With my kitchen currently getting the bulldozer (i.e., reconstruction) treatment, home espresso operations have come to a screeching halt. What better time to forage for espresso? Last week I reported that Caffé del Doge opens in Palo Alto, and this morning I decided to pay a visit.
This chain of Venetian cafés opened in 2003 (thanks to poster, claudietta, for the corrections) and has since spread to areas as far and wide as Budapest, Buenos Aires, and Tokyo. This Palo Alto location opened in December 2005 in the same exact location as the former Torrefazione Italia, which is a great space for a quality coffee experience.
They haven’t changed the site’s layout much at all: great counter window seating, a casual place to lounge upstairs, and limited sidewalk seating. The only difference is that they made the tight walkway from front to back even worse by adding shelves of risotto, olive oil, balsamic vinegar, moka pots, and packaged and whole bean coffee. The walls are bright orange with large prints of Venice.
The café’s name is a reference to Venice’s traditional political leaders, elected by the elite, from about 700 A.D. until 1797. The staff wear Caffé del Doge T-shirts with the Specialty Coffee Association of Europe logo on the back, and there’s a real “Sons of Italy” expatriate feel here: native Italian speaking expats frequently chat it up with the manager as if needing to connect back home somehow. But make no mistake — this isn’t the Old World charm of Caffé Trieste. This is Palo Alto, where the homies literally pulled up at the nearby intersection, blasting the Bollywood hit parade out their car windows.
The café still uses dual two-group Elektras that suspiciously look like they have been left behind by the Torrefazione Italia that once stood here, except here they use multiple bean dispensers and Mazzer grinders to handle the variety. And what a variety! For espresso, they offer coffee bean choices of Rosso, Nero, Blue decaf (all $1.50) — and single origins in the form of base ($1.80), premium ($2.30), and gourmet ($3.50). Add 50% for a doppio. (The cappuccinos and macchiatos come in similar choices.)
Caffé del Doge is among the first wave of cafés in the Bay Area featuring multiple bean choices for your espresso — other notables being Café Organica and Santa Clara’s Barefoot Coffee Roasters. However, what I find particularly interesting is their choice of offering single bean espressos (for example, you often have to order “off the menu” for them at Café Organica).
The single bean espresso is an intensely Western (as in the Pacific Coast) concept, though rumor has it that owner Bernie Della Mea offers them even at his Venice locations. It’s a concept akin to single malt scotches — or more appropriately, monovitgno grappas. What qualities you might lose in the flavor balance of a blend (or crema, body, brightness, etc.), you might gain in rich intensities of certain characteristics. The cup might be a little one-dimensional, but the bolder qualities of a single blend might be just what you seek.
The Rosso blend is pretty straightfoward, with a healthy medium brown crema and a robusta balance in their BFG Porcellane cups (they use SchönhuberFranchi cups for their cappuccinos). Their gourmet single origin, the Galapagos San Cristobal Island when I visited, had a thinner, paler crema (which you’d expect in a single origin) and a touch more sweetness over the Rosso.
My favorite was their premium single origin: the Guatemala Huehuetenango San Pedro Necta®: a Slow Food Association collaboration with a (predictably) weaker crema but a brilliant, candy-like sweetness of roasted almonds and bright notes of cedar.
As for their milk-based drinks, the microfoam — much like their latte art — leaves room for improvement (the Torrefazione Italia here handled it far better). However, the milk flavor is quite good and rich.
In conclusion, while their espressos served from blends are pretty good, they aren’t necessarily leaps better than what you can find at the Starbucks down the street. However, their single origin espressos are particularly good, unusual, and highly recommended — they are well-worth the extra splurge over their blends. I’m actually a bit surprised that an overseas chain can pull single bean espressos that retain a great deal of the roast’s original intensity. They must pay a lot in expedited shipping, as these are characteristics that often fizzle out in transit despite vacuum sealing and other shipping precautions.
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