An Espresso guide to Milan

Travelling far and wide and tasting all kinds of food and drink, we’re quite used to trying stuff of varying quality. It’s part of the adventure, and sometimes unfortunate tastes are what makes a place stick in our memory. As a Norwegian-Italian couple, however, there is ONE drink where we will accept nothing less than perfection: coffee.

Context: Norway, somewhat unexpectedly, tops all rankings of the biggest coffee-drinking nations. There’s coffee in the morning, coffee when you meet friends, coffee at lunch and coffee after work (not to mention the several coffee breaks during the workday). Forget Sweden and their fika, if there’s a country that lives and breathes kaffe, that’s Norway. And then, of course, there’s Italy, where coffee, in its pure espresso expression, is an art form. It’s where Starbucks hasn’t arrived yet, and won’t until late 2018.

Given the above, you can imagine the coffee-related despair that a decade living in the Isle of Tea Drinkers (aka Great Britain) can cause: for while it IS possible to find a good brew here, it is in most cases the exception, rather than the rule. And it was probably an Italian who made it anyway.

Things are oh-so-different in Italy, something we reflected on during our most recent trip back to the Bel Paese. There, wherever you go – no matter how dinky and apparently seedy the bar is – you can rest assured the coffee WILL be good. Even better than good, near perfect. It took a while to realise this, as the joy of an espresso is something understated, something Italians will not make a big fuss about (among themselves, that is. They’ll harp about it with foreigners until their ears bleed, as I discovered with Will). Walking into an otherwise nondescript cafe in a suburb in the outskirts of Rome, I did not expect I’d be having the best cappuccino of my life (something that nearly makes me cry in my London morning coffee. Every darn morning): and yet there it was – perfectly roasted coffee, with a layer of foamy milk heated to the correct temperature, which made it sweet and not burned. It came with some tasty, little pasticcini, to be enjoyed in the little terrace overlooking the Piazza, soaking up the November sun. Bliss.

Despite the perfection of the moment, that’s not what I associate with the “proper” way to have coffee – something that I developed while living in Milan. Back in the North, you hardly ever see anyone drinking coffee sitting down – and if you do, they’re probably tourists. The real Milanese – impeccably dressed, naturally elegant – they do not have time to sit down. Heck no, they have to go to work and time is money! The coffee, while essential, is drank standing up, straight as a shot, at the bar counter. And since you paid in advance, you’re in and out in a minute, a typical display of Milanese efficiency.

Google “top five coffees in Milan” and you will inevitably see the same few famous names come up. Prestigious bars, with lots of history, but most often in the tourist areas – something that detracts from the full experience. We decided to set out on our own instead, visiting the famous and the obscure, the central and the remote. Because after all, coffee is democratic and all you need is a good machine and skill, not a fancy name outside your door. We had coffee in each of them (we didn’t sleep that much that night) and ranked the cafes based on taste, presentation and, in pure Milanese style (we’re in a hurry!), speed of service.

Pasticceria Cova takes you back to another era of Milanese grandeur

Pasticceria Cova
Stroll down Milan’s legendary high fashion shopping street, Via Monte Napoleone, and between a heavily guarded Prada and an Armani you will soon find this classic Pasticceria. As you step in, the air of old-fashioned grandiosity is everywhere you look. The espresso comes in cute little cups with images of Milan on it, it’s served at the bar (where else?) and you have no choice but to drink it standing there, like real Milanese. We ain’t got no time to sit. Bonus points for a little chocolate to accompany it.

Speed: 4/5
Presentation 4/5
Taste: 5/5
Score: 13/15

Armani Café
One wouldn’t normally associate Armani and coffee (and I definitely wouldn’t wear Armani and drink coffee at the same time, I’d be 100% sure to spill). Armani and expensive suits, yes. Armani and quality denim, sure. Armani and the colour black, totally. But coffee? And yet, in the heart of Milan in via Manzoni, the brand’s flagship store hosts its very own café (and a very interesting book shop).

The gorgeous red sofas are so appealing, splashes of colour in the black-and-white surroundings, so we sit down until we realise – horror! – that table service pushes the price of a macchiato up by €3. You can get two espressos for less than that in any other bar, so we hurriedly stand up and head over to the bar before we are spotted by a waiter. We settle down on some (black) bar stools behind the (black) marble counter, and order two macchiatos. They are served with a tiny Armani chocolate. On brand AF.

Speed: 3/5 (we had time to sit down at bar stools)
Taste: 4/5
Presentation: 5/5
Score: 12/15

Designer coffee at Armani.

Caffe’ Sforzesco
Via Dante, on the walking route between Piazza del Duomo and the Sforzesco Castle, is full of tourists and shoppers at every time of the day and the night. Even so, as we walk in, head to the cassa and order two macchiatos, we get the feeling that the staff knows how to recognise the locals coming in here – and thankfully we passed the test. We also buy ourselves two little cremino chocolates that we eat with our coffee, their over-the-top sweetness a nice match for the strong flavour of our drinks.

Speed: 4/5
Taste: 5/5
Presentation: 3/5
Score: 12/15

Service within 30 seconds AND they get the time to draw on our cappuccino. Bravo.

Pasticceria Grossi
This is a café in Piazzale Udine, a bit outside the city centre of Milan. It’s not somewhere you’d end up on a regular tour of the city and the only reason we walk in is because we have parked our car in the area, and they have a nice window display. It’s a proper neighbourhood cafe, where the locals come to buy croissants and other pasticcini to take away: only later we discover its cakes are famous  (earning this Pasticceria an entry in our “let’s go there again” list).

As it’s quite early in the morning, we order two cappuccinos (real Italians throw suspicious looks if you have cappuccino after 10.30am), and I am instantly won over as the barista draws a heart with chocolate sauce in the milk foam of my coffee (Will gets a flower. Not sure they can draw racing cars on cappuccinos).

Even though it’s a longer drink than an espresso, and we’ve ordered a croissant too, we drink it standing up at the bar (is there any other way in Milan, seriously?) accompanied by the chit-chat and gossip of the non-stop stream of locals (the barista knows everyone by name) and the clac-clac of the coffee machine as the barista prepares the next order.

Speed: 5/5
Taste: 5/5
Presentation 5/5
Score: 15/15

Bar Magenta
This bar is one of Milan’s oldest, and while Will wouldn’t generally associate it with coffee (but rather with an aperitivo, another of Milan’s traditions) according to Google it’s famous for it. And you don’t disagree with the G. The espresso here is served in a larger cup than you would usually see elsewhere in town. Maybe we’ve had too much coffee by this point in the day (blurred vision? Shaking hands?), but we aren’t too impressed. Beats coffees from most other places in the world hands down – but when you’re on the hunt for the best of the best… we’d rather keep this for an Aperol Spritz.

Speed: 3/5
Taste: 3/5
Presentation: 3/5
Score: 9/15

This little exploration of famous (and not so famous) coffee places around Milan made us realise a truth we suspected before: that wherever you go in Italy, you’re almost guaranteed to get an amazing cup of coffee. You don’t need to go to some famous, expensive place – we find the farther out into the suburbs you go, the better the coffee gets, as the true locals wouldn’t settle for anything less than perfection. From the streets of Garbatella in Roma to Piazzale Udine in Milan (and our very local place in Lucino, Rodano), that is where we found espresso perfection.

  • Bar Foschi: Piazza Bartolomeo Romano 3, 00154, Garbatella, Roma (ITA). Mon-Sun 7am-12am.
  • Pasticceria Cova: Via Monte Napoleone 8, 20121, Milano (ITA). Mon-Sat 7:45am-8:30pm, Sun 10am-7pm.
  • Emporio Armani Caffe’: Via Croce Rossa 2, 20121, Milano (ITA). Mon-Fri 8.30am-9pm, Sat-Sun 9am-9pm.
  • Caffe’ Sforzesco: Via Dante, 20123, Milano (ITA).
  • Pasticceria Grossi: Piazzale Udine 8, 20132, Milano (ITA).
  • Bar Magenta: Via Carducci 13, 20123, Milano (ITA). Mon-Thu 7am-2:30am, Fri 4:30am-12am, Sat 24 hours, Sun 7am-2:30am.
  • Non Solo Barbera: Piazza IV Novembre 1, 20090, Rodano, MI (ITA). Mon, Wed-Sat 7am-12am, Sun 7:30am-12am.

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