Italians make the best wine, the best pasta, the best bread, coffee, pizza, you name it. That’s what I’ve grown up hearing as a fellow compatriot. But the truth is that sometimes, what we think of as our own traditions actually originate from elsewhere and only took root in our country for totally random reasons. One example is cappuccino, which, contrary to popular belief, was not actually invented in Italy.
“It seems that cappuccino, both the word and the drink, comes from Kapuziner [the German word for a Capuchin monk],” says Gianni Tratzi, owner of the coffee consultancy firm Mezzatazza. Tratzi explains that the drink has its origins in the fancy Viennese coffee houses of the 1700s, where the black, piping-hot brew was decanted before being mixed with sugar, cream and spices. “This drink is now known as the Wiener kaffee [“Vienna coffee”],” Tratzi continues, “while the word cappuccino is international, and refers to the drink made with foamy milk.”
Manuel Terzi, the coffee-obsessed owner of the bougie Caffè Terzi in central Bologna, has heard a different story. “The year was 1683, and the Turks were laying siege to Vienna,” he recounts. “A Polish soldier, Jerzy Franciszek Kulczycki, crossed the enemy camp pretending to be Turkish and went to ask for reinforcements.”
According to the legend, the move was decisive – it helped the Austrians win the war. “As a reward, he was given bags of coffee abandoned by the Turks and he opened Vienna’s first coffee house, where he’d sweeten his coffee with milk and honey,” Terzi says. Kulczycki is even credited by some with the invention of the croissant, making him a true renaissance man and a hero of the (breakfast) people.
According to Tratzi, the very first cappuccino was served at Caffè dei Ritti in Florence around the time when the first industrial coffee machines were created, in the 1920s and 1930s. These companies are still known and loved espresso by aficionados to this day – Cimbali, Marzocco, Vittoria Arduino, Pavoni. “We’re still not talking about the espresso machines we have today,” Tratzi says. “They were more like pressure cookers with one valve for steam and one for water.” What the machines did have though, was a steam wand, a predecessor of the milk frother which achieved the same results.
Even those early cappuccinos had a long way to go. Far from the silky, hazelnut-coloured espressos we know today, they were more of a slightly charred Moka Pot brew combined with steamed milk. Starting with the 1940s and 50s, though, the modern espresso machine was invented, with its signature removable portafilters (those long handles with the filter at the tip). With one of those, baristas were finally able to make the creamy, full-bodied cups of caffeinated goodness many of us can’t go without.
As for the perfect cappuccino, Tratzi breaks down the classic recipe taught by the Specialty Coffee Association, an organisation representing thousands of professionals in the coffee industry. It is one part coffee (one espresso shot), two parts milk and one part foamy milk, “meaning a very thin and silky emulsion of milk and air, which gets incorporated into the liquid as it heats up,” he explains. The foam must also be between 1 and 1.5 cm thick. Cappuccinos should be served “between 65 and 70 degrees Celsius, in a 150-170 ml cup filled to capacity,” he adds. “It should be presented as a coffee crown with a white circle in the centre.”
This is the perfect presentation not just for the aesthetic factor, but also because it means that the milk and the coffee are perfectly blended and the drink will have the same taste and texture from start to finish. If, on the other hand, the cup looks totally white on top, “the first sips will taste too much of milk, while the coffee underneath will be stronger,” Tratzi says.
According to Terzi, that’s precisely why flashier-looking drinks are impressive, but not actually any good. “Cappuccinos should be homogeneous, unlike a flat white, for example, which is layered, and all latte art products in general,” he says. “The more complex the design, the more distant it is from the traditional Italian cappuccino.”
By the way, in Italy, cappuccinos are pretty much exclusively a breakfast drink, even though things are changing in recent years. Although Italians love to have a coffee after lunch and dinner, you’re likely to be stared down if you order a cappuccino after a meal at a restaurant.
When I ask coffee purist Tratzi about that, his response surprised me. “As an end-of-the-meal drink, cappuccino can be pretty good, but maybe the 150-170 ml cup is a bit too much,” he says. “Perhaps a cortado is better: 100-110ml with an espresso shot and a slightly less foamy milk, which also better enhances the taste of the coffee.”
Still talking about today’s coffee consumption habits, Terzi left me with a word of caution about cappuccinos and plant-based milks. “The big problem with them is that their lack of protein prevents them from foaming well,” he says. “The only one that can achieve that gentle balance between taste and texture is quinoa milk.” Precious advice to up your vegan cappuccino game.