The Americanization of Cappuccino

Last month I wrote about the sea-change (never for the better) that most Italian dishes and specialties seem to undergo in their voyage from Italy to our shores. Nowhere is this more apparent than in what has happened to the wonderful Italian breakfast coffee, cappuccino. In the past few years coffee and espresso houses have mushroomed throughout the country and cappuccino has become something of an "in" beverage, in versions, alas, that have no counterpart in Italy!

First of all, Italians usually drink espresso after dinner, whereas cappuccino is a breakfast beverage, often served with some type of croissant (cornetto or brioche in Italian usage).

Cappuccino is named after the color of the Capuchin monk's habit, which is light/darkish brown with a white hood. Indeed, the word for hood, cappuccio, is often used colloquially for the beverage. In Italy, it's simply a stiff draught of espresso served in a normal sized cup, with steamed milk rapidly swirled on top and perhaps a small dollop of white foam in the center. The color should be milk-chocolate brown with that spot or dollop of white in the center and one should be able to taste the coffee.

What is passing for cappuccino on these shores seems closer to an ice cream soda, with little coffee, much hot milk, and mound upon mound of dry foam piled several inches above the rim of the cup. A visiting Italian friend of mine was vastly amused, and a little puzzled, as he watched the wait-person in one of our most popular coffee chains use a thermometer for the milk temperature (a totally unnecessary technological touch which he regarded as typically American) as he scooped out mound upon mound of foam onto the coffee. No such procedure is normal for genuine cappuccino. And, of course, there was hardly a taste of coffee in the entire concoction, since there was little more than hot milk and foam, foam, foam!

One final word to the wise. In Italy a cappuccino is a cappuccino. While it is possible to order it made with decaf coffee, there is no such thing as small, medium, or large. But we Americans seem simply incapable of accepting an authentic dish in its genuine form, as though everything needs to be "glamorized" in some odd way, or made to seem technologically complex. Yet we stubbornly cling to the illusion (or delusion?) that we are consuming the real thing!

by Al Cirillo


Hi there,

I just wanted to let you know that your article titled 'Americanization of Cappuccino' confirmed my skepticism that Starbucks was just doing it wrong. I went into Starbucks one day to order a cappuccino because I was just too lazy to make one that day. I ordered their equivalent of a large. I was extremely disappointed because they served it to me in a long narrow disposable cup (as always) and suffice it to say, the cup was 2/3 full of foam and 1/3 coffee/milk. The coffee was very very weak, and the drink resembled some odd variation of hot chocolate but without the sweetness.

People always tell me that since I don't like starbucks coffee, I'm not "sophisticated" like them. But in reality, they don't know good coffee. They also don't realize that coffee connoisseurs don't prefer to drink coffee with a heaping helping of whipped cream on top.

Thanks again for clearing up the cappuccino misconceptions!

Brigitta