The recent opening of Starbucks’ first outpost in Italy in September has sparked controversy, eliciting nationwide nostalgia over the country’s supposed historical coffee traditions. More than a few friends have remarked to me that Italy doesn’t want or need America’s secchi di caffè, or “buckets of coffee.” Codacons, a consumer protection agency, has lodged a formal complaint with the Antitrust Authority against Starbucks for their above-average pricing—€1.80 for an espresso and €4.50 for a cappuccino—citing these amounts as well above the norm.
The ritual of drinking espresso is one of the few customs that connects Italians, transcending the differences that define Italy’s 20 disparate regions more than a century and a half after Unification. Today, coffee—and specifically espresso—is enjoyed country-wide, served at fueling station-like cafés and consumed on the fly. This method of enjoying coffee is relatively new, however.
Coffee arrived in Italy in the 17th century and was an expensive, elite beverage until the late 19th century, when technological advances—and, subsequently, politics—brought it to the masses. The short, fast espresso drink we know today entered Italian culture in the 1930s when the horizontal espresso machine was patented and the Fascist regime promoted espresso drinking amongst laborers to encourage hard work. Just as coffee culture was peaking, Mussolini’s government faced sanctions and tariffs that caused coffee prices to rise. Rather than abandon their new custom of drinking shots of their popular caffeinated beverage, coffee drinkers got creative, giving rise to drinks like caffè corretto.
Caffè corretto is essentially espresso spiked with alcohol. Before it became popular, combining coffee and alcohol wasn’t completely unknown in Italy. But coffee mixed with alcohol sold under the name “caffè corretto” doesn’t enter the Italian mainstream until the second quarter of the 20th century.
“Linguistically, the fact that caffè corretto means ‘corrected coffee’ is likely related to the Fascist era,” says historian Dr. Diana Garvin. “When tariffs on coffee went up, it once again became an elite beverage. Rather than go without, people created coffee substitutes using orzo and chicory. One thing that makes these bitter beverages taste better is adding alcohol. My guess is that the phrase ‘correction’ refers to this masking of bad flavor.”
While caffè corretto was consumed all over Italy, the way it was drunk varied regionally. In the north, coffee was “corrected” with grappa, brandy or aquavit and was consumed by farmers and workers in the morning to warm them up. Meanwhile in central and south-central Italy, anisette-flavored caffè corretto followed meals and served a digestive function. The postprandial espresso was combined with saffron-tinted Strega in Benevento or Listerine-green Centerba in Abruzzo.
Following the 1930s, caffè corretto continued to be served throughout Italy, though its popularity has waned. “Caffè corretto used to be the go-to drink after meals. It was especially common to eat lunch at home, then meet up with friends at the café for a caffè corretto before heading back to work,” says Cristian Bezzecchi, owner of Bar Roma in Novellara, in the Emilia-Romagna region, echoing an observation often reported by Italy’s baristas. “Here in Emilia-Romanga, the alcohol of choice was grappa or something anise-flavored. Some even corrected their coffee with Lambrusco. Now people rarely order caffè corretto, and those who do are usually very old.”
Meanwhile, various caffè corretto and boozy espresso drinks have found their way to America. At A16 in San Francisco and Oakland, espresso is served with a side of grappa, while Chicago’s Monteverde lets diners choose the spirit that accompanies their espresso—Luxardo Sambuca, Bonollo Gra’it Grappa or Hine H Cognac. Del Posto in New York also serves espresso that can be “corrected” with any number of bottles from their massive selection of Italian and international spirits.
While American takes on caffè corretto lack the regional distinctions of their Italian heritage, it has become a more common sight in the northeast. At Palizzi Social Club, a membership-based Italian-American restaurant in Philadelphia, manager and bartender Guido Martelli serves a coffee cocktail he calls D’Amo after one of the club’s founding members. The D’Amo features brown butter-washed amaro and espresso and, while it is on the cocktail menu, Martelli suggests it at the end of a meal. “If people don’t want dessert, I suggest they order D’Amo instead,” he says. “It’s not very sweet; it’s a little savory.”
At Caffè Marchio in New York, bottles of Montenegro, Fernet Branca, Ramazzotti, Cynar and Braulio are displayed dead center above the espresso machines. The Italian-style bar is inspired by the fueling station-style cafés of Italy, which would show off a similar array of digestif bottles as a sort of advertisement for the brands available for the addition to coffee.
“People are inquisitive and see liquor bottles and aren’t used to seeing them in a café, much less served with coffee,” says bar manager Greg Cochran, acknowledging that caffè corretto is a bit of a hand-sell. “We hope that it catches on, but it’s a bit of an uphill battle because here it’s not yet part of the culture.” Back in Italy, Bezzecchi faces a similar challenge in promoting caffè corretto, but remarks that orders aren’t exclusively limited to the aging: “Every now and again, I’ll get an order from a young person with a romantic affection for the past.”