This swanky, authentic, Italian-style bar/café is located at the Stockton St. Pavillion, atop the Union Square plaza. Say hello to Italian marble and mahogany. They have a decent amount of indoor seating along large windows and a vast swath of exposed outdoor seating beneath Pellegrino parasols. They even feature some bar counterspace for stand-up espresso service. But they are more than just an espresso bar — serving gelato, dolci, and panini heated from authentic Italian grills (even if their panini aren’t exactly stellar).
Emporio Rulli roasts their own coffee beans at their mothership Larkspur location. Using a three-group, Mr. Espresso-supplied Faema E91 Ambassador, they generally serve espresso properly short with a moderate layer of thicker, dark brown crema — sometimes with a white dot indicating a high brewing temperature. They serve it in Emporio Rulli logo cups, though unfortunately they do not pour directly into them (i.e., unnecessary heat transfer). When they do serve espresso properly short, it has pungent, smoky flavor that can be a touch bitter and overroasted. But it is potent and still quite good. Or, more accurately, at least it was … as I’ll explain.
The quality of the espresso here has declined significantly from the year this café first opened (2003); more often the shot is too large and slightly overextracted. While not bitter, it tastes watery on top of what could otherwise be a fine espresso. Their prices also went up just as their service quality went down. In recent months, they also seem rather slow and disorganized at high noon. Employee quality control and training has suffered most, however; too many staffers now let their espresso shots run too long, resulting in a watery cup filled high that tastes more like fancy drip coffee.
This makes their espresso a disappointment when compared with their Chestnut St. location. Here what you get is a lot of the sizzle of a great Italian espresso-drinking experience, but not nearly enough of the steak. While not a bad espresso per se, it’s a shame to see a place with once high espresso standards really let their guard down.
Owner and pastry chef extraordinaire, Gary Rulli, sent me e-mail a couple months ago to revisit their cafés — and in this location’s case, I hope he is glad that he did. If you’re listening, Signore Rulli: please clean up this café’s act before you fall to the level of just another mediocre chain ready to be bought up and assimilated by Starbucks. Remember: worse things have happened recently to Torrefazione Italia.
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