Italy. One country that is venerated to a true place of honor in coffee contributions. Espresso, though only one manner of coffee infusion, pretty much began from popular Italian culture and the art of Italian espresso has helped sculpt the modern quality coffee world.
But despite the inspiration, the current coffee culture of Italy seems to differ from that of the many other countries it could claim to have inspired. I had heard it from many firsthand sources, such as from The Shot's wisdom and from World Barista Champion Giorgio Milos per a coffee class I covered (which also featured the knowledge of Illy man Moreno Faina) as well as from his diagnosis on American coffee (which is an article made into a great discussion by the comments). All in all it seems that some would say the non-Italian culture is inferior (this seems to be mostly Italians) and others would say it's just different.
So I decided to check out Italy myself. I recently had an opportunity to travel through Rome and Tuscany, so I had decided from the beginning to make some cafe stops and write up some reviews on the coffee. I scored some great recommendations (many from The Shot as well as some from internet research) and planned to make several cafes a must on the tours of the day (I even marked up my maps!).
Yet after going through a couple cafes, the differences in their product really seemed pronounced. My research told me that there were many cafes doing decent espresso but few serving great. This might sound blasphemous to some but of all the espresso I had in Italy, not one shot really stood out as amazing. I deduce that this seems to come down to the fact that espresso in Italy (traditionally) requires either sugar (straight espresso) or milk (cappuccinos) and I was drinking straight "cafe." As for taste, the espresso I had, at best turned out balanced (little bitter or sour notes) with flecks of citrus, tobacco and cocoa, or at worst bitter and lacking in other flavors.
And believe me when I say I sought out numerous cafes. I hit a bunch of big-name cafes, such as Sant'Eustachio (with the added sugar part of the initial espresso preparation) and Tazza D'Oro (with some really dark and oily beans prepared extremely poorly) in Rome as well as some in Florence, like Caffeteria Piansa, Pasticceria Robiglio and Caffe Giacosa Roberta Cavalli. All of these supposedly excellent cafes (according to the Bar d'Italia) but all of them produced only decent espresso. And also true to the earlier statement, the random other cafes I patronized had fairly decent espresso as well.
Thus, after several experiences, I decided not to write up reviews of the cafes I attended.
Why you may inquire? Well, the first reason was that I saw little point. One of my goals is to identify good coffeehouses so people don't have to drink bad coffee, but that proves difficult given that most coffee in Italy hovers around average-to-decent and the cafes exist everywhere (literally, you can't go 500 feet without seeing one in the cities).
The other reason has to do with different standards. An Italian espresso is meant to be consumed with sugar or milk (according to many, including Giorgio) and thus, it would be of little value to measure Italian espresso according to my non-Italian tastes (and my tastes look for an espresso that can bust a move all on its own).
Some would argue that Italy clings to tradition with their espresso and that as a result, many other countries' cafes have made greater strides with it. While I can't claim to know what country is best with espresso, I can say that I have had better espresso in America and the UK than in Italy. Blasphemy? Only if you hate constructive criticism.