Words + Photography by Rikesh Chauhan, using Sony Alpha's A7iii.
...it’s just not that good. I know what you’re thinking, but it’s not. It’s not coffee. It’s what I imagine the oil in your car’s engine would taste like. Or like, if burnt toast came in liquid form. It’s as if the world has some form of Stockholm syndrome, and the Italian Bureau of Coffee or whatever you want to call it has got something on every single one of you.
You can actively see tourists in Italy trying espresso for the first time, gritting their teeth and smiling through it all as if their tastebuds haven’t been incinerated and that they don’t need some form of chaser immediately after. Coffee shouldn’t require a chaser. Italian coffee is like Harry Maguire. No matter how terrible, it's always the first port of call. It’s not coffee; it’s jet fuel. For all intents and purposes (or rather, intense heart palpitations), it does the job it says on the tin. The stuff is potent; the random double shot of espresso you find in most corner cafes and random stalls. The I-only-have-thirty-seconds-before-I-need-to-leave kinda espresso that you don’t even bother sitting down for. You watch the busy streets grow in speed, aggression and volume, before you neck the damn thing and join the crowds, head on. A couple of these bad boys and you are fucking flying. It’s rebellion. It’s rock and roll. And it tastes like the morning after.
To all my Italian friends, this is not a stab at you, nor your nation. And I’m very well aware there are places that do serve great coffee, and that I’ve only visited a handful of cities within your nostalgic, sun-kissed homeland. I love Italy. Which is why the whole coffee situation is so annoying. You guys do everything right. Everything! Wine? Elite. Steak? Stellar. Pasta? No question. Pizza? God’s own. Aperol sodas at every other bodega? Absolute fucking touch. Summer getaways? Bello. Winter? Picturesque. The football? I mean, it’s not the Premier League, but it’s nice to see clubs other than Juve finally winning something for a change. The fucking coffee? Man. If I get an espresso and it’s served in a porcelain Illy cup, there’s a strong chance I’m going to dash it at you. The difference between these Italian espressos and the watered-down rubbish you get served in English cafes and greasy spoons is that we know it’s terrible. No one drinks that shit because they like the way it tastes. I’m convinced Italians (and doe-eyed tourists) are in complete and utter denial.
I remember going to Milan a few years ago and giving up after the second day. I was only there briefly (with a big group of people, mind) and the mission of trying to find a coffee shop that served, you know, actual coffee and not lighter fluid, was too much to deal with. Thankfully, I’ve since returned to find the odd spot, which I guess locals refer to as specialty coffee, like Orsonero. Note: it’s called specialty for a reason. Stop pretending to be a purist. It’s not a hill you need to die on, I promise you. Shit is good over here. The same goes for SimBIOsi Coffee in Florence. It’s so good that every time I visit for Pitti Uomo, I make sure wherever we’re staying is at max, a five-minute walk away. All roads lead to it, as far as I’m concerned. The morning doesn’t start until I’ve picked up a proper espresso from there. And hell, if you wish to push the boat out, get a flat white. I promise you, again, no one will judge you. Well... no one that goes there, anyway.
The first time I visited (cue my gigantic sigh of relief having been subjected to two days worth of arsenic), I started speaking to the barista at the time, Francesco, about whether I was losing my mind. “I like my espresso to be light, and have really punchy flavours. But that’s not how Italians seem to want to drink it?” He responded in agreement, saying that there’s coffee, and then there’s specialty coffee. What SimBIOsi does is the latter, and there’s not much interest in it from the locals. Coffee is functionality. It doesn't necessarily have the same influence as say, wine. There are odd pockets of people, however, that do genuinely have strong interest in the coffee scene and will go out of their way to visit. Another place in Florence that Francesco recommended was MELALEUCA. And you know why it’s great? They’re Australian. Australia and New Zealand are the home nations of the specialty coffee scene. My rule of thumb in any major city is that if you go to a coffee spot that’s either owned or run by Australians and/or Kiwis, it’s going to be good. Three Marks in Barcelona. The Barn in Berlin. Holy Belly in Paris. Pretty much anywhere in London. They are the reason the coffee scene in London is what it is today. Since opening flat white in Soho in 2005, London has been teeming with some of the best coffee spots in Europe including Ozone, Origin, Allpress and heaps more, all of which either originated Down Under, or are manned by them now.
You know what the funny thing is? After all of my ranting, if you asked me if I could change the coffee situation I find myself in, in Italy, I wouldn’t. Because like the food, the drinks, the football, the tailoring, it’s part of the DNA and it’s one of the many things that represents a community that are impassioned and enjoy everything there is to life. It starts their day, picks them up in the afternoon and hell, if it’s good enough to be in the best tiramisu you’ll find anywhere in the world, who am I to complain? What I would love, however, is for some of the hardened vets I’ve met over my ten or so years since first visiting, to realise there’s more to coffee than just what’s on the doorstep. Coffee isn’t just about convenience. Just as wine is so incredibly vast, and how no place in Italy will serve anything that is less than phenomenal, the same can be applied to coffee. I’d much rather take ten minutes out of my day to find a really good coffee shop, than have something that’s disappointing and just as (if not more) expensive but slightly more convenient. That’s not living, man. And the Italians, boy, they know how to live.
Sorry Luke, but this is definitely more café than cafe.