An honest mistake
I was standing behind my friend the other day as he ordered some espressi at the bar. Suddenly he let out a gasp. He’d ordered all three coffees in porcelain cups but our other friend preferred his in a glass. I glanced at the cups ranged on the bar to check that they weren’t still empty, but it was too late. All three were filled with perfect Italian espresso.
Suddenly our other friend arrived. I handed him his coffee apologetically. ‘Sorry, we forgot to ask for yours in a glass.’ He stared back, his eyes incredulous but his tone relaxed. ‘Oh, that’s OK’ he said. But I knew it wasn’t. Seconds later we had downed the coffee and were on our way again and I got to thinking: what is so special about espresso in a glass?
Glass or porcelain?
Most Italians will drink their coffee out of one of the heavy porcelain cups that you see ranged on top of the coffee machine, incubating, ready to be filled. But look around the bar and occasionally you will see people drinking it out of small glasses: no handle just an oversized shot glass.
The Italian espresso cup, or tazzina, has been developed over the last couple of hundred years of coffee drinking to keep the beverage at the right temperature for the right amount of time for the Italian sip-and-go style of drinking. The coffee arrives, you add the copious amounts of sugar which are usually de rigeur—unless, like me, you prefer your coffee amaro—stir, wait for a minute while exchanging pleasantries with friends or reading the football scores in the Corriere dello Sport, then you knock the coffee back and go. The cup keeps the coffee at just the right temperature for this ritual. Put it in a glass and it’s going to be cold by the time you get to it. Surely? Agree with me.
Aficionados of the glass say we’ve got it all wrong. How can we appreciate good coffee when it’s hidden in a porcelain cup. When it’s in a glass you can see it in all its glory. Part of the barista’s skill is to produce coffee with the perfect crema on top—a lighter layer on the surface caused by the ideal combination of water pressure and temperature when extracting the coffee. In a glass, you can see this golden layer lying on the top and fully appreciate the skill of your barista. Some even say that the glass encourages the crema to form.
It’s the taste
They will also say that it tastes better. The glass creates a different sensation as the coffee passes your lips: more elegant, more subtle, more refined. You can appreciate the delicate notes of the beans like you can a fine wine. You wouldn’t serve that in a heavy porcelain cup now, would you? This is true, but you also don’t serve wine at 88°C, do you?
But is it?
Call me a philistine but I don’t buy it. I’ve tried coffee in a glass and it just burned my fingers since the glass conducts heat much better than the porcelain, and did I mention there’s no handle? To me it tastes the same. I can appreciate all the flavours of the perfect espresso without having to draw attention to myself by asking for special treatment. But maybe that is the true point? Drinking your coffee in a glass singles you out as someone who knows what you want; who cares about how your drink is served; who goes agains the flow. Maybe I should rethink. That might be worth getting your fingers burned.
What to ask for
If you want to join the espresso-in-a-glass club you need to learn this phrase: un caffè al vetro, per piacere. When the barista places it in front of you, you can exchange knowing looks about the quality of their crema assured that the water was at the correct 9-bar pressure. But whatever you do, make sure you don’t linger but drink and go. That’s the Italian way in porcelain or in glass.