The basic thing you need for a great espresso is great water. If your water is suspect--tasting too slimy, has an odor, or is off-putting in any way--in the least, use bottled mineral water or get yourself a Brita filter. As a basic test, if you love the refreshing taste of your tap water on a hot summer's day, then your water should be good to go.
There is absolutely no difference between a bean labeled as "espresso" or not. Selecting which coffee bean to use for espresso is a personal choice--which means that a world of different tastes are there for the tasting. Espresso is a method of brewing coffee. There are really only two species of coffee beans grown with many varietals (sub-species), and every type is capable of being brewed in different styles--peculator, French drip, espresso, etc.
Remember that beans are roasted before you buy them. Roasters nowadays tend to produce a darker roast to produce more smoky, caramelized sugary flavors--as seen in "Italian roasts"--but a very dark roasted bean can mask the more subtle differences in bean types. Roasters are experimenting with lighter roasts which can enhance the flavor of the coffee's complexity. Lesson to learn--experiment with both dark and lighter roasts and have fun discovering flavor profiles that you enjoy. Coffee preference is like selecting a wine... One person's Primativo can be as satisfying as another's Brunello.
Beans should be ground using a burr type of grinder (as opposed to a blade type) that can grind finely with many steps of adjustment. Read reviews carefully as some grinder models don't grind fine enough for espresso. (The affordable Secura burr grinder shown is what we use).
The best espresso machines should have solid components, create consistent temperatures, are easy to clean, with an easy to understand interface--which is a real task on some of the more complex models. The larger machines come with a built-in grinder to grind exactly the correct amount of beans automatically, a one or two-spouted portafilter with removable basket inserts for either a single or double shot, a self-storing tamper, a milk steamer/foamer, and an espresso cup heater on top. In our opinion, these are for coffee aficionados that like to turn coffee-making into a theatrical event and if you are prone to buying complex kitchen appliances and then find you use them only once or twice due to their complexities, stay away from these machines. They take dedication and perseverance to master and can be difficult to keep clean. They are also power hogs: from 900-1500 watts, which means you should not be using them on the same circuit as your toaster or microwave. There are simpler--and quicker--ways to make espresso, cappuccino and other coffee beverages.
Bialetti made the first stovetop espresso maker back in 1933, and are still using the exact same patented moka pot design. In fact, there are many other companies who have copied their iconic design. There have been over 200 million Moka pots sold since the 1950s, mostly in Italy--60 million Italians can't be wrong. A Moka pot can be found in virtually every Italian households but are gaining popularity all over the world in the last decade or so. The Moka also comes in many different sizes... a tiny one for a single morning espresso shot, or a large one to satisfy a large gathering.
It is composed of roughly three components: the base with a pressure valve which holds the water; the basket which holds the coffee; and the "collecting chamber" which the coffee brews into. In between the top and bottom halves are a metal filter and the "O" ring which ensures a pressure seal and to filter the coffee grinds from the coffee produced. The Moka pot boils the water which is forced up through the coffee "puck" and then into the top chamber, creating a foamy crema (head) along with the coffee. The whole process from heating the water to drinking the coffee is about 5-10 minutes, depending on the capacity of your Moka pot.
For the Custard
Italian colazione (breakfast) is a simple daily ritual, and if not at home, had while standing at bar on the way to work: perhaps a scalding espresso, cappuccino (espresso and a dollop of foamed milk) or caffè latte (say "latte" alone and you'll get a glass of milk.)
For those Italians wanting to avoid caffeine, they never order "decaf", but might order a drink unknown to Americans: Orzo, a hot, nutty, roasted-barley beverage that looks like cocoa. Orzo means barley in Italian. It was originally intended as non-coffee substitute for children but has gained wide acceptance as a healthy alternative to the caffeine overdose experienced by espresso and cappuccino.
While the espresso starts their engines, they still need to fill their tanks in the morning. At home, Italians won't have bacon and eggs but might have cereal or a biscuit, fruit, juice and an espresso. If on the run, they will tend to start their day at a local bar with espresso and a dose of starch and sugar... pasticcini (pastries). Here are some common choices:
The cornetto is the less flaky, less buttery version of French croissant. Cornetti ripieni (filled) come with jam, cheese, pastry creme or Nutella. A plain one is a cornetto semplice or cornetto vuoto (empty). By the way, when you see the rectangular shaped ones filled with chocolate, they are called saccottino al cioccolato (sacks of chocolate) not pain au chocolat. This is Italy, after all.
A crostata is a fruit tart with a crust of pasta frolla, filled with either amarena (sour cherry), albicocca (apricot) or frutti di bosco (wild berry).
The ciambella is basically an Italian doughnut often filled with jam or custard.
Viennoiserie are the fancier, more refined pastries with a French influence. They might include brioches, strudel di mele, eclairs and more.
For the Italian rushing to work, he has perhaps 5 minutes of chit-chat with a neighbor while standing-up at the neighborhood bar, slurping down his espresso and cornetto in quick order before rushing out the door to work.
If you are staying at a B&B in Italy, by law they are only allowed to supply you with pre-packaged breakfasts pastries, toasts and biscuits.
A "Bar" in Italy is not like bars in the States. They are places to go for breakfast, espresso, pastries and for lunch they offer panini, small pizzas and focaccia... families with children are welcome. During the lunchtime "riposa", when most places (including restaurants in small towns) close for 2-3 hours, the local Bar is where you would stop for a quick lunch.
Lucas has started cooking lately. He's barely 14 years old and sometimes he makes me a panino (smoked turkey, provolone and salsa on ciabatta--his recipe) and he's even made us dinner (he does a variation of my Amalfi Lemon Chicken and Pasta). But of course, he's a teen, and as such, he likes easy, lazy breakfasts...
His Sliced Apples with Peanut Butter is his latest, laziest creation. Lazy, but healthy. (My Father used to eat simple meals like this). An added bonus, I don't have to make his breakfast any more.
Returning from a Day Trip
We decided that we were going to pick up supplies to cook with tonight after our trip to Florence and Fiesole. We tried to look for signs for a Coop supermarket or an alimentari (grocery store), but no signs and the only alimentari on the way back to Mormoraia was closed (at 5pm on a Saturday afternoon?), so we pulled on the side of the road and asked our GPS (Tommy) where the nearest one was. Niente closer that 20 miles... at least that's what he says. I don't trust him totally. After all, besides sounding a bit robotic, his accent is pure American! How much can he possibly know about local shops? He's just a tourist--just like us!
So I figured that nearby San Gimignano must have an alimentari outside the historic walls... so we set course... 8 minutes away. We found one! A nice one too. Paper towels to use as napkins, cleanup and to clear my clay dusted rear window... eggs... sliced tachina (turkey)... brasciola (very thin sliced salt cured beef)... little tomatoes... onion... snacks... drinks...butter... half loaf of bread. We were set for dinner and breakfast--or so we thought.
Another side hassle was that we were so chatty with the prospect of a home cooked meal combined with our friend Tommy not calling out turns for some reason as he usually does... we kept missing the turn-off out of town--four times! Sigh. (Our family travel theme song, to the tune of Beach Boys, I Get Around: "Turn, Turn Turn around, I turn around... Turn around, ooh..ooh...oooo... I turn around... I'm gettin' bugged drivin' up and down the same old street...")
Back at our agriturismo apartment, we hunted for basics in our cucina cupboards. There were no staples typically found in these apartment or house rentals... salt, pepper, foil, spices, coffee, sugar, etc. So this meant that problem-solving Babbo (Daddy) had to fix this somehow--and we were not going to pay the 50 Euro per person for dinner in Agriturismo Mormoraia's little cafe downstairs!
OK... boil water... cook bird's nest pasta we bought... frying pan... butter... slice up the brasciola (salty enough) into the pan. Lucas, sliced those little tomatoes and tossed them in... add some wine... reduce sauce... toss in a bowl and grate little piece of leftover pecorino cheese we had two days ago... butter the unsalted regional bread... pour the rest of the wine... and Presto! My new recipe...
Pasta Pomodoro e Brasciola alla Babbo!
Lisa and Lucas said it was one of the best meals here so far. Bravo, Babbo! On another morning I made a down and dirty frittata with the little we had in our Mormoraia pantry. Buono gusto!
Getting used to Shopping in Italy
At times we bought food at the large supermarkets, which had great cheese displays, not so decent breads, un-refrigerated milk in cartons (none cold), but lots and lots of produce. The fruits and veggies were very good for supermarkets, but the tomatoes disappointed me. They seem to be selling a lot of hybrid hothouse grown tomatoes (like "Tomatoes on the Vine" in the U.S.). Decent quality, but not organic, fresh picked or heirloom varieties. (As it turns out, Italians use SO MANY tomatoes in their diet, factory farmed tomatoes are the norm, although smaller markets may have Heirloom types).
Great cheeses were something we could get anywhere--supermarket or alimentari. Amazing. Cacciacavalo became our favorite... a dumbbell shaped cheese with mellow, nutty flavor which went with everything. Any type of aged Pecorino was a close second. One of my favorite things became the millefiore honey... thick as jam and incredibly delicious on bread in the morning. It was also great with ricotta. (I was never really a fan of American style honey.)
Lisa also fell in love with making coffee (espresso, scusa me) in those little Moka pots. I'm sure Santa will leave one under the tree for her. I wish I had access to a pizza oven while in Italy. I would have loved to make pizza there... but heck, I discovered that I make pizza better than we had in most of Italy anyway.
Cooking for ourselves in Italy became one of our favorite things, although Lucas always liked eating out in a new ristorante no matter where we were. Personally, I think he was starting to realize that if we ate out, he was guaranteed a visit to a gelateria afterwards!