There’s Nothing Better Than a Post-Dinner EspressoPhoto by Adi Goldstein/Unsplash Drink Features Coffee
I remember the first time I was ever offered an espresso after dinner. I was studying abroad in Italy and had gone out to dinner with a group of other students. We’d just finished a particularly heavy, indulgent meal, starting with hand-rolled pici pasta with a wild boar ragu (which I had mistakenly assumed was the entree at first), then moving to a massive, shared Florentine steak and finally ending with generous portions of tiramisu, which we technically didn’t order but which the servers probably thought would be a hit at a table full of 20-year-old U.S. Americans. (They were right.) That’s not to mention the endless bottles of cheap red table wine and empty glasses of limoncello, which we didn’t realize that we should’ve ordered after the meal, not as soon as we sat down.
Before we were handed the bill that would have all of us searching for lost euro coins at the bottoms of our bags, the servers brought us ashtrays equipped with slim, dainty cigarettes and accompanying espressos for all. It was around 10 p.m. The idea of drinking coffee—any kind of coffee—that late at night seemed ridiculous to me. Whenever I ordered a whipped cream-topped caramel macchiato (my go-to order the first two years of college) from Starbucks during that time in my life, I would be gripped with so much caffeine-induced anxiety for the rest of the day that falling asleep before 2 a.m. seemed laughable.
Yet, there I was, fully intending to both smoke the cigarette (another habit in which I very rarely indulge) and drink the espresso, protected from thinking about the consequences of my actions by one too many glasses of red wine. I clumsily lit the cigarette, took a drag and promptly started coughing, remembering why I never smoke. Unlike the cigarette, though, the espresso went down surprisingly smoothly, not ruining my buzz but blunting it slightly, suddenly replacing the uncomfortably full feeling with the energy I needed to say goodbye to my classmates and make the 20-minute trek back to the apartment I was staying in.
From that moment on, I became the post-dinner espresso’s biggest advocate. Although I love some cognac, grappa or amaro after a meal, they’ve always been hit or miss for me. When I’ve already had a couple of glasses of wine with dinner, I often don’t feel like I can handle even more alcohol, even if it does aid in digestion. An after-dinner espresso is a way to keep the party going, a chance to draw out the meal a bit longer while you linger over yet another beverage, while punctuating the evening not with an exclamation point but with a subtler, more sober period.
I love an after-dinner espresso served after a meal with friends, but I believe it’s at its best at the end of a solo meal where you’re sat at your table as nearby couples converse in hushed tones, clinking glasses and scraping their plates clean, the warm glow of a candle illuminating the last few pages of a chapter in the book you’re reading. The warmth of the coffee bolsters you as you begin your walk home, your head still in your book or the conversation you overheard from the patrons seated next to you, as you traipse toward the end of your evening.
The idea of drinking any sort of coffee beverage after 2 p.m. may not sound appealing if you’re the kind of person who struggles with sleep, and admittedly, a post-dinner espresso is not for everyone. It does, of course, contain caffeine, which some people are more sensitive to than others. But considering that espresso contains considerably less caffeine than a standard drip coffee, many people can get away with a single cup of the stuff before bedtime.
Drinking an espresso after dinner is meant to help with digestion, which is why it’s often served after a particularly large meal. But I can’t help but to think that much of the appeal comes down to the desire to linger a little longer, to extend the magic that is an especially enjoyable meal. Come to my house for dinner, and I’ll offer you some shitty Nespresso in a chipped ceramic cup after we’re finished eating. It won’t be good! But it’s my way of telling you that I hope you stay a while longer.
Samantha Maxwell is a food writer and editor based in Boston. Follow her on Twitter at @samseating.