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The Art of Espresso

By B. A. Nilsson

She dipped her forefinger into the rich beige foam and, raising the finger as if to say “shush,” isolated a heavy droplet on the tip. We watched as the little bubble quickly dissipated and a dark brown rivulet ran down toward her palm. “That’s the crema,” she explained. “And it’s not very good.”

Anita Johnson is a coffee fanatic, which is good: She works for Minneapolis-based Caribou Coffee, whose gourmet product recently began entering the local market. But this was no run-of-the-mill venue whose espresso we were tasting. We sat in the dining room of a high-end restaurant outside Florence, Italy, so our expectations were similarly high. “They’re using an automatic machine,” said Anita, “so they don’t have a lot of control over the pull. But there are adjustments they can make to fix the problem.”

I don’t want to suggest that I drank bad espresso in Italy; Anita’s criticisms came from a rarefied palate, the gustatory equivalent of finding fault with a New York Philharmonic performance. In fact, nearly a decade ago, the Italian government created a regulatory commission, the Istituto Nazionale Espresso Italiano, which certifies restaurants and coffee bars provided that the establishments demonstrate the use of a certified coffee blend, certified brewing machine and grinder and licensed personnel.

So it was a good place in which to be introduced to the art and science of espresso. Like any privileged knowledge, it seduces you, delights you, consumes you. I entered what I think of as the first stage of espresso fanaticism: I became a crema hunter, drawing puzzled looks from area baristas as I finger-dipped my way through shot after shot.

Crema is a protein-rich emulsion, the product of the high rate of pressure behind the not-quite-boiling water that’s forced through a compressed layer of finely-ground beans. It floats atop the inky coffee and gives espresso its sweet richness.

Of course, that sweetness is gained in the context of a brew that can be intimidating even to those who can’t go a day without coffee. An espresso is a beverage consumed quickly (ideally, within two minutes) and in minimal amounts, typically half-filling an already diminutive demi-tasse.

Although the history of coffee goes back at least a thousand years, espresso officially debuted in 1901, when manufacturer Luigi Bezzera, seeking to reduce his employees’ coffee-break times, patented a machine that brewed the stuff far more quickly than before.

His device was steam-driven (a technique still used by lower-cost equipment), but it produced a somewhat bitter brew—a characteristic that became apparent after the development of pump-driven espresso machines some years later.

That’s where the classic espresso-machine look comes from: those tall, gleaming units with long pump handles challenging the barista (as the Italians term the journeyman server) to apply the right amount of pressure to the pull. By the 1950s, they’d become ubiquitous in trendy coffeehouses.

Now the trend is toward machines with built-in pumps that automatically apply the right amount of water and pressure for the number of shots chosen. That’s what you see in the local emporia. But you don’t have to use all of the conveniences the machines offer.

Mary, one of the lead baristas at Ballston Spa’s Coffee Planet (where I consume many a cappuccino), sees her share of espresso fanatics coming through, many of them with their own home machines who share stories and critical analyses. “We strive for a consistent product,” she says, “and so we’re careful about the grind and the tamp. Our espresso machine offers an automatic brew, but we prefer to control the fill.”

One of my longstanding misconceptions was that espresso requires a specific coffee bean. What’s needed is quality; good equipment and technique does the rest.

I cappuccinoed myself to a fare-thee-well by testing two machines that present two different approaches to home espresso brewing. The KitchenAid Pro Line Series Espresso Machine is a handsome, sturdy, semiautomatic unit with two separate boilers to provide the correct temperature and pressure for brewing espresso and for steaming milk. Saeco’s Odea Giro is a fully automatic machine that handles everything from the grind to the espresso output, although you do your own milk steaming.

The Odea Giro is at the lower-priced end of a new line of machines designed by BMW, and it attractively departs from the boxy look of most espresso units. A topside hopper holds several ounces of beans that are sent through its ceramic burr grinder a portion at a time when you select your brew strength and volume.

Other than regular maintenance—and refilling the water and empting the waste fairly often—that’s all you do. For a cappuccino or other steam-enhanced drink, immerse the moveable Pannarello wand into the milk, choose your steam pressure and froth away. You can also set the spout to produce hot water.

In short, this machine gives you a simple, surefire way to get consistently good espresso without any kind of learning curve. It has a feature set typical of much higher-priced machines; with retail pricing at around $600, it’s a bargain.

That’s also about the price at which you can find the KitchenAid espresso maker, an excellent unit geared for a more hands-on fanatic. Its pleasingly retro look comes from the twin boilers that decorate the front alongside corresponding temperature gauges, letting you know when brew-time is here.

You have to take care of the coffee grinding yourself—and you can pay as much again for the grinder as for an espresso machine, so shop around—but you have a professional dual-spout portafilter with two removable baskets (one for single shots, one for double) to fill and tamp (tamper included). A correct fill and tamp pressure are critical to good espresso, and developing your technique is part of the artistry this machine allows. You also control the brew time, helped by an instant shut-off. I’m obsessive enough to have charted my variables, clocking the “pull” (20 to 25 seconds is optimal), pursuing my preference for very strong coffee.

The Pannarello wand at the end of the steam boiler travels a much wider range of motion than most, handy for frothing milk in a bulky mug, but the unit ships with an eight-ounce stainless steel pitcher for that purpose.

Your espresso cup should be preheated, so both machines give you warming spaces at the top. Instructions are easy to follow—the KitchenAid maker even has its own DVD—and either one of these units will make it very difficult to go back to plain old coffee again.

Click here for a list of recently reviewed restaurants.


TABLE SCRAPS

Nicole’s Bistro (Clinton & Broadway, Albany) celebrates its 23rd anniversary with a special dinner at 6 PM on Friday, Nov 16. A champagne reception kicks things off, then enjoy halibut and sole dumplings in a lobster cognac sauce, arugula and endive salad, and a Trio of Veal entrée, each course paired with an appropriate wine. And there’s dessert! Music is performed by Ed Clifford. Tickets to the perception are $80 per person plus tax and gratuity. Call 465-1111. . . . Travel to Italy by way of the Adirondacks when Milano North and the Courtyard by Marriott host a getaway weekend in Lake Placid Nov 9-11. The two-night stay includes a wine reception Friday, two breakfasts, and a five-course Italian wine dinner on Saturday featuring the wines of the Feudi di San Gregorio Estate, a winery in southern Italy’s Campania region. Export manager Robin Shay will to introduce the wines at the dinner. Prices are $550 per couple, $395 per single, taxes and gratuities included; there also are seats available for the wine dinner only ($75 per person). Call 523-2900 for the weekend, 523-3003 for the dinner only. . . . Liz and Jerry Lavalley, owners of Manchester, Vt.’s Reluctant Panther (which includes an excellent restaurant reviewed here a few months back) were recently named Innkeepers of the Year by Governor Douglas. . . . Remember to pass your scraps to Metroland.


We want your feedback

Have you eaten at any recently reviewed restaurants? Agree or disagree with B.A.? Let us know what you think...

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What you're saying...

I very much enjoyed eating dinner at Daniel's at Ogdens. You review described my dining experience perfectly. This wasn't the case with Pancho's. I much prefer Garcia's or Lake View Tavern for Mexican fare. I agree that a restaurant can have an off night so I'll give the second unit on Central Avenue a try.

Mary Kurtz
Castleton

First, yes I miss the star ratings, bring it back. Second, I haven't had a chance to visit Poncho's yet, but I especially like reading the reviews.

Pat Russo
East Greenbush

I would travel to Amsterdam to this restaurant - it's not that far away. People traveled from all over to eat at Ferrandi's in Amsterdam. From his background, I'm sure the chef's sauce is excellent and that is the most important aspect of an Italian restaurant. Sometimes your reviewer wastes words on the negative aspects of a restaurant. I'm looking forward to trying this restaurant - I look forward to Metroland every Thursday especially for the restaurant review. And by the way Ferrandi's closed its Amsterdam location and is opening a new bistro on Saratoga Lake - Should be up and running in May. It will be called Saratoga Lake Bistro. It should be great!

Peggy Van Deloo
Schenectady

So happy to see you finally made out!! Our experiences have always been wonderful, the staff is extremely professional, the food subperb, and the atmosphere very warm and comfortable. Let us not forget to mention "Maria" the pianist on Friday and Saturday nights.

Charlie and Marie
Michaels Restaurant

I have been to Michael's several times and each time I have enjoyed it very much. The food is delicious and the staff is great. Also, Maria Riccio Bryce plays piano there every Friday and Saturday evening, a nice touch to add to the already wonderful atmosphere. It is also easy to find, exit 27 off the thruway to 30 north for about 5 miles.

N. Moore
Albany

Wonderful!

Elaine Snowdon
Albany

We loved it and will definitely go back.

Rosemarie Rafferty

Absolutely excellent. The quality and the flavor far surpasses that of other Indian restaurants in the area. I was a die-hard Shalimar fan and Tandoor Palace won my heart. It blows Ghandi out of the water. FInally a decent place in Albany where you can get a good dinner for less than $10 and not have tacos. The outdoor seating is also festive.

Brady G'sell

Indian is my favorite cuisine available in the area--I loved Tandoor Palace. We all agreed that the tandoori chicken was superior to other local restaraunts, and we also tried the ka-chori based on that intriguing description-delicious.

Kizzi Casale
Albany

Your comments about the Indian / Pakistani restaurants being as "standardized as McDonald's" shows either that you have eaten at only a few Indian / Pakistani restaurants or that you have some prejudices to work out. That the physical appearances are not what you would consider fancy dancy has no bearing on the food. And after all, that is what the main focus of the reviews should be. Not the physical appearances, which is what most of your reviews concentrate on.
A restaurant like The Shalimar, down on Central Avenue, may not look the greatest, but the food is excellent there. And the menu has lots of variety - beef, lamb, vegetarian, chicken, and more..

Barry Uznitsky
Guilderland



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