning, around 11:30 (I had woken up a mere fifteen minutes prior), I packed my suitcase again. When I got to the airport, the TSA’s pilfering of my body and soul was made worse by the fact that the only coffee option to assuage me was Starbucks. As any genuine coffee lover will attest, to drinketh from the cup of Starbucks is to drink from a well of poison. A corporation that hides behind “the lifestyle” it is selling makes it all too evident that the product behind it is complete and utter excrement. Nonetheless, I shoved aside my qualms for the sake of reaching a baseline level, gulping quickly from the paper cup so as to better ignore the taste.
As my flight ascended into the air, I wondered if I was making the right choice. For some reason, I had always held back, been afraid to go to the true motherland of coffee, perhaps fearing that so much easy access to quality would ultimately be my undoing. I had a three-hour layover at JFK, as New Orleans isn’t one of those cities international enough to get you out of the country in one flight. My body became tense as I walked through the terminal to get to the Alitalia gate. New York was a bad place to drink coffee. Sure, it was good, but the people there drink it as a form of gasoline, to keep them going, sustain their work-filled, money-driven lives. It made me almost pained to see coffee go to waste in such a way, with very little actual enjoyment on the part of the New Yorkers drinking it. I put on blinders by opening my book, a worn copy of A Marriage Contract by Balzac. I had a soft spot for Balzac. He loved coffee almost as much his fellow Frenchman, Voltaire, expressing, “As soon as coffee is in your stomach, there is a general commotion. Ideas begin to move…similes arise, the paper is covered. Coffee is your ally and writing ceases to be a struggle.” I felt the French had a better way of expressing passion for coffee than the Italians. Maybe because good coffee is so much more commonplace to them; nothing seems special if it’s not rare.
At last, my flight departed from JFK. I was in the air and on the move toward Milan, where I would then gradually make my way down through the major and even minor Italian cities for a taste tour. I didn’t know if my heart would be able to make it through the intensity that was to come, but it didn’t matter. I would rather die drinking good coffee than live a long life sipping a liquid crafted of subpar beans.
My first stop in Milan was Princi, a chain throughout the city that possessed a sort of individualism to make you think it couldn’t possibly have more than one location. The one I settled on was near Chiesa Santa Maria Incoronata. After walking there from Porta Garibaldi, a shot of espresso was the only thing on my mind. While the Milanese prefer to highlight the quality of the pastries at Princi, there can be no denying the allure of the coffee.
Next on my trip was Parma, as in prosciutto di. Often underlooked as an Italian city worth visiting, I found the espresso and cappuccino there (especially at Gran Caffè Cavour) to be better than any of the other cities I went to in the north. Indeed, the coffee scene in Venice and Florence was somewhat disappointing–though not without its own separate merits.
To get a sense of central Italian coffee, I explored the Tuscan town of Siena and the Umbrian Terni. The former was much more enjoyable, perhaps due to the more picturesque surroundings. Because of the industries in Terni, including chemical and industrial ones, I was a bit hesitant about consuming what was offered to me at Caffè Teatro.
As my budget began to dwindle, I knew that the only other two cities worth putting on my coffee tour were Rome and Naples. Because Roman ego continues to persist even so long after their empire has fallen, I feel they hold back on what they could be capable of in terms of coffee making skills. Like the city itself, there seems to be no heart to the final product. It is theoretically well-crafted, but all you can taste is the work of the machine, not the person who made it. That’s what Naples is for.
Amid all the chaos and freneticism of Naples, there is always time for coffee, and to make it well. People will chat at the bar long after their espresso has been consumed, allowing the contents to naturally seep into their system before they depart from the bar (cafes are, appropriately, called bars in Italy–proving it’s more of an addiction than alcohol). I, on the other hand, would not leave the bar that day. As I predicted, my heart couldn’t withstand such continued pleasure. I had drunk too much from the honeypot, and now death was the price I would have to pay. I just hope the Neapolitans cremate me and put my ashes in a machinetta.