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.
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.
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).
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.
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