True espresso should have a cream look, taste, and feel to it. The top cream part should be hazelnut colored. It should NOT be too dark. Good espresso should smell of coffee, vanilla, a little citrus, and a sensuous, roasted hint. All these smells should be subtle but compelling. Truth be told, I prefer not to mention specific smells that a coffee should have. You should know it when you smell it. That is, if you know it to begin with.
“Il caffè” should be creamy. It should look it at first, with a creamy brown top. This cream (called “crema” or “schiuma” in Italian) is important, as it must pass the true test of good coffee (The Sugar Test). When you put sugar into your espresso, it should take a few seconds for it to penetrate the creamy top and drop to the bottom. I have seen many good espressos take 10 seconds for the sugar to completely fall. Too many wanna-be espressos not only look and taste like sewer water but immediately fail this test. Throw it away and start over somewhere else. If the “caffè is not uniform in its cream top and has a dark hole in the middle then it means the water pressure and/or temperature was too high, it was extracted for too long, and it was ground too fine. If the cream top is flimsy and too light colored then that means the water pressure and/or temperature was too low, the extraction time was too short, and it was ground too coarse.
The all important crema is produced by the pressure from the espresso machine, which is why the heavy duty ones you see are best to make espresso. The machine makes a huge difference but a few other things also contribute, albeit to lesser extents. When the water is pressed through the coffee, the fats and oils in the coffee get released and emuslified and become suspended in, what seem like, endless, very small, carbon dioxide air bubbles, helping the foamy crema last longer. The oil and fat contents depend on the types of beans and also how recent the roasting was done; the more recent the roasting, the more cream top you will get. Also, the freshness of the beans is important; the fresher the beans, the more crema. To be fair, you can still have crema on a bad espresso. Crema does not guarantee a good espresso but all the best ones have it.
A glass of water is always served before your caffè arrives. You are to drink it to clean your mouth and prepare it for the sole taste of the coffee. Though I love the taste that a creamy coffee leaves me with, I tend to save a little water for after as I am always thirsty. The “tazza” or little cup used for the coffee should have a thick, rounded lip to help promote the creamy sensation the coffee must have.
Italians NEVER serve coffee with a lemon peel. Not only is this idea stupid, but unnecessary. It is unnecessary because only outside of Italy is it done with the purpose of supposedly combating the burnt bitterness of the espresso. But this misses the point. True espresso is not bitter, but a voluptuous cream and therefore does not need a lemon peel. The only bitterness is the welcomed, natural, inherent bitterness in good coffee that fades away and is covered by the sweetness once fully tasted.
Il caffè should not be more than 1 ounce. There is no reason to drink more unless you order a “doppio” which means double and is only consumed by caffeine addicts in Italy. The myth that espresso has more caffeine is just that---a myth. Though it may be strong tasting, an espresso is not stronger in caffeine. First, Arabica beans have less caffeine (almost half) than Robusta beans and good Caffè has more Arabica then Robusta in its blend. Second and most importantly, the espresso is made quickly (20 seconds), so the extraction time is less and therefore there is less caffeine in an espresso than American Coffee (drip brew can take 5 minutes)
Good caffè should never make you jittery, shaky, nervous, or anxious. Frequently in Italy, I have up to 7 espressos a day without feeling irritated. If I were to have 3 ounces of American coffee, I'd be scaling the wall. Il caffè is actually used as a digestivo. It has digestive properties and should be viewed as an aid.
As stated in The People Behind “Il Caffè section, coffee is so serious in Naples that there is something called “un caffè sospeso” which means coffee in suspense. Generous Neapolitans can order and pay for two coffees and only consume one while the unmade second is left for a poor and unfortunate person in despair and with no means of buying a coffee. This is not only compassion but passion. It is very common to walk into a coffee shop, which Italians call “bar”, and be immediately offered a coffee by a friend or acquaintance. Some Neapolitans even know the limits of the city's water and plan accordingly when traveling outside of Naples to get one last real coffee.