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Demitasse — From Around the World

by Bruce Milletto
President, Bellissimo Coffee InfoGroup
Founder, American Barista & Coffee School

Throughout the ‘90s, I made many trips to Italy. On each visit, I delighted in the unique cups I saw in the bars I visited, so much that I would consider starting a collection of these perfectly proportional vessels, called tazzini in Italian. My fear of getting them back to Oregon unscathed was a roadblock to collecting, but every time I returned home I would regret that I had not made the effort to stow some of these ceramic gems in my suitcase and take the chance that they would arrive in America in one piece.

Then, in October 1997, a dear friend took me to a unique bar in Amalfi called Caffé Maresca. Not only was the bar extraordinary, but the demitasse cups were unbelievably distinctive. I loved the industrial art design of the cups and I thought about trying to buy one, but instead I only committed to my friend that one day I would like to start my own tazzini collection. Two months later, a small package arrived just in time for Christmas containing a cup from Caffé Maresca.

This was the first in a collection that now includes more than 200 demitasse cups from nine countries. Many of the cups are from well-known coffee roasters and machine dealers. The ones I cherish most are those that bring back memories or are rare or unique in style and design.

On my most recent trip to Italy, I brought back more than 20 cups. Obviously, I no longer worry about breaking them en route or lugging them through airport security. This pictorial will give readers a glimpse of the artistry and energy that is applied to this tool that is primary and essential to the foundation of the espresso industry. Espresso is meant to be served in a demi. The cup has the right size, shape and thickness to hold in the heat of the espresso, but it also has a design that gives tactile pleasure to the user when handling it.


It is obvious that these cups are from the mother country of coffee: Ethiopia. The one on the right has no handle and is typical of the shape of most coffee cups there. During the traditional Ethiopian coffee ceremony, a rich, deep brew is prepared by pounding freshly pan-roasted coffee beans with a pestle in a hollow stump. The coffee is then trickled into a black earthenware pot (as with cowboy coffee) and steeped over hot coals.


All five of these cups are from Florence, Italy. Harry’s bar, a famous haunt of writers and artists, has long been established on the Arno River. The city is home to two of the most famous coffee bars in all of Italy: Paszowski, which opened in 1846, and Gilli, established in 1733. Two of the finest bars in Florence are located only a piazza away from each other: B. Gallo, with its cutting-edge architecture and flair for the hip, and Fratelli Degl Innocenti, which serves the best cappuccino, pastry and panini in the city but above all has the warmest service. Stephano, the bar’s owner, has a smile filled with such warmth that it makes you feel like a dear friend, even on your first visit.


The demi on the left has a retro feel, and the other is lovely for its rare motif. In today’s U.S. climate of political correctness, neither logo probably would be acceptable, but just as Aunt Jemima represented great pancakes on boxes of mix sold stateside years ago, companies in other countries have used stereotypical images to depict the origin of coffee.

As mentioned earlier, the cup from Caffé Maresca was the start of the collection. Its bold military art design likely was created after World War II and is very rare. I found the cup from café de Eland, which depicts a moose, on a barge in Amsterdam. On another barge in Amsterdam, I found the cup from The Grasshopper Bar, which is well known for selling certain herbs that can accompany a shot of espresso.

 

Bar De Martino is my favorite bar in all of Italy, in part because it is in Positano, but mostly because of the owner Chero De Martino and his family, who run this little bar overlooking the Amalfi coast. Simply by looking at this cup, I can smell the sea air, feel the sun and see the old men playing cards in the corner of the bar.

Romcaffé is a famous coffee from Macerata. I have many cups that bear the company’s newer designs, but I always remember this old one. On my last trip to the city, a bar owner went upstairs and 30 minutes later appeared with the last cup he had with this design, and he gave it to me as a gift. A company at an exhibition in Italy gave me the cup on the right after I marveled at the unique logo. The company and origin of the cup are unknown, but it is a truly unusual find.


This cup from Café Ricos depicts scenes from Milan. Pictured are the Duomo, the galleria and the castle of the city. Collecting demitasse with themes is popular, and illycaffe is known for producing some amazing sets. What struck me about this cup is that the painting was done exclusively for one small bar in the heart of Milan.


This beautiful cup is from Egypt. Although the cup is not an antique, the age-old design is exquisite, and it’s convivial in it’s traditional look and feel.

On a trip to the big island of Hawaii, I took a break from driving up the coast, and stopped in a very small and cluttered antique shop overlooking the ocean.

I was shocked to find this cup, which I would guess is quite old. I wonder how many people visited the Cherokee Village in the 1940’s were buying these to take home to use to drink their espresso. This find was simply amazing!

About 10 years ago, I met a man named Paolo Della Puppa, who at the time worked for Kobrick’s Coffee in New York. Formerly in the music industry (having toured with the likes of Madonna), he told me of his dream to open his own café. About five years ago, he opened Via Quodronno in New York, and the café became instantly famous. Martha Stewart did an entire show onsite. And if you ever met Paolo, you would understand why. There are now Via Quodronno Café’s in Tokyo and Coral Gables, Fla. He once told me the story of the flying pig depicted on the cup, but it would require several pages to explain.


On a recent trip to Manhattan, I walked for hours and found myself quite by accident in little Italy. I purchased myself this nontraditional yet warm and amusing piece, and it the only one that ever got broken in transport. I was crushed until a few weeks later, when I was at an autostrada stop in Italy and, to my great surprise, found the same cup.

 

Bruce Milletto is founder of The American Barista and Coffee School and Bellissimo Coffee InfoGroup. He is recognized by the press and the coffee industry internationally as the voice of North America’s specialty coffee industry.


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