October 2013

Monthly Archive

Trip Report: Caffè Calce (Ravello, Italy)

Posted by on 30 Oct 2013 | Filed under: Foreign Brew, Machine

Before our current series of trip reports again returns to Napoli, we’re taking a detour through the nearby Amalfi Coast. For better or worse, most tourists arrive in Napoli only on their way someplace else. So rather than argue with tradition, we set up base for a week in an apartment in Ravello, Italy — arguably one of our favorite towns in the world, perched high on a mountain plateau above the coast.

Coastal residents of the region established Ravello in the 5th century — largely seeking shelter from the various barbarian invasions that followed the fall of the Roman empire. The most similar challenge San Francisco faces today is, perhaps, weekend brunch. Over the following centuries, the medieval town of Ravello has been something of a magnet for artists, writers, and musicians: from Richard Wagner to Gore Vidal to M. C. Escher to Edvard Grieg.

View of the Amalfi Coast from our Ravello apartment Foggy road (Via San Giovanni del Toro) atop old Ravello

Postcard view from Ravello overlooking Chiesa dell'Annunziata Yet another postcard view from Ravello's Villa Cimbrone

There are even telltale signs of “St. Francis of Assisi slept here” in the Gothic Chiesa di San Francesco, so named in honor of his passing through Ravello to Amalfi in 1222 to venerate relics of St. Andrew the Apostle. If you think that was a bit of a stretch, remember that St. Francis came nowhere near San Francisco and yet they named an entire city after him. Though some say even he couldn’t get around the two-plus-hour wait for a table in town for a weekend brunch. (What gives, San Francisco? It’s just eggs.)

Being a small town of a mere 2,500 residents, Ravello previously had a rather lightweight café culture. We first visited Caffè Calce in 2002, and then they held a commanding presence as an arguable gold standard in town to get an espresso and a cornetto. Back then, we often ran into Woody Harrelson and his family there, as they was staying at a five-star hotel down the road from our last apartment.

Fast forward to 2013: not only is Woody gone, but so is Caffè Calce’s once commanding presence over the town. Which isn’t to say they haven’t been successful: they’ve expanded with a bed & breakfast at the nearby Giardini Caffè Calce and even opened a sister location as Caffè Calce 2 at Via Boccaccio, 11. Yet perhaps influenced by their growth, local competition has invaded like barbarians and flourished. Even so, Caffè Calce is still a worthy stop — earning 1(/3) chiccho and 1(/3) tazzina as the only Ravello café listed in the 2014 Gambero Rosso Bar d’Italia.

The Ravello Duomo on Piazza Vescovado Parasols of Caffè Calce (right) and Caffè Duomo (left) on Piazza Vescovado

This café is located conveniently in the corner of Ravello’s Piazza Vescovado (aka Piazza Duomo). Today Piazza Vescovado now hosts no fewer than four different competing cafés, each sectioned off in the piazza with ample seating under high-tech Italian awning devices. Thus today the piazza more closely resembles Capri’s Piazza Umberto I.

Inside, Caffè Calce is a sizable space with ample display counters devoted to the various pastries that come out throughout the day. Towards the back are a couple of levels of café table seating, which are great for catching late Sunday night soccer matches and sipping a decent grappa for a mere €6.

Caffè Calce off Via Roma, advertising their English proficiency to the tourists Seating inside Caffè Calce

Behind the bar is a three-group La Cimbali M39 Classic. La Cimbali being the other ubiquitous espresso machine manufacturer in Napoli and the Amalfi Coast besides La San Marco. (What?! No manual lever machine espresso? What a ripoff!)

Using it and their Caffè Toraldo coffee, they pull shots with a modestly decent-looking crema that occasionally comes with a heat spot and some larger bubbles. They serve the shot short, despite their wider-mouthed Güral Porselen cups from Turkey. It has a typical Caffè Toraldo pungent flavor of potent herbs and some spice. A round €1 and certainly decent, but today Ravello offers better.

Read the review of Caffè Calce in Ravello, Italy.

Caffè Calce's La Cimbali M39 Classic The Caffè Calce espresso

Trip Report: Gran Caffè Neapolis (Napoli, Italy)

Posted by on 26 Oct 2013 | Filed under: Add Milk, Barista, Café Society, Foreign Brew

Opening in November 2010, this café feels like it has been here for far longer. (Contrast with nearby Scaturchio, dal 1905.) The interior space is a modern, stark white with spot lighting and lounge-like space surrounded by bottles of Champagne on the walls. Outside there’s ample seating under large parasols in the enjoyable Piazza San Domenico Maggiore.

Entrance to Gran Caffè Neapolis Inside Gran Caffè Neapolis

The name “Neapolis”, the original name for Napoli, means “New City” in Greek. Napoli’s civilization has Greek roots dating back to at least the 4th century B.C. Buried in the more modern building foundations just a couple blocks away beneath Piazza San Gaetano lies the (now explorable) 6,000-capacity Greek/Roman theater used by Emperor Nero to perform his operas — including a debut in 64 A.D. where Nero famously sang through an earthquake and thought it a good omen.

So perhaps on the historical scale of the neighborhood, this café is a recent hiccup. But the espresso here is good enough to have been upped from a one to a two chicchi rating between the 2013 & 2014 editions of Gambero Rosso’s Bar d’Italia. Even if the space comes adorned with some semi-cheesy local (Italian) tourist decorations, such as various Pulcinella masks and ornamental cornicelli.

Cheesy tourist decorations at the base of the Gran Caffè Neapolis bar Four-group La San Marco inside Gran Caffè Neapolis

The Maestro dell'Espresso certification on display at Gran Caffè NeapolisBehind their four-group manual lever La San Marco machine, they sport four clear cylinders of roasted coffee blend options — including Arabica, Excelsa, Liberica, and Robusta. There’s a Maestro dell’Espresso certificate on display, certified by Illycaffè, for the master barista of the house. However, for the Saturday morning shift of our visit we had two young, seemingly novice (and uneasy) women operating as bariste on duty.

Using their Arabia blend, they pulled shots with a richly textured crema of a darker brown and even slightly grayish color — filled relatively high in IPA cups of modern design. Its taste is pure pungency with no ashiness, bitterness, or even a bright end for that matter.

The milk-frothing was a bit iffy, however: bubbly and too hot, but this was likely the B team. Though note that Neapolitans don’t go for overly frilly cappuccinos and latte art beyond a dusting of cocoa. A very reasonable €0.80.

Read the review of Gran Caffè Neapolis in Napoli, Italy.

The Gran Caffè Neapolis espresso The Gran Caffè Neapolis cappuccino

Trip Report: Giovanni Scaturchio (Napoli, Italy)

Posted by on 24 Oct 2013 | Filed under: Foreign Brew, Roasting

This bakery in the heart of Napoli has been a family operation since its founding by its namesake in 1905. They are mostly known for their baked goods: a pasticceria filled with sweets, pastries, and cakes. One of their more comical creations is a Vesuvio cake on display that comes in the shape of the famed volcano that looms on the horizon. Though who wouldn’t want a cake to celebrate your impending fiery death in a vaporizing cloud of molten ash?

Entrance to Giovanni Scaturchio Seating outside in Piazza San Domenico Maggiore

Scaturchio cakes - including the Vesuvio (center) Tight quarters inside Giovanni Scaturchio

Scaturchio also makes their own gelato and roasts their own supply of coffee offsite in small, personal batches. They also sell their coffee on request. Of course as in much of Napoli, most families only have stovetop Moka pots — so the coffee is sold pre-ground and in tins.

Scaturchio also resells their roasted coffeeThis is a traditionally tight space with no seating inside. If you want a caffè at the bar during a popular hour, be prepared to muscle in or wait patiently a bit. However, if the weather is decent, there’s ample outdoor seating under parasols across the entrance to the shop in one of Napoli’s great piazzas. The people-watching there alone is worth the price of admission.

Using a three-group manual lever La San Marco machine behind the bar, they pull shots with an even, almost a dark grey, ochre-looking crema — unlike any crema we have even seen prior. (The lighting in the attached images don’t do it justice.) But be not afraid: it’s a solid, good espresso.

There’s a lot of life to the cup: there’s some smoke, but it’s not too smoky. Flavorwise, it is primarily a mixture of potent spice and some herbal notes in good balance. Served with water on the side for €0.90. They scored a 1(/3) tazzina and 1(/3) chiccho in the 2014 Gambero Rosso Bar d’Italia.

Read the review of Giovanni Scaturchio in Napoli, Italy.

Barista working Scaturchio's lever La San Marco The Scaturchio espresso - and it's bizarrely greyish matte crema

Trip Report: Caffè Mexico (Piazza Dante, Napoli, Italy)

Posted by on 21 Oct 2013 | Filed under: Café Society, Consumer Trends, Foreign Brew

Welcome to a new series of coffeehouse profiles from Napoli (Naples), Italy and its environs. Unlike previous regional series we’ve posted over the years, this time we’re starting off with individual café reviews and saving the summary for the end.

So why Napoli? It’s one of the most influential, if not the most influential, cities in the world for espresso. And although we’ve explored the Napoli espresso scene before, that was 11 years ago — a year before we even started CoffeeRatings.com. This time, over some two weeks in Napoli and its environs, we generated formal reviews of 28 places: most of notable local regard, but some not to mix things up.

There are many great places to check out in Napoli. But Caffè (or Bar) Mexico is a sentimental, beloved favorite among the locals; many consider their coffee the best in town. Hence it is one of the best places to start.

Entrance to Caffè Mexico on Piazza Dante, Napoli The Passalacqua roasters logo to the left of the Mexico sign on Piazza Dante

Bar Mexico

This is a popular location of a small, Napoli-based chain of cafés designed to showcase the coffees of Napoli-based Passalacqua roasting. If that sounds a little like Coffee Bar‘s relationship to Mr. Espresso, that’s not purely by coincidence. Carlo Di Ruocco, Mr. Espresso himself, has frequently cited Mexico among his favorite espresso bars in Napoli.

Passalacqua is a somewhat typically classic coffee roaster of the region. With family-owned-and-operated origins dating back to 1948, a company like this in America would be burdened carrying huckersterish “artisan” and “craft roaster” labels whenever their name appeared. Not so in Napoli, as they are more typically the norm than the exception.

This small storefront is located on the popular gathering spot of Piazza Dante. Like others in the Mexico chain, everything seems to have an orange hue due to the interior design and color scheme of the place. In addition to the quasi-Mexican tile work. Why they chose the name “Mexico” is something we haven’t deciphered.

'La cassa' inside Caffè Mexico on Piazza Dante Caffè Mexico's internal tile work on Piazza Dante

The emphasis here is on “casual”, however, as there is very little visually that would tip off Mexico’s esteem and perceived greatness. Hence there is stand-up service at the bar and no seating. The Gambero Rosso Bar d’Italia has given the Mexico location at Napoli’s Via Alessandro Scarlatti, 69 a rating of zero tazzine (i.e. little in the way of environment) and two chicchi (i.e., excellent coffee) every year in the annual guides we’ve had since 2007 — including the 2014 edition we just purchased in Italy.

But beware: this location in specific also caught the attention of PBS European travel man and cult leader, Rick Steves. By “cult”, we don’t mean the crank-up-the-Nancy-Sinatra-because-Janet-Reno’s-gonna-burn-your-house-down variety. That’s more Philz Coffee. But we have run into Mr. Steves in Vernazza where Steveniks were literally prostrate before him, exclaiming, “We’re not worthy!” Wayne’s-World-style. Fortunately we encountered none of that here.

The uniformed baristas pull shots from an orange, four-group, manual lever La San Marco machine — also typical of the finest coffee spots in Napoli. Mexico offers two primary types of espresso, or caffè caldo per their menu: zuccherato and amaro. The former comes pre-sweetened with a little sugar, and the latter without any.

On the infantilization of the in-vogue coffee palate…

Amaro roughly means “bitter” in Italian, but in American marketing lingo it would be called “unsweetened”. In America, the word “bitter” has purely negative connotations, whereas an amaro, for example, is also the name of a desirable class of after-dinner drinks in Italy (think Fernet Branca).

Walking up to the bar inside Caffè Mexico on Piazza Dante The La San Marco lever machine at Caffè Mexico on Piazza Dante: anyone for yelling, 'Norm!'?

The context of the amaro is actually a rather critical cultural distinction when it comes to coffee, and it is a topic worthy of its own future post. (I’ve already written a lengthy comment on it.) The trendy flavor profiling of coffees more towards the sweet and even sour end of the spectrum in recent years has as much to do with catering to more child-friendly, simple-carbohydrate-craving tastes as it does a reaction to the heinous dark roasting practices of the past that masked too many potential flavors.

Perhaps this sounds like a trumped-up conspiracy, but the concept has direct precedence in things such as the proliferation of sweet cigars that have been tailored more for younger people. Thus coffee now has more candy-like characteristics. And there are folks like James Hoffmann scooping off espresso crema under the premise that anything “bitter” is universally bad — as if the very idea of bitterness has no redeeming value nor role in the human appreciation of taste.

What you’ll find in Mexico’s — and almost every other Neapolitan — espresso is a decided nod towards a more (dare we say?) “adult” flavor profile that’s exceptionally light on fruit. And yet it is never ashy, rarely smoky, and not at all bitter in the most culturally common sense of the word.

Off the amaro soapbox…

We found that the zuccherato added little sweetness over the amaro, but we rated the amaro here: a flavor of mostly pepper and pungent spice with a little bit of brightness and — as common to the Neapolitan espresso style — little in the midrange of the palate. It has a healthy, richly textured medium brown crema that occasionally comes with the mark of a heat spot. Served in Passalacqua-branded IPA cups for €0.95.

We’re not saying it was the best espresso we had in Napoli. But we’re not saying it wasn’t either.

Read the review of Caffè Mexico in Piazza Dante, Napoli, Italy.

The Caffè Mexico espresso - amaro - on Piazza Dante Caffè Mexico's Passalacqua-branded IPA cup