illy caffè North America has operated Espressamente cafés here as in Europe, but this example is modeled more after a truer café rather than coffee bar per se. As such, Illy has designated it with a different name (“illy caffè”).

However, that hasn’t stopped many confused locals who still insist on calling it “Espressamente.” (I dare anyone to find the word “Espressamente” written anywhere inside or out of this place.) The lesson here is to be careful how you brand yourself: once it starts working, the blinders come out and you may have a difficult time getting people to change.

Outside the illy caffè on Union St. Entrance to the illy caffè on Union St. - with espresso cup chandelier

Unlike Illy’s Espressamente coffee bars, the food menu here — while still designed by the famed Joyce Goldstein — is a bit more involved. The service levels are also just a touch higher.

illy caffè's tasting menu for the media brunchIt’s not too much of a surprise that Illy decided to pull off this subtle concept shift here in San Francisco. Back in 2011, the Espressamente on Battery St. opened as America’s first free-standing example of the chain (i.e., not linked to a hotel, etc.). Like SF’s other Illy locations, it’s run by Joe Gurdock and the Prima Cosa team. Joe is an SF native with local coffee roots dating back to managing Pasqua Coffee cafés here in the 1990s.

Earlier this month illy caffè North America invited me to a media brunch for this café’s opening, with much of their executive team flying in from New York and parts east. I’m not easily impressed by these sorts of events, but I came away from the event with an even greater appreciation for what Illy does and what they are as a company.

Blind spots in our perceived history of quality coffee

There’s a tendency in today’s self-described “craft” coffee community to claim credit for much of anything good about coffee these days — even if most of it consists of small modifications built upon a sizable foundation of older, established arts. There’s also a lot of fawning over anything that smells new — often much of which is just new to those who haven’t dug deep enough. Meanwhile, many might roll their eyes over a “coffee dinosaur” like Illy.

Case and point with the latest coffee roasting guide du jour. Now we very much enjoy’s Scott Rao’s practical, hands-on books, and his latest The Coffee Roaster’s Companion is a good reference. Yet we know a number of craft coffee types who regard it as highly technical manual, oblivious to some of its glaring predecessors.

Joe Gurdock, at right, with Barry Sheldon, President and COO of illy caffè North America, at the head of the table Illy's Frisée Salad with illy coffee vinaigrette and egg on top

Just take Chapter 4 of Andrea Illy‘s (editor and Illy chairman) Espresso Coffee: The Science of Quality. This chapter dedicated to coffee roasting introduces thermodynamic differential equations, diagrams of three-dimensional thermal gradients within roasting beans over time, tables of chemical compounds and their resulting odors from roasting, ion chromatography charts, structural formulas of the changing organic chemistry bonds in roasting coffee, and references to 91 scientific coffee papers. No disrespect to Mr. Rao, but by comparison on a technical scale you could call his book Coffee Roasting for Dummies.

The converted Metro Theater on Union Street now houses an illy caffè at the near cornerAs another example of this cognitive gap, media people and Illy reps sat around a large, shared table at this brunch event. One of the media invitees was a freelance writer for 7×7 and other food-friendly publications (who shall remain nameless). I had mentioned how most so-called Third Wave roasters were abject underachievers at the subtle art of coffee blending, and she interjected by saying she thought that the Third Wave was instead identified more by medium roast levels.

Forget for a moment that Dunkin’ Donuts has been medium roasting their coffee pretty much since the invention of the donut. While taking furious notes, she straight-face asked the Illy reps about how they were positioned with their darker roasts in this modern taste era of Third Wave medium roasting.

Illy has been selling coffees clearly labelled “Medium Roast” before many of these Third Wave roasters were even in diapers. Thus I thought her question was honestly a little offensive. But the Illy team, probably used to being perceived as playing catch-up rather than leading the charge in coffee these days, politely answered her question without any hint of judgement. (I probably would have had to restrain myself from punching her in the throat.)

Illy was also pioneering coffee subscription models as early as 2004, years before the Third Wavy new coffee middlemen injected themselves into the supply chain.

The illy caffè illy-Misu Housemade Tiramisu illy caffè's Jasmine Vanilla Botanical Latte

Now Illy is hardly perfect, and this post isn’t intended as an Illy love-fest. Responding to commercial pressure, they’ve bowed to some regrettable-but-business-necessary fads, such as creating their own pod system coffee and promoting dubious home espresso machines. Their coffee here in the U.S. — while employing outstanding quality controls — has never measured up to the quality standards I’ve experienced at their cafés in Europe.

But besides Illy’s many great investments in quality and to the science of coffee, the company has won awards for its ethics. They’ve been actively invested in the economic and environmental sustainability of coffee far longer than any other coffee company I know. They essentially pioneered the Direct Trade model years before it was ever called that. And they’ve done all that without the modern sledgehammer-to-the-head, profit-from-consumer-guilt practice of publicly blowing their own horn over their commitment to Corporate Social Responsibility.

Close-up of the illy caffè chandelier - and Francis Ford Coppola designer cups Close-up of the illy caffè chandelier - and the unique Federico Fellini designer cup in the foreground

Review of illy caffè

Was there espresso to be reviewed here again? Of course!

This café is located at the edge of the former Metro Theater, which has since been converted into an insipidly boring and culturally irrelevant Equinox gym.

There’s an elaborate designer Illy coffee cup chandelier as you walk in — a hallmark of many other Espressamente shops, but different for the rarity of some of the limited edition art cups. Since 1992, Illy’s designer cup series is technically the longest running pop art project in the world. (Their continued investment in the arts is another cool aspect of the company.) There’s a tall table with stools, some window stool seating, central café tables, and black booth café seating around the edges.

The illy caffè service counter with La Cimbali machine The illy caffè espresso

The illy caffè macchiato The illy caffè cappuccino

Using a chrome, three-group La Cimbali, they pull moderately-sized shots with a healthy, mottled/swirled medium and darker brown crema. The crema isn’t as thick as you typically get in a European Espressamente, but it’s decent.

The flavor isn’t exactly the typical mild spaces and wood that you get at most American outlets serving Illy: there are extra notes in between in the flavor profile. So while still not up to European standards, this is one of their best attempts yet. Served in designer IPA logo cups, of course.

Milk-frothing here is decent: somewhat dense, even, and with little erratic touches here and there. They also offer signature drinks, including botanicals like their vanilla jasmine or lavender lattes — if you like that sort of thing.

Read the review of Illy Caffè on Union St. in Cow Hollow.