Espresso isn’t just a caffeinated base for concoctions of flavored syrups and whipped cream. Nor is it the most caffeinated type of coffee. However, in its simpler and more traditional forms, espresso is the star at Bel Bacio Italian Cafe, the latest addition to San Jose’s growing Little Italy neighborhood. Bel Bacio serves Italian-style espresso drinks; the only food currently on their menu is pastries, but it’s all about those drinks anyway.

Bel Bacio owner Debbie Caminiti, who is also co-founder of the Little Italy San Jose organization, sat down to discuss the new café. Most people are familiar with lattes, cappuccinos and macchiatos from American coffee shops. How are they prepared differently at Bel Bacio, which is in the vein of an Italian café?

Caminiti: Just to give you an example, a macchiato. For that I really educate people on what an Italian macchiato is because they think when they go to Starbucks you get your caramel macchiato, so they think it’s a big fancy drink, where in reality the macchiato is one or two shots of espresso with a little bit of milk and a little dollop of foam. That was kind of a shock for people when they first started coming. The macchiatos, they’re not sweet at all unless people add sugar to it. Basically it’s just espresso shots with a little bit of milk and a little bit of foam. Then you go up into your cappuccino, which is a little more milk and a lot of foam, and then you go to your latte which is a lot of milk and a little bit of foam.

You serve Italian espresso, roasted in Naples?

Yes. A lot of the Italians, and non-Italians that have traveled to Italy, they all say that there’s quite a difference between the coffee in Italy and the coffee in America. And what you have is you don’t have the bitterness. The coffee that we carry is Barbera Coffee. It has been a family business in Italy for 140 years, and it didn’t have a presence in this area yet. It’s a lot smoother, and you get this natural crema [thin foam that forms atop espresso] on the top. If you put any sugar on it, the sugar sits on top of the crema. It’s really not the same.

The Cappuccino Aroma, from your menu, is blended with a choice of chocolate, vanilla or caramel. How is that different from the American style? Do you not prepare it as sweet as it would be done here?

It’s very subtle. The coffee is so pure and wonderful tasting that you don’t want to have a lot of sweetness and tastes that take away from the taste of the actual coffee. Of course if someone comes in and they want it sweet, we’re going to honor that. We’re just trying to give people the experience of what a good coffee is without all the different foo foo stuff that goes into it in a lot of other places.

One of your menu items is called “Ristretto.” What’s that?

The ristretto is a concentrated espresso shot. It’s pretty strong, but luckily because it’s a good coffee, you’re not grimacing. You just need to love your coffee, but again, it’s a smooth coffee. Espresso actually has less caffeine than your drip coffee at home. I guess the reason for that is, the caffeine is derived from how long it sits in the water. And so when you’re doing an espresso, it goes through your machine within maybe 10 to 20 seconds. Whereas your drip coffee, the water is dripping through the beans for so long it’s deriving more of the caffeine. I try and educate people on that because they think the espressos are stronger and they’re afraid to get that second shot.