Let's start with the basics. A cappuccino is a coffee drink made from a mixture of espresso and steamed milk. A traditional Italian cappuccino is generally a single (or sometimes a double) espresso shot topped with equal parts steamed and frothed milk (in a ratio of 1:1:1). Many Americans have adapted this recipe, using more steamed and frothed milk for a milder espresso flavor and a richer taste.
The Italian Cappuccino
The cappuccino has only become popular in the US over the last 25 years or so. As a result, some people have assumed they are a novel drink. However, the cappuccino dates back hundreds of years and has long been enjoyed in Italy and elsewhere.
In Italy, cappuccinos (or cappuccini, as the plural for "cappuccino") are incredibly popular. They are typically drunk early in the day as a drink to enjoy with breakfast (often with a sweet pastry) or as a sort of mid-morning pick-me-up. (Whereas Americans often drink cappuccinos throughout the day and enjoy them as an after-dinner drink, continental Europeans traditionally drank them in the morning.) Most Italians find the idea of drinking them after dinner to be distasteful and unhealthy and prefer to drink espresso later in the day instead. Cappuccino may be consumed at home or in cafes.
In Italy, cappuccini are often served to children because they have much more milk than espresso.
Real Italian cappuccinos are made with espresso machines and require some skill to make. First, the barista will pull an espresso shot and prepare the milk. After frothing, the milk becomes light, airy, and much more flavorful and luscious, especially when it is prepared well! The milk is then layered over the espresso in a preheated cup and served.
As the cappuccino spread from Italy to the rest of the world, the meaning of the word changed. Its popularity led many convenience stores and coffee shops to serve their own versions of cappuccinos, which are often only vaguely related to a real, Italian cappuccino. These "cappuccinos" usually involve a dispensing machine that can also mix hot chocolate and other hot drinks. They usually used brewed coffee rather than espresso or, worse yet, whip a powdered espresso-milk mixture into a "cappuccino". Yikes!
That said, there are many coffee companies taking great strides to make more authentic cappuccinos abroad, and the quality of cappuccinos abroad has improved vastly in the last decade.