The cappuccino is a sacrosanct Italian beverage; yet, like pizza or sauce bolognese, we persist in altering its true nature. As it crossed borders, this morning drink became an after-dinner dessert, a mug of boiling milk and espresso, and – horror of horrors – an “ice-cap”! Culture Trip Toronto enlisted an Italian cappuccino connoisseur to set Torontonians straight on what makes a good cappuccino, and where to find authentic versions in the city.
Firstly, its mellow creamy goodness is something to be savored at the cafe bar counter, not consumed on the run in paper cups. Secondly, and most importantly, it is a morning drink. In fact, ordering a cappuccino in Italy after 11 am may elicit derisive laughter from Italians who only drink it for breakfast or for a mid-morning break. How we came to enjoy cappuccino like a dessert topped with whipped cream and chocolate after a full dinner, in the evening, remains a mystery. The Italians believe that any milk product consumed after a meal would upset the digestive process.
However, while these gastronomic customs are good tips to remember while traveling in Italy, it must be said that they have no bearing on how this delightful drink is made. So what constitutes a good cappuccino? The simpatico barista at Tazza D’Oro, the cafe bar in the heart of Rome reputed to serve the best cappuccino in town, once, with a smile and a wink, gave these pearls of wisdom and tips:
To start with, the color of this milk beverage should be the tawny beige color of a capuchin monk’s robe for which it was named; its temperature must be mildly hot, and not scalding which makes the milk taste “cooked” and leaves a bitter aftertaste; the foam must be of the perfect viscosity, – a micro-foam which is thick and creamy – please spare me the 3” high dish soap suds that most cappuccinos here are topped with.
Higher foam does not correlate with better cappuccino.
So where do we go for a decent Italian-style cappuccino here in Toronto? Here are five of the best…
Stepping into Sud Forno Queen provides a complete experience; the ambiance, the smells, the sounds of the whirring coffee machine, and the cappuccino. Just a few doors down from its sister restaurant, the original Terroni, Sud Forno is Queen West’s must-visit Italian bakery. The smell of the fresh baked Pugliese bread as you enter transports you to the pasticcerie(pastry shops) of southern Italy. The pastry counter here is also filled with delectable confections from Nutella-filled cookies to Italian cornetti (croissants). And to still your beating hearts – artisanal ice cream. The cappuccino is served as it should be, in a thick ceramic cup and saucer, designed to preserve its temperature. It has a dense and rich microfoam, upon which the barista’s agile and skillful wrist leaves behind the shape of a heart.
JImmy’s Coffee, a little coffee house hidden away among the old buildings of Portland Ave, boasts big flavors. The long lineups at the counter attest to this fact; good, strong and well-defined coffee drinks are served here. The aroma of toasted coffee beans fills the air and makes up for the lack of a cafe bar atmosphere. No Lucite counters and slick glass shelves here; just a couple of barn wood tables with benches outside, a tin ceiling and a giant painting of Jimmy Hoffa. But when Myles, the barista, makes a cappuccino, it’s a work of art. With an engaging smile, he hands over cups of nicely balanced proportions of coffee, milk and foam. The flower design is the cherry on top. The cappuccino is thick and tasty. The coffee overpowers the drink somewhat, but the milk is frothed to perfection. Definitely worth a visit. In addition to the Portland Avenue location, you can find additional Jimmy’s Coffee locations on both Gerrard Street West and Baldwin Street.
Zaza Espresso Bar in Yorkville is the closest thing to any you’ll find in Italy. Its sign outside gives a playful salute to the two giants of the Italian comedic stage – Totò and Eduardo de Filippo drinking an espresso. Once inside, you can sidle over to the counter and ask simply for un caffèas they do in Italy, and you will be handed an authentic short espresso. The Italian barista, explains to customers that the cappuccino he’s placed before them is called the Caravaggio. He says that the light and dark foam is in homage to the painter’s chiaroscurotechnique of contrasting light and dark colors.
In the heart of Toronto’s Financial District the espresso giant, Lavazza Espression, has had the good sense to open its stylish, modern and inviting espresso bar. Spacious and comfortable, this coffee house offers a range of hot and cold dishes, a good number of coffee drinks, and – most importantly – a creamy cappuccino.
Yes – with the right equipment, it is possible to have a fabulous cappuccino right in your own home. Skip the coffee shop queue, grab the newspaper, and stay in your pajamas. All it takes is practice, a milk frother, the right coffee beans, and you could be sipping your handmade creamy concoction in the comfort of your own home.