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Food + Cooking

Nespresso Junkie

The best espresso in America doesn’t come from a café or a stovetop machine—it comes from a foil capsule.

The saddest moment of the day for me comes when I turn the thing off before bedtime. I feel abandoned, disconnected, somehow impoverished both viscerally and spiritually. Overnight, I sometimes dream about it. I sometimes imagine that I hear it calling my name, or see, in my dormant mind’s eye, that little “on” light flickering to life, winking at me, teasing me. It’s the first thing I think about when I wake up in the morning. I sigh an inward sigh of relief when I power it up. I realize that it’s just a machine, a tool, a means of dealing with the world. But I’ve become obsessed with it. It occupies a central place in my life. I bought it, but it owns me.

My Blackberry? My iPhone? Are you kidding? What would I want one of those contraptions for? I’m talking about my espresso machine. I love good espresso—a short, concentrated draught of intensely flavored coffee with a long-lasting, creamy foam on top—but I very seldom find it on these shores. I’ve ordered espresso in first-rate restaurants from Manhattan to Manhattan Beach and ended up with cups of foamless sludge. I’ve left dinner parties early when I see the host bring out one of those little stovetop pots with the caricature Italian pointing his finger upwards (the muddy water they yield leads me to suspect that the little fellow’s gesture must mean something rather rude). Starbucks? A wonderful company in many ways, but its espresso is a joke—flat, burnt, topped (at best) with a thin film of quickly dissipating foam instead of a persistent crema.

The obvious thing would have been for me to buy my own espresso machine and make really good stuff myself. Over the years, though, I’d seen demonstrations of a number of home units and had never been impressed; there’d be all this huffing and puffing and then just sort of ordinary coffee would dribble out. I’d always told myself that I wouldn’t buy a home machine until I could afford a real, professional-quality one, the kind that would take up the entire kitchen counter. Then one night I was talking coffee with my friend Steven—who grew up in Rome, one of Italy’s great espresso capitals, along with Naples and Trieste. “You should get a Nespresso,” he said. “It makes really good coffee and the crema is great. You can get a great little one for about three hundred bucks."

A week later, I had one. I got the entry-level machine, “Le Cube,” which is small, cuboid in shape, available in several colors (I went with basic black), and trimmed in chrome. I plugged it in, filled the clear plastic reservoir with water, fired it up, slipped in a capsule (more on that below), and pressed the button. A few seconds later I was standing at a little bar somewhere in Italy sipping the very essence of coffee, complete with opulent crema. I was hooked.

Okay. Bad news, good news. Bad first: You have to use Nespresso’s foil capsules. These cost 50 cents apiece when I got my machine and have since gone up to 55 cents for any of the 13 regular blends, 62 cents for three super-premium “Pure Origins” varieties. (One of the first things I did when I got the machine was to try to figure out a way to refill the capsules with coffee of my own; uh-uh, can’t be done. These guys ain’t dumb.) And the mechanics aren’t perfect: The amount of foam produced can vary; the spent capsule has been known to get stuck in place; and sometimes the capsules don’t perforate properly and nothing comes out. Le Cube has personality, in other words. Now the good news: The blends, which include four varieties packed to produce “longer” portions than conventional espresso, cover a range of styles from grassy to chocolaty, acidic to soft (and Nespresso’s “sustainable quality” program of coffee buying won the Rainforest Alliance’s Corporate Green Globe Award a couple of years ago). And the price? Sure, I end up drinking five or six dollars’ worth of coffee a day with this system—but I’d be spending more than that if I bought a couple of Wild Cherry Pickled Ginger Almond-Milk Frappazappas at that place in the mini-mall, and I wouldn’t really be getting coffee at all.

Best of all, though, what steams forth from Le Cube tastes really, really good. Addictively good. So good that about the only time I don’t have a cup at hand or on the near horizon is when I travel. But speaking of that, it has occurred to me to wonder, as I watch all those road warriors opening up their laptops now that we’ve reached cruising altitude: Would Le Cube be considered an approved electronic device?