Starbucks. Love it or hate it, the Seattle java chain has improved coffee standards all over the country. But try getting a good cappuccino there.
That's what I recently did with Zane Williams, the Madison photographer known for, among other things, books like Madison and Double Take: A Rephotographic Survey of Madison, Wisconsin. In Rome, and at cafes in cities as far-flung as Honolulu and Dubrov-nik, Williams has drunk perfect cappuccinos: well-proportioned concoctions of espresso, steamed milk and milk foam that are served, not too hot, in ceramic cups, and drunk completely in just three or four mouthfuls.
Unfortunately, he laments, the quality of cappuccinos varies greatly in Madison. He and I decided to measure just how greatly. We sampled cappuccinos at more than a dozen Madison cafes. They generally cost between $2 and $3. What we got, too often, was far from that Italian ideal.
When we visited the Starbucks on Capitol Square, 1 E. Main St., a confused discussion with the barista ensued after Williams ordered what we wanted: classic, Italian-style cappuccinos. The barista looked blank. Williams described the recipe and explained that the cup should be much smaller than the chain's 12-ounce "tall." There were no ceramic cups that size, though, so we got our brimming cappuccinos in those 12-ounce cups.
The drinks were too milky. "This is a latte," complained Williams. The milk was scalded. The color was like dishwater.
We mused over Starbucks' seemingly endless choices: "In America, you can have coffee any way you want it, six ways and backwards," said Williams. "In Italy, it's this thing that's so simple and elegant, you don't want it any other way."
That simple elegance has been codified, in Italy, by the Italian Espresso National Institute. Founded in 1998, it strives to protect and preserve authentic Italian espresso drinks.
The institute's cappuccino recipe may surprise Americans accustomed to coffee drinks of up to 20 fluid ounces. A cappuccino cup should measure about 5 ounces. It should be of white porcelain. The drink begins with a single shot of espresso, about an ounce. To the espresso is added just over an ounce of whole milk steamed to no more than 131 F, and an equivalent amount of creamy foam, making a beverage that is one-third espresso, one-third milk and, on top, one-third foam.
All that results in a drink that is modest in size and drinkable right away. That's the classic cappuccino, and to get one in Madison, you either have to be very precise when you order, or you have to order from baristas who know what this thing is.
So where is that classic cappuccino? Williams and I were a little surprised that we got some of the very best stuff at Mother Fool's, the comfortably boho cafe at 1101 Williamson St. - surprised because the all-vegan menu is touted there, and the classic cappuccino is not vegan. But when Williams ordered our drinks - two small, or short, cappuccinos - the barista nodded crisply and, moments later, produced two perfectly sized cups.
They were beautiful. Around the layer of white froth on the top was a healthy swirl of brown crema, the dark foam that rests on top of well-made espresso. The drinks were the perfect temperature.
"Pleasing," said Williams. He praised "the smoothness, and a hint of sweetness that's hardest to achieve. That's the elusive character of cappuccino when the proportions are on the money, the roast isn't too harsh, and the milk is really fresh and sweet."
Impressed, we asked the barista how she got so good. "I was born good," she replied.
Also good was the cappuccino at Ancora, 112 King St., and at Steep & Brew, 544 State St. And thoroughly delightful was our experience at Espresso Royale, 650 State St. Early on a Monday morning the place was pleasantly bustling, and a long line of college-age customers waited.
The woman working the espresso machine was quietly efficient as she made our very fine cappuccinos. "They really crank those suckers out," said Williams, admiringly, "and they do it with consistency and a great deal of finesse."
Almost as good as those four was the well-proportioned cappuccino we drank at Ground Zero, 744 Williamson St. Our only concerns: it was too hot, and the espresso had a slightly burned taste.
One reason we liked those five cappuccinos is that they came in small cups with rounded sides. At other cafes we visited - Michelangelo's (114 State St.), Barriques (127 W. Washington Ave.), Victor Allen's (2623 Monroe St.) - the smallest available cups were much larger than five ounces, and the baristas filled them to the rim.
Indeed, the problems of American espresso have much to do with cups. Starbucks and its ilk have made the paper cup all but de rigueur, but paper does not properly retain heat. Meanwhile, many independent American coffee houses have bohemian roots, and their cups have been collected in a bewildering variety of shapes and sizes. Consistency is important, and it's hard to achieve with a motley collection of cups.
That point was made clear to us at EVP, the cozy east-side java den at 1250 E. Washington Ave. When we ordered two small cappuccinos, we got one in a medium-size, rounded cup, the other in a larger, glass mug. The one in the cup was fine, but the one in the mug was too milky. And due, I think, to the straight sides of the mug, no crema poked up through the foam.
Which is to say: We ordered two of the same drink, but got two very different drinks, mostly because the cups were very different.
The least satisfying cappuccinos arrived after long discussions with baristas about what we wanted. One of those took place at Fair Trade Coffee House, 418 State St., where the sullen barista was annoyed by our specificity and got the order wrong. We ended up not with cappuccino but with espresso macchiato: espresso with just a little milk and foam.
We also had an unnerving experience at Electric Earth, 546 W. Washington Ave. Only coffee mugs were available, not cups, and Williams was at pains to explain what we wanted. "It's one shot of espresso," he offered.
"We start with two shots," said the barista. That was the end of that discussion. We wound up, again, with macchiato.
But the most disappointing experience came at Osteria Papavero, the Italian restaurant that opened last year at 128 E. Wilson St., and that is a favorite of Williams' for its food. When we ordered, the employee apologetically volunteered that he had never before made cappuccinos. He prepared a round for us which we sipped tentatively before he threw them out. They were not good. Then he prepared a second round, which we sipped tentatively - also not good - before the just-arrived bartender threw them out and prepared a third round. These were okay, but I was so rattled by the confusion that I left mine unfinished.
A cappuccino crawl can be unsettling. Sometimes getting what you want is exhausting. But some baristas did give us exactly what we wanted, with little prompting, and that is cause for hope. Italian cappuccino is a standard espresso drink, and when it is well made, there is nothing like it. It is worth fussing over.
"It is," says Zane Williams, "one of the small experiences that make life worthwhile."