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Espresso Yourself!

Traditional and Modern Italian Espresso Sets

Historically, Florentines and other Tuscans served espresso in their homes with handmade and hand-decorated porcelain espresso sets. Often made of white porcelain, each set was hand-painted with either a blue Renaissance design or with fruits and/or flowers, usually in blues and yellows. Still popular today, these sets – and their traditional patterns – are Tuscan specialties.

According to Wendy Paladini, co-owner of A Touch of Tuscany, a family-owned company in Florence, Italy, the coveted Italian ceramic used to make espresso sets is Maiolica, earthenware that was inspired by the Hispano-Moresque wares from the Island of Majorca. Maiolica was first imported into Italy in the 14th century.

"Before long, Italian potters began to copy and reproduce these popular wares," Paladini says. "To achieve the look, a hand-formed piece was fired, then covered with a white tin glaze. After the white glaze had dried, the piece was then hand-painted with colorful decorations before being fired again at 1,000 degrees F. This process resulted in a durable piece with a hard, shiny surface."

By the 15th century, Maiolica was nearly revered as an art form, and Tuscany produced the renowned "blue relief" wares, featuring the rich cobalt blue colors, from 1430 to 1460.

In addition to the traditionally designed sets, Tuscany now offers modern espresso serveware. Illy, the famous coffee producer, has manufactured modern espresso sets since 1992, and each year, the collections tend to sell out. Illy sets are white porcelain with vivid colors and decidedly non-traditional designs. Past collection designers have included film director Francis Ford Coppola, rock star David Byrne and artist Jeff Koons.

Whether your tastes run to the modern, whimsical or traditional, you can likely find an Italian espresso set to suit your taste. But why settle for just one when the choices are as delicious as the coffee itself?

The Perfect Espresso: It's All in the Pressure

While the beans are important and the grind is crucial, it's the brewing equipment that determines whether an espresso drink is mediocre, good or superb. And the Italians, who created espresso, have perfected the art of brewing it.

The Viennese, who improved on the original product by filtering this strong bitter drink, first introduced Italians to a form of Turkish coffee. After a centuries-old love affair with coffee, the Italians created and perfected the drink they called "espresso."

In spite of the fact that Frenchman Edward Loysel de Santais produced the first large steam espresso machine in the 1800s, the real breakthrough in espresso machines occurred in 1901. Luigi Bezza created an enormous restaurant machine that used trapped steam to generate roughly 22 pounds per square inch (psi) of pressure. "[It was then that] the technology and culture of caffè espresso was born," says coffee expert Kenneth Davids in his book Espresso: Ultimate Coffee (St. Martin's Griffin, 2001).

Although Bezza's machine was a real breakthrough, it still did not produce the amount of pressure needed to elicit maximum flavor from the coffee grounds. Later on, fellow Italian, Achille Gaggia, invented a piston-powered spring that activated the machine's lever, which lead to the production of the hydraulically powered piston espresso machine in the late 1950s. By the early 1960s, the modern espresso machine was born with such innovations as heated water and brewing pressure delivered by a pump.

The creation of automatic push-button espresso machines in the 1980s and 1990s made espresso brewing effortless and the results predictably good. But while the science of brewing espresso is easily explained, coffee lovers know that the magnificence of the perfect brew is beyond explanation.

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