Kean Coffee's Italian cappuccino
Kean Coffee's Italian cappuccino
Dave Lieberman

Dueling Dishes: Battle Cappuccino

As hard as it may be to believe, I am not a die-hard coffee snob. I do not care to memorize the names of coffee estates as though they were domains in Bordeaux. I don't trust any place that gives me a palate cleanser before my espresso, and I'm not yet convinced that the fancy coffeehouses of Los Angeles are not just making up the names of these coffee plantations with a Boggle set or a Bantu-language lorem-ipsum generator so they can sell a shot of espresso for $4.

That said, there are still good coffees and bad coffees. If the coffee came out of the same spigot as the milk and the chocolate for little Suzy's hot cocoa, you are in a convenience store or a gas station, and you are unlikely to get a good cup of coffee. If you're in a place that rhymes with "bar sucks," you're equally unlikely to get a good cup of coffee.

When it comes to espresso drinks, it gets even worse: A huge amount of milk goes into a cup to mask the taste of terrible coffee, and a double shot of espresso ends up a distended, corpulent, ecru freak at 21 fluid ounces, all in the name of caffè latte. If you replace the top 2 inches of foam on your latte with 4 inches of foam, say the big-chain coffeehouses, it's now a cappuccino.

No.  No, it's not. A cappuccino is a small drink, never more than about 6 fluid ounces total (including the foam), that contains approximately equal parts espresso, steamed milk and milk foam. Even the smallest cup at "Bar Sucks," the unadvertised "short," is an 8-ounce cup; it is impossible to order a real cappuccino there.

Fortunately, here in Orange County, Martin Diedrich has actually been to Italy and knows what a cappuccino is; his two Kean Coffee shops (in Newport Beach and Tustin) sell it as "Italian cappuccino," and the menu states resolutely that it comes in exactly one size: 6 fluid ounces.

But is it real? Does it stack up against a real Italian cappuccino, the kind of drink that is great and available in absolutely any Italian bar?

To find out, the Weekly's travel department sent me to Cortina d'Ampezzo, in the Italian Alps near the Austrian border, to find out. Stumbling out of my first-class fully flat sleeper suite in Venice, I made my way to the airport bar.

"Vorrei un cappuccino, per piacere," I mumbled, fogged with fatigue. In no time at all, a small mug of hot coffee, perfectly prepared, and a packet of tan sugar arrived. The cappuccino disappeared in a few sips, and I'll admit to dunking part of a cornetto--a sweet take on a croissant--into the drink.

It was a scene that repeated itself many times during my (completely deductible) ski research trip, though never after lunch: Italians only drink cappuccino in the morning, since the rest of the day, they're fueled by strong slugs of espresso so strong it should have an octane rating. Order a cappuccino, pay a couple of euros, and enjoy caffeinated bliss.

Back home, jetlagged and depressed by the offerings at the large coffee chains (let me tell you how obscene those new Trenta-sized cold drink cups look after two weeks in Europe), I stumbled into Kean's Tustin location for a pick-me-up.

"Vorrei un cappuccino, per piacere," I mumbled, fogged with fatigue.

"Um, sorry?" replied the barista.

I apologized and tried the order again, this time in English. A few minutes later, my name was called, and I took the cup back to the table. Sugar went in; I stirred gently so as not to ruin the foam. A sip . . . perfect. Just as good as in Italy.

So now the question is--why? Why is it only at Kean Coffee that I can get the world's most perfect breakfast caffeine hit? Why is it not possible to get a reasonable facsimile at the thousands and thousands of caffeine cashpoints that purport to elevate the American coffee experience, when every single bar in the Repubblica Italiana can manage to create it without fuss?


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