Lemon trees thrive in a warm, dry Mediterranean climate, so it’s no wonder that the tart fruits are a staple in a host of Mediterranean cuisines. From Morocco to Greece, lemons have made their way into every meal of the day. Italians aren’t immune to their affection for lemons; if you look, you’ll find them in some surprising places on the Italian menu. Veal piccata is famously lemony, but the fruit’s tart juice and flavorful zest also brighten salads, desserts, mixed drinks and even cups of the quintessentially Italian drink, espresso.
The Italian love affair with lemons is a long-lasting one. Lemon trees first appeared in Italy about two millennia ago, but the Romans considered the fragrant yellow fruits a perfume rather than an ingredient. Medieval Italian cooks realized that lemons were more than just a pretty scent; they used them with abandon in sweet and savory dishes.
Lemons did more than make food delicious; their high acidity also helped preserve foods. The earliest Renaissance physicians didn’t know about vitamin C, but they knew that lemons were healthy and recommended that everyone eat them regularly. The fruit’s acidity and fresh fragrance made it the perfect foil for fish. Sorrento lemons became famous worldwide for their exceptional flavor and strongly perfumed zest. They’re the basis for limoncello, the brilliant yellow lemon-zest liqueur from the Amalfi coast.
From a touch of tart lemon in your Italian vinaigrette to a generous squeeze of juice in your plate of chicken scarpariello to the curl of zest with your espresso, lemons enliven every course of an Italian dinner. You’ll also find it gracing simple fish dishes seasoned with little more than olive oil, pepper and lemons. Some chefs use a splash of lemon juice to brighten the flavor of a slow-cooked tomato sauce or act as a counterpart to the rich butter and garlic in traditional shrimp scampi.
Lemons also shine in Italian desserts. In sweet dishes, the perfume-like notes of lemon’s characteristic flavor come through as their tartness mellows. Italian bakers use lemon extensively in biscotti, cookies and cakes, often combining the citrus fruit with anise or almonds. Lemon-infused custards are a popular winter treat in Italy; for summer, lemon ices keep Italians cool under the strong Mediterranean sun.
That twist of lemon peel alongside your espresso got its start in America from an unknown Italian-American restaurateur who wanted to combine his love of lemons with his passion for powerful Italian coffee. Although the pairing didn’t originate in Italy, it’s found quite a following among Italian coffee drinkers who appreciate yet another way to enjoy their favorite fruit.
Celebrate luscious lemons at Carlino’s with a menu built around them. Start with a lemon drop cocktail or a glass of lemonade, then enjoy a bowl of stracciatella alla Romana, the Italian version of egg drop soup. Follow it with a lemon-laced entree such as veal piccata or shrimp Francese. Ask about our dessert menu to discover lemon’s sweeter side, or skip dessert in favor of a cup of espresso with its trademark lemon twist.
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It may seem strange that the country most famous for elevating a cup of coffee to an art form doesn’t grow it, but the perfect cup of espresso is quintessentially Italian even if coffee beans are not. Only in Italy could the fusion of art and science needed to create espresso, cappuccino and macchiato take place.
Espresso is to regular drip coffee what a Ferrari is to a domestic minivan. While other coffee-brewing methods rely on gravity to take its slow course, an espresso machine injects hot water and steam through finely ground coffee under high pressure. This process extracts more essential oils and flavors from the coffee, giving you a richer-tasting cup. Italian espresso tastes so bold that it’s customarily served in demitasse cups, usually with a twist of lemon to add a bracing tartness to the drink.
Big flavor isn’t the only extra ingredient filling that little cup of espresso. Coffee is rich in polyphenols, disease-fighting antioxidants that also give red wine and chocolate their healthful properties. An espresso machine extracts more of these natural health boosters. If caffeine is a concern then, espresso is a healthy choice on that score as well. Because the espresso machine leaves the coffee grounds in contact with the water for less time, less of the water-soluble caffeine winds up in your cup. A typical double espresso only has about 50 milligrams of caffeine; compared to a cup of standard coffee with its 150 milligrams of caffeine, that after dinner espresso is likelier to let you sleep tonight.
Now that you know the science behind your espresso, admire the art of Italian coffee. Espresso’s health benefits also belong to the other coffee concoctions Italian baristas have created, so if you prefer something other than straight espresso, you’ll still be doing your body and your palate a favor.
If you’re new to Italian coffee, try one of these favorites.
- Cappuccino is espresso with a froth of steamed milk. Italian baristas gave it its fanciful name because its light brown hue resembles the color of a Capuchin monk’s distinctive robes.
- Macchiato is Italian for “stained” and refers to espresso with just enough milk mixed in to change its color. Baristas typically add a teaspoon or so of foamed milk to the top to distinguish it from straight espresso.
- Cafe latte, or coffee with milk, contains less coffee and more milk than the previous coffee-based espresso drinks. It’s the Italian version of the French cafe au lait.
- Latte macchiato, as you might have guessed, means “stained milk.” If your cup contains more milk than espresso, you’re probably drinking a latte macchiato.
It’s rare to find a treat that’s good for you, but espresso fills the bill. Drink a cup of it to your health.Tweet read more