The espresso romano is a simple yet intriguing beverage. In its purest form, it is an espresso served with a slice of lemon, even though its preparation may differ from café to café.
Despite this simplicity, however, there is still some confusion surrounding the drink. For starters, it goes by a different name in different parts of the world, and particular regions of Italy.
Furthermore, while the word “romano” is present in the beverage’s name, there is no definitive evidence that it has an historic link to either Rome or Italy.
Read on to learn more about the espresso romano, who drinks it, and its background and history.
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Overview: The Espresso Romano
The espresso romano is made by combining an espresso shot with a lemon slice or lemon juice and a teaspoon of sugar. The slice can be squeezed or dropped into the coffee, and is sometimes candied.
It’s a versatile drink that can be served hot, cold, or iced – and with or without milk. Some cafés also add anisette, a Mediterranean liqueur made from aniseed (similar to sambuca and pastis).
Massimiliano Mattone is a barista and consultant. He tells me that often, the oil from lemon peel may be squeezed into a cup before coffee is poured over it. Some drinkers will leave the peel in the cup, while others remove it.
The drink is popular in Italy’s Campania region, which includes the city of Naples, Capri, and the Amalfi Coast. Here, it’s often known as the caffè canarino or caffè al limone.
Local citizens claim the drink was invented in the town of Giugliano. Today, it is the town’s signature drink, and is considered a regional delicacy.
In this region, the espresso romano is often prepared with Sorrento lemons. Sorrento lemons have been granted a Geographical Indication certification by the European Union. This means that they’ve been independently verified and recognised for their quality and unique nature.
In addition, The National Trust for Italy (Fondo Ambiente Italiano) maintains a historical Sorrento lemon plantation called Baia Di Leranto near the Sorrentine peninsula.
Exploring Its Unique History
Despite the presence of the word “romano” in the drink’s name – meaning “Roman” – there are conflicting stories about the origin of the drink.
Some say it’s an American invention that’s been given a fake Italian heritage to attract tourists. Others claim that the drink was invented in France.
And while there is no definitive evidence that it is historically Italian, there are stories that suggest the drink may have originated there,.
Italians have consumed coffee brewed with a moka pot or an espresso machine for decades. The espresso machine was invented at the beginning of the 20th century, and the moka pot in the 1930s. Both are Italian inventions. However, in the early 20th century, thanks to the First and Second World War, there were limitations on imports in Italy.
During this time, Italians were forced to consume cheap instant coffee, often supplied by American soldiers. At this time, it likely tasted very poor, and completely unlike the soluble coffee available in stores today.
After the Second World War ended, it was still some time before the international coffee trade resumed, and there was a major economic crisis in Italy.
As the Italian people largely only had access to very poor-quality coffee, it’s likely that it was combined with lemon to conceal the more undesirable flavours they experienced.
The Flavours Of The Espresso Romano
Dr Wilton Soares Cardoso is a teacher and doctor at Brazil’s Instituto Federal de Educação, Ciência e Tecnologia. He says that when combining espresso and lemon, the sharpness and acidity of the lemon is effectively “balanced” by the intensity and bitterness of the espresso, and vice versa.
“Citric acid is linked to the freshness of citrus fruits,” he explains. “Because of the [coffee’s] bitterness, the acidity stands out, [as does] the [aroma] of the lemon.”
When the lemon and coffee are combined, it is naturally best that both ingredients are of high quality. When low-quality beans are used, the drink may become too bitter or intense, and drown out the distinctive flavours of the lemon.
Among some drinkers, the espresso romano also supposedly has the ability to mitigate the effects of a hangover. Caffeine naturally has vasoconstricting properties, which helps to relieve headache pain, while the essential oils in lemon aid digestion and speed up metabolic function.
The espresso romano is a strange drink. Despite the fact that it is seemingly simple, there seems to be little agreement on its origin and history. Furthermore, its name seems to be a subject of continued disagreement.
However, whether or not it was invented in the USA, France, Rome, or a small town in Campania, the drink has since become associated with Italian culture. Its balance of sharpness and acidity with intensity and bitterness draws parallels with modern specialty coffee culture. Who knows – maybe it’ll start to become popular elsewhere.
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Many thanks to David Cobelli for his help in the research carried out for this article.
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