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Espresso in Napoli, Italy

Posted by on 17 Feb 2014 | Filed under: Add Milk, Barista, Café Society, Consumer Trends, Foreign Brew, Machine, Quality Issues, Roasting

Napoli is one of the oldest continuously inhabited cities in the world. Globally, it is the city most associated with coffee — and certainly espresso. (Sorry, Seattle.) Yet despite this reputation and Napoli’s many cultural treasures, most tourists avoid it like the 1656 outbreak of the bubonic plague.

Many will pass through Napoli to see the stunning sights of the nearby Amalfi Coast, the islands of Capri or Ischia, or the volcanic graveyards of Pompeii and Herculaneum. But few stay for more than a namesake pizza. Because Napoli has the reputation for a bit too much bustle and way too much hustle. Most of all, Napoli can’t shake its reputation for crime — with legends about the Camorra and Napoli’s scugnizzi street kids abound.

Atrani at dusk on the Amalfi Coast The shores of Forio, Ischia

Tourists more often come to Napoli to get to views like this one from Ravello Castello Aragonese overlooking Ischia Ponte

Fear and Intimidation

The first time I visited Napoli a dozen years ago, I too was just passing through. And Napoli immediately intimidated me with what seemed like hustlers on the make at every corner: taxi drivers, store owners, people who come up to you on the street. I felt like I had to watch my back at every moment.

I should note that hustlers and crime do not spook me easily. I went to college for four years in the inner city of Chicago at what’s considered the birthplace of Chicago Blues, where John Lee Hooker performed in the streets in the movie The Blues Brothers just a few years earlier, before the Maxwell Street market area was swept up by redevelopment in the 1990s. And in the early ’90s I lived at the intersection of Alcatraz & Sacramento in West Berkeley, where gunfire rang out almost nightly in front of the nearby liquor stores and the black & white Berkeley Police mobile drug enforcement bus — nicknamed “Orca” by the locals — had to set up a near-permanent camp.

Garbage fires warm Chicago's Maxwell Street at Halsted, Dec. 1988. The building at left was replaced with a Caribou Coffee. Some of my homies at 16th & Halsted near Chicago's Maxwell Street, Dec. 1988. Four years here didn't prepare me for Napoli.

The dark streets of old Napoli Peering through the tight streets of old Napoli's Spaccanapoli

But friends more recently travelled to Napoli and told me how much they enjoyed the city — and not just its surrounding environs. What did I miss? This time, I had to “conquer” Napoli: I wasn’t just passing through, and I psyched myself up to face an expected onslaught. But to my bewildered surprise and delight, this time it was nothing like the Napoli I last experienced.

What was different? I’ve come to believe everything had to do with where I was. Before when I was just passing through Napoli, I entered the chaos of Piazza Garibaldi and the main train station or swam against the tide of humanity at the Molo Beverello port: two massive transportation hubs where tourists passing through are easy and plentiful targets for Napoli’s infamous scavenger class.

This time, immersing myself in the various neighborhoods alongside the locals, the Neapolitans seemed much more friendly — in addition to being generally casual, expressive, and proud. They may hold their stares a bit longer than is considered polite in the rest of Italy, but they were no more “threatening” than most Londoners. I managed to completely relax among them, even if my Italian accent betrayed the toscanaccia (or Tuscan snobbery) of my most recent Italian teacher.

Neapolitan saints glow in the night in Spaccanapoli The shadows of saints along Napoli's Via San Biagio Dei Librai

Supermodels join the Napoli police force to wear Armani to work everyday Sunset along Napoli's Via Francesco Caracciolo

Napoli, Not Italy

The significance of Italian regionalism is particularly acute in Napoli — something called il campanilismo that connotes a strong identity and affiliation with the town campanile from where one is from. Because the Neapolitans are a proud people with a proud history distinctly separate from the rest of Italy, and many wear a chip on their shoulder about it to this day. Since animosities are rarely one-sided, the rest of Italy — particularly the northern, more affluent regions — responds in kind.

A good bit of this internal animosity traces back to the 19th century unification of Italy, the Risorgimento, that gave Napoli and the rest of Southern Italy the short end of the economic, political, and cultural stick. The grudge continues to this day.

As with many other soccer-crazed nations, Italian football (or calcio) serves as a proxy war for the clash of cultures. This past September, Milan-based AC Milan had their stadium shut down because of anti-Napoli abuse by their fans at a match against Neapolitan club heroes SSC Napoli. In today’s papers, now the Rome stadium risks closure for anti-Neapolitan chants outside of their stadium last night.

Bar Nilo's shrine to Diego Maradona Family shrine in the streets of Napoli

Mural of Diego Maradona in Quartieri Spagnoli, Napoli Napoli scooter decorated with Diego Maradona decal

A common stadium banner in the north at matches against SSC Napoli pleads for nearby Mt. Vesuvius to “lavali col fuoco,” or “wash it with fire,” as Vesuvius did to Pompeii in 79 A.D. Italian soccer fans are Michelangelos of sick, black humor. SF stadium chants of “L.A. sucks!” are childish by comparison.

As an example riposte, while we were in Napoli on October 15, the city hosted a 2014 World Cup qualifier between Armenia and Italy. A vocal number of local fans loudly booed whenever an Italian player touched the ball — with the lone exception of forward Lorenzo Insigne, SSC Napoli player and native of Napoli. That’s how ugly this thing gets, with Neapolitans practically cheering for the other country.

Juventus fans cheer on Mt. Vesuvius to reclaim the city of NapoliSupport for SSC Napoli represents a way for locals to “stick it to the man” up North. While Napoli may have over 50 patron saints, there are perhaps none more celebrated than all-time soccer great, Diego Maradona. Playing for Napoli in the late ’80s, Maradona all but singlehandedly upset the northern dominance of Italian football — leading Napoli to shock championships in 1987 and 1990.

A tough kid from the slums of Buenos Aires, Neapolitans identified with Maradona and accepted him as one of their own scugnizzi. To this day, there are still many painted murals and saintly votive shrines dedicated to Maradona in the streets of Napoli, and his occasional returns to town are as venerated as visits from the Pope.

Despite il campanilismo, Napoli is a city of immigrants — dating back from its Greek settlement roots some 3,000 years ago through to today’s South Asian, Eastern European, and North African communities. But it’s not all gritty slums like the Quartieri Spagnoli either. There are also the Chiaia and Vomero districts — each dotted with luxury boutiques, fine restaurants, grand caffès, and the smell of old money and some new. But what we really like about Napoli, as with Torino, is that unlike Firenze (Florence) it feels left to the locals and nothing like a Disneyland for American tourists.

Narrow alleyways of Napoli Neighborhood meeting place: a crucifix at Via Concordia and Vico Colonne a Cariati

Napoli: where high fashion can sometimes be a bit scary Mt. Vesuvius from Castel dell'Ovo, Napoli

Neapolitan Coffee Culture and the Soulful Espresso

Napoli is the world’s most important city for espresso. There, I said it. How un-Third Wave of me. Without previously exploring Napoli enough, we had rated Torino and Piemonte as having the best baseline quality standards in Italy (if not the world). But upon further review, Napoli seems to have the edge: virtually everywhere you go rates solid 7s and 8s.

That’s not to say they are the best-of-the-best. Our highest-rated Napoli caffè wouldn’t make SF’s top 15 list. But unlike SF, that caffè is a 94-year-old family business in the same location for 73 years.

In Napoli, old is not the enemy of good. Now what is new, and the act of exploring and discovery, has value. But take a newer, world-renowned restaurant like Chicago’s Alinea and its molecular gastronomy counterparts for example. As outstanding and experimental as its food is, part of its appeal is a kind of gimmick, a fleeting conceptual art project bound to fall out of vogue within the next decade — unlike the soulfully satisfying cuisine that has stayed with us for generations. Novelty has a relatively short shelf-life.

Napoli's Galleria Umberto I, almost a carbon copy of  Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II in Milan Graffiti near Napoli's Via Toledo

In recent years, I have suffered a kind of fatigue over new café openings around the world. Not that I don’t love the continual investments in an improved end-product. And news has the word “new” right in it, hence why all the attention is there. But lately café openings seem much more about their physical place or their gadgetry than they seem about their actual coffee.

There’s a growing emphasis on named space designers and architects or on nameless machines with custom modifications (e.g., “That Modbar looks cool, but have you tried your coffee from it?”). All these superficial trappings have new cafés trying to distinguish themselves on everything but the resulting shot in the cup. It feels more like an arms race to feature in Architectural Digest or Popular Mechanics, as if they’ve overlooked the actual coffee in their mission.

But it’s not just coffee. Much of the West seems obsessed with a disposable culture of everything new, everything trendy, and nothing that’s built to last. If you really want to talk about “slow coffee”, immerse yourself in a place where respect comes measured not in the number of tweets and blog citations this week but rather in generations of customers who have come to expect high standards.

Because we’d honestly like to believe that some of today’s standard bearers of quality — such as Blue Bottle and Four Barrel — somehow manage to survive and stay relevant for at least another generation of customers. At least without succumbing to a fad-of-the-month that replaces them within a decade. Perhaps that seems unnecessarily nostalgic. The reality is that in 10-20 years the likes of Blue Bottle or Four Barrel will be swept up in mergers and acquisitions and become unrecognizable. Which makes us appreciate Napoli’s coffee culture even more.

In Napoli, nobody hits you over the head proclaiming that they are “craft” or “artisinal” — even if they often are by most Western definitions. Nobody tries to distract you with the exotic pedigree of their coffee equipment. There’s something soulfully satisfying about their focus on a solid espresso backed by tradition and, well, craft.

Guy Fawkes makes his appearance in Napoli's Spaccanapoli Napoli supports both a very young and a very old population

Napoli's Castel dell'Ovo Inside Napoli's Castel dell'Ovo

What makes a Neapolitan espresso?

That aforementioned il campanilismo extends to how Neapolitans think about their coffee, and in particular their roasters. They can be fiercely local and independent in their coffee loyalties, often proudly professing their roaster affiliation on street-level signage. Furthermore, wood-fired coffee roasting is often highly revered here for its tradition and flavor profile.

When it comes to roasting, the tendency is towards second-crack darkness. Back in the ’90s, Torrefazione Italia did a clever thing by offering different roast-level blends named after towns that geographically represented lighter to darker roasts from north to south: Venezia, Milano, Perugia, Roma, Napoli, Sardegna, Palermo. Napoli was one of the darker roasts as is more of the norm for Southern Italy.

This darker roasting can be a dubious quality practice. However, the beans here tend not to have a heavy sheen of oil, and the darker roasts redemptively manage to be neither bitter nor ashy. They rarely even verge into smoky territory.

Obligatory Neapolitan fish monger shot Napoli at sunrise

Of the classic four Ms of espresso quality — miscela (bean blend), macinatura (grind), macchina (machine), and mano (the hand of the barista) — I’ve often said that half of the espresso quality comes down to the barista. But because the Neapolitan barista standards are so consistently good, I found the biggest quality difference between Napoli caffès comes down to their choice of roaster.

When it comes to espresso machines, La Cimbali is very popular along with La San Marco. Manual lever La San Marco machines are held in almost universal high regard among Napoli’s best caffès — as if to skeptically say, “I’ve got your pre-infusion and variable pressure control right here!” while making an obscene arm gesture. The only Rancilio I came across was in an airport Mozzarella bar. The only Gaggia I encountered was in a hotel bar, and it made the worst cappuccino I had on the entire trip.

Although the sample sizes were small, some my favorite roasters at caffès in the area (of which I experienced multiple shots) included:

  1. Caffè Moreno,
  2. Caffè del Professore,
  3. Passalacqua,
  4. Caffè Toraldo,
  5. Illy — northern roaster but always done well in Italy,
  6. Kimbo,
  7. Caffè Borbone — rockin’ tune on that Web site, btw,
  8. Portioli — northern roaster more prevalent in Amalfi and Maiori,
  9. Lavazza — this northern roaster is supposedly “Italy’s favorite coffee”.

Note that this list disqualifies many of the independent, more obscure roasters that are the pride of the caffès that serve their coffee.

Ravello overlooking the Amalfi Coast in a storm As with many hours in Italy, sometimes they are always closed

Sunset over the Bay of Naples Napoli's Piazza dei Martiri at dusk

Espresso Preparation

Neapolitan caffès will often offer espresso as “zuccherato” or “amaro” — that is, presweetened or without sugar. And that’s where the coffee drink menu begins. Napoli caffès frequently offer dozens of variants to a degree unmatched in the rest of Italy. Many are rooted in a given caffè’s own secret formula of zucchero-crema or cremina di caffè — a sugar/cream/espresso concoction used to sweeten up and add volume to their espresso drinks.

Despite these concoctions, Neapolitan cuisine is about simplicity and celebrating the core ingredients. After all, Napoli belongs to the region of Campania, which means “country”. So it is extremely rare if you find any latte art here.

Culturally, latte art is perceived as an almost childish playing with your food — like serving pancakes covered with a smiley face made of whipped cream. Neapolitans don’t have the patience for that nonsense. A dusting of cocoa on a morning cappuccino is about as fanciful as they get. Your espresso will always come with a glass of water served on the side. And you won’t find a single laptop zombie.

Travel Tip

If you go, one bit of travel advice: lose your American habits and don’t trust Google Maps at all. It’s not just because the Neapolitans are masters of location-based bait-and-switch marketing either. Many cities and towns in Italy follow non-serial, seemingly Byzantine address numbering systems. The piazze that frequently appear also often throw off Google Maps’ overly simplistic addressing assumptions.

Just being one city block off of your destination means four square city blocks of searching back-and-forth, sometimes leading you down streets and neighborhoods where you don’t want to be. For example, a Google Maps search for Ravello’s Caffè Calce at Via Roma, 2 will take you 400 feet away from the square you should be on. A search for Napoli’s Cafè Amadeus will lead you 4 miles away from its nearby Amedeo Metro station. Virtually all the caffè reviews linked below required me to manually enter their GPS coordinates in their maps at the bottom for accuracy, rather than relying on Google’s addressing look-up.

A frequently better option is to use TuttoCittà, which additionally shows street address numbers on many of its maps.


Espresso Ratings in Napoli, Ischia, and the Amalfi Coast
Name Address City/Neighborhood 2014 Bar d’Italia [info] Espresso [info] Cafe [info] Overall [info]
Gran Caffè La Caffettiera Piazza dei Martiri, 26 Napoli / Chiaia 2 / 2 7.80 8.00 7.900
Moccia Via San Pasquale a Chiaia, 24 Napoli / Chiaia 1 / 2 8.20 7.80 8.000
Caffè d’Epoca Piazza Trieste e Trento, 2 Napoli / Toledo NR 7.90 7.80 7.850
Gran Caffè Grambrinus Via Chiaia, 1 Napoli / Chiaia 2 / 2 8.10 8.50 8.300
Cafè Amadeus Piazza Amedeo, 5 Napoli / Chiaia 1 / 2 7.90 8.20 8.050
Gran Caffè Cimmino Via Gaetano Filamgieri, 12/13 Napoli / Chiaia 2 / 3 7.80 8.00 7.900
Calise al Porto Via Iasolino, 19 Ischia / Ischia Porto NR 7.40 7.50 7.450
Gran Caffè Vittoria Corso Vittoria Colonna, 110 Ischia / Ischia Porto 1 / 2 7.80 8.20 8.000
Arago Via Luigi Mazzella, 75 Ischia / Ischia Ponte NR 7.80 7.80 7.800
Dal Pescatore Piazza Ottorino Troia, 12 Ischia / Sant’Angelo d’Ischia NR 7.60 7.50 7.550
Divino Cafè Via Erasmo di Lustro, 6 Ischia / Forio 1 / 2 7.60 7.80 7.700
Bar Calise a Ischia Via Antonio Sogliuzzo, 69 Ischia / Ischia Porto 2 / 1 7.90 8.20 8.050
Bar Cocò Piazzale Aragonese, 1 Ischia / Ischia Ponte 1 / 2 7.80 7.80 7.800
Pasticceria Napoli Corso Regina, 64 Maiori 2 / 2 8.00 7.80 7.900
Sal de Riso Piazza Ettore Gaetano Cantilena, 28 Minori 2 / 2 7.60 7.80 7.700
Bar Il Panino Piazza Duomo, 7 Ravello NR 8.00 7.80 7.900
Ristorante Don Alfonso 1890 Corso Sant’Agata, 11 Sant’Agata sui due Golfi NR 8.00 8.00 8.000
La Zagara Via dei Mulini, 8/10 Positano 2 / 1 7.00 7.80 7.400
La Brezza Net Art Café Via del Brigantino, 1 Positano 2 / 2 8.00 8.00 8.000
Bar Al San Domingo Piazza Duomo, 2 Ravello NR 7.60 7.20 7.400
Figli di Papà Via della Marra, 7 Ravello NR 7.90 7.80 7.850
Andrea Pansa Piazza Duomo, 40 Amalfi 3 / 2 7.90 8.00 7.950
La Vecchia Cantina Via della Marra, 15/19 Ravello NR 7.50 7.20 7.350
Caffè Duomo Piazza Duomo, 15 Ravello NR 7.90 7.80 7.850
Caffè Calce Via Roma, 2 Ravello 1 / 1 7.70 7.00 7.350
Gran Caffè Neapolis Piazza San Domenico Maggiore, 14/15 Napoli / Spaccanapoli 1 / 2 7.80 7.20 7.500
Giovanni Scaturchio Piazza San Domenico Maggiore, 19 Napoli / Spaccanapoli 1 / 1 7.90 7.50 7.700
Caffè Mexico Piazza Dante, 86 Napoli / Decumano Maggiore NR 8.00 7.50 7.750

Trip Report: Cafè Amadeus (Napoli, Italy)

Posted by on 29 Jan 2014 | Filed under: Add Milk, Foreign Brew

Called “Cafè Amadeus” on the front door, this place is often referred by the more familiar Italian spelling of “Caffè Amadeus”. Either way, it is a popular neighborhood Napoli café along the busy Piazza Amedeo (and its nearby metro station) — catering to many locals without leaning too heavily towards the more upscale institutions up the Chiaia district. This makes it a more “casual” (by Italian standards) and family-friendly environment for locals rather than tourists.

They have seating up an interior staircase and plenty of Parisian-styled outdoor seating along the sidewalk under a canopy along Piazza Amedeo. With their sidewalk seating in cozy booths behind glass windows for street watching, they’re open late at night and even operate as a sort of local Denny’s: catering to teens socializing late to the sounds of Italian pop music videos. They also offer various edibles, like an Italian diner, plus the usual bar drinks (including Nonino grappe).

Hidden behind the trees in Piazza Amedeo is Cafè Amadeus Internal entrance to Cafè Amadeus

Cafè Amadeus has outdoor booth-seating-under-glass on the sidewalk out front Local patrons of all ages at the bar inside Cafè Amadeus

Cafè Amadeus barista busily working their four-group La San Marco machine in backUsing a four-group lever La San Marco machine (the local machine of choice) under heavy use with its Mazzer grinder in the corner and Caffè Seddio beans, they pull two-sip-short shots that are strongly pungent, served somewhat hot, and come with a darker brown, even crema that can sometimes be textured with a medium brown swirl. They shots can vary a little along with their body at times.

We ordered the “Normale”, or “amaro”, espresso on the menu for our rating purposes. But they also have amazing milk-frothing that comes out like a soft whipped cream. They are also the only place in all of Campania we’ve seen produce latte art, which is generally frowned upon in the region as too frilly and superfluous. Very much unlike Aussies and Kiwis, Neapolitans generally frown upon latte art as if it’s “playing with your food”.

Rated one tazzina and two chicchi in the 2014 Bar d’Italia. And a respectable €1 at the bar.

Read the review of Cafè Amadeus in Napoli, Italy.

The Cafè Amadeus espresso The Cafè Amadeus cappuccino

Trip Report: Divino Cafè (Forio, Ischia, Italy)

Posted by on 09 Jan 2014 | Filed under: Add Milk, Café Society, Foreign Brew

Santa Maria del Saccorso Church, Forio, IschiaThe town of Forio on Ischia’s west coast has about 17,000 inhabitants and faces a wide-open Tyrrhenian Sea. Because of its exposed location, it boasts numerous coastal watchtowers dating back to the Middle Ages as protection against invading Saracen and African pirates. By the 1950s, the marauding pirates were replaced by an invasion of marauding artists, turning Forio into something of a global artists’ retreat. Rape and pillage comes in many forms.

Yet it remains a beautiful location. There are narrow streets, working painters and ceramic workshops, idyllic views of the volcanic rocks and sea, and Saracen architectural details around town dating back to some of its earliest invaders. Divino Cafè resides near the center of town on a (mostly) pedestrian walkway between fashionable shops and restaurants — with the occasional disturbing breast-implant disaster parading by courtesy of an aging local fashionista. (Prepare about an hour for your scalded eyes to recover.)

Entrance to Divino Cafè in Forio, Ischia Front counter and opening to the upstairs lounge at Divino Cafè in Forio, Ischia

Gambero Rosso Bar d'Italia awards on display inside Divino Cafè in Forio, Ischia Divino Cafè's own notorious Cremina di Caffè

Divino Cafè's outdoor coffee menu featuring variations with its own Cremina di CaffèIt’s a rather small space with a couple of tables in front, an angular serving bar, and a semi-private upstairs lounge (when open). Unlike most coffee shops in the area, they proudly brand themselves with the decidedly not-local Lavazza. Like a number of cafés around Napoli, they proudly offer their own version of a zucchero-crema concoction (literally, “sugar-cream”) — which they call Cremina di Caffè — to optionally add a formulated syrupy sweetness to their variations of espresso drinks. And also like a number of notable coffee shops around Napoli, their list of coffee drinks is long.

Sticking to the basics for review purposes here, they use a three-group La San Marco lever machine to pull shots with an even, medium brown crema. It has a pungent flavor that’s a bit narrow, and its served in Lavazza-logo cups from Cup & Saucer. Rated two chicchi and one tazzina in the 2014 Bar d’Italia.

Read the review of Divino Cafè in Forio d’Ischia, Italy.

The manual lever La San Marco machine at Divino Cafè Espresso at Divino Cafè in Forio, Ischia

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: Model Bakery (Napa, CA)

Posted by on 07 May 2013 | Filed under: Add Milk, Beans, Foreign Brew, Local Brew

This no-frills bakery is a sister to the St. Helena mothership that has been operating for over 80 years. We recently mentioned it as one of the cafés singled out in the recent-and-pathetic coffee listings from Zagat, but the espresso here is actually noteworthy.

There is no indoor seating, but there are outdoor benches and parasols in front — just around the corner from main building of the Oxbow Market. Obviously, breads and baked goods are the big thing here.

Entrance to Napa's Model Bakery Service area for baked goods inside Napa's Model Bakery

Several years ago, they used a two-group Grimac La Valentina La Vittoria on their supply of Peet’s Coffee. They later upgraded to a two-group La Marzocco Linea and Caffé Vita beans, making it one of the few places in the entire Bay Area we knew to offer them at the time. But in a recent blow to regional roaster diversity, in 2013 they announced they couldn’t keep up with Vita’s import costs from Seattle and were switching to Blue Bottle Coffee, which is what they serve now.

Not that we have anything bad to say about the quality of Blue Bottle Coffee. But when the diversity of local espresso options shrinks, we see that as a step backwards.

Model Bakery's Fetco Luxus coffee dispensers still show Caffé Vita brandingThe results were actually quite good dating back to their Peet’s setup, but they are even better now. The resulting shot has an even layer of medium brown crema (which was more of a swirl of a thicker layer with Vita beans), and the once-large pour sizes have fortunately become smaller. It is still sadly served primarily in paper cups, but the shot is served short and potent in the cup with a body to match and a flavor of brighter fruit. (With Vita beans, the shot offered more herbal pungency, some smoke, and molasses — something we miss.)

Brown ACF cups are now available for cappuccino-sized drinks, but even asking “for here” at the order counter doesn’t guarantee they’ll get your order right. The staff may not seem overly comfortable in their coffee-making, but the results deliver.

Milk-frothing here is not only decent, but when combined with the milk-friendlier Vita roasts of before, the cappuccino flavor here beat out the ones poured at the nearby Ritual (even if Ritual’s foam is more smoothly integrated into the cup). But now with Blue Bottle beans, the milk-espresso contrast is less dramatic. It’s still a solid cup.

Read the updated review of Model Bakery in Napa, CA.

Napa's Model Bakery espresso setup The Napa Model Bakery espresso -- sadly in a paper cup

Trip Report: Jane on Fillmore

Posted by on 05 May 2013 | Filed under: Add Milk, Beans, Local Brew

Opening in 2011, Jane on Fillmore took over the former Bittersweet space and changed a few things with the design. There’s an area dedicated to baking and baked goods in the back. There’s still limited seating upstairs, now just above a mounted buffalo head with an SF Giants cap. Otherwise it has retained its sunny glass storefront, several café tables and chairs, and added a large mirror behind the service area.

They formerly served Four Barrel beans, but they have since switched to Stumptown (and sell the beans retail, along with Baratza grinders and Kalita drippers). This marks a bit of a reintroduction of Stumptown to the area — after having been replaced by a number of local roasters as they’ve spun up.

Entrance to Jane on Fillmore Entering Jane on Fillmore

Inside Jane on Fillmore Local decorations inside Jane on Fillmore

They serve Hairbender and a single origin espresso option (Costa Rica Valle de Los Santos at our time of visit). Plus Chemex offerings of Panama Duncan Estate and Ethiopia Nano Challa in multiple grinders, and a drip/brew bar with a scale and dueling Baratza Virtuoso grinders.

Using a red, two-group La Marzocco FB/80, they pull shots with a darker to medium brown, even crema of decent thickness and density. The cup is no Hairbender brightness bomb, but rather a mellower yet full-flavored soft melding of cocoa powder and a melding of spice and herbal elements. Served in EspressoParts black cups (and a mismatched ACF saucer).

Their milk-frothing shows decorative latte art and even bubbles, however the foam is of minimal thickness and the resulting cup is more than a little milky with little integration between the foam and the espresso. Unless you like your caps closer to a café au lait, the espresso is the star here.

Read the review of Jane on Fillmore.

Brew bar inside Jane on Fillmore FB/70 and bar inside Jane on Fillmore

The Jane on FIllmore espresso The Jane on FIllmore cappuccino

Trip Report: Sip Café (Financial District, Boston, MA)

Posted by on 23 Apr 2013 | Filed under: Add Milk, Beans, Foreign Brew

Owner Jared Mancini learned his original trade managing a Torrefazione Italia (or “T.I.”, as some old-timers in the region like to call it), later at Boston’s Steaming Kettle Starbucks, and then George Howell Coffee before starting this shop here. Jared also lent out this space after-hours to host the Dangerous Grounds cupping shoot staged a little over a week ago.

Entrance to Sip Café in Boston's Financial District Inside Boston's Sip Café

This is an unusual spot: essentially what looks like a glass greenhouse turned into a café on the open grounds of Post Office Square/Norman Leventhal Park. There’s park bench seating outdoors for those who might brave the weather. Inside there’s a curved service counter with an assortment of black wooden tables in what does feel like a greenhouse — just without the plants.

The Sip Café cappuccino, dwarfing their espresso with vast quantities of milkThey serve George Howell Coffee (Daterra Farms Brazil Calabria Roast Espresso for espresso, plus Tarrazu Costa Rica, etc.). They even offer the Yukro Ethiopia that was the de facto “winner” of the Dangerous Grounds cupping.

Using a three-group La Marzocco GB/5 off to the side, they pull shots with a dark brown, textured crema that’s served as a thinner layer on a body-forward shot. Its flavor shows chocolate notes, some caramel and minimal brightness. Curiously, it has the texture, body, and even a bit of flavor like a bittersweet hot chocolate. Served in green “Terra” ceramics with metallic detailing (as featured in their Web site‘s graphics).

We’d score their savvy a little higher, but their medium cappuccino is a disappointing vast, milky soup bowl – swimming in milk with a light layer of blurred latte art foam. We’re scared of what the latte must be like here.

Read the review of Sip Café in Boston.

Counter inside Boston's Sip Café, with GB/5 off to the left The Sip Café espresso

Trip Report: Thinking Cup (Boston Common, Boston, MA)

Posted by on 21 Apr 2013 | Filed under: Add Milk, Barista, Foreign Brew

This downtown coffeehouse opened in 2010 right across of Boston Common and was Boston’s first to exclusively feature Stumptown Coffee beans — even identifying Stumptown with a sign out front. (They’ve since opened an additional nearby location in Boston’s North End.)

This may have been a bit of Boston looking towards New York City for inspiration, even as NYC looked way out West themselves. But in Boston, as in other less “cosmopolitan” U.S. cities such as Philadelphia, justifying a $4.50 latte is a major leap of business faith. It’s also a surefire way to offend local sensibilities about what should remain a low-cost utilitarian beverage.

Thinking Cup sits across the Boston Massacre memorial in the Boston Common Thinking Cup entrance on Tremont St.

Menu inside Thinking Cup Customers seated at the front of Thinking Cup

Thinking Cup offers window counter seating facing out across Tremont St., overlooking the Boston Massacre memorial in the Boston Common. There’s a lot of aged, exposed wood, brick, and many small, shared café tables with old newsprint themes inside. Inside you might hear multiple languages and lounge music like it’s still 1998, but it’s a good vibe.

Cabell Tice's Latte Art award at Thinking CupThe owner is proud of one of his baristas (Cabell Tice) for recently winning the World Latte Art competition at Coffee Fest NYC 2013. (There’s an award on display.) They have an assortment of (good) baked goods and sweets in front and the sale of Stumptown coffee, pour-over devices, and logo mugs in the back.

Using a three-group La Marzocco GB/5 in the back, they pull shots as default doppios with a thin layer of medium brown crema with little density. It’s a slightly larger pour, but it manages to keep a solid, proper body. It has flavors of caramel and tobacco, but for Hairbender it lacks the acid bomb sweetness and sharpness we’re used to — which isn’t entirely a bad thing.

Served in classic brown ACF cups. Milk-frothing is solid, and arguably some of the best in Boston — but that really isn’t saying much given what we’ve seen of the local standards. Despite the World Latte Art award.

Read the review of Thinking Cup in downtown Boston, MA.

The Thinking Cup espresso The Thinking Cup cappuccino

Thinking Cup's La Marzocco GB/5 Thinking Cup's North End location

Automating Mediocrity: The Saeco Syntia Focus Home Espresso Machine, Part II

Posted by on 23 Oct 2012 | Filed under: Add Milk, Consumer Trends, Home Brew, Machine, Quality Issues, Starbucks

Group head inside the Saeco Syntia FocusTwo months ago we reported on our trials with a superautomatic home espresso machine representing much of the state-of-the-art: the Philips Saeco Syntia Focus. Reading Saeco’s product literature and marketing communications, you’d be led to believe that this machine made “the perfect espresso” every time. But to most people who read our original post two months back, the Saeco committed unforgivable crimes against coffee.

The truth lies somewhere between those polar opposites. And now that we’ve had two months of regular use to better explore the machine’s merits and limitations, here we revisit this topic in greater detail.

The Robots Aren’t Winning

First of all, it’s critical to note that there’s very little (if anything) uniquely problematic with the Saeco Synthia Focus that you won’t also find in many of its up-market, superautomatic home espresso machine bretheren — whether they are made by the likes of Jura, Capresso (and now Jura-Capresso), Nespresso, or the decidedly more dubious Breville, DeLonghi, or (*gag*) Krups.

However, when talking about superautomatics for the home, the source of their coffee is a major differentiator within these product lines: there are coffee pod machines, and there are machines that use real coffee. That we use the term “real” coffee — to differentiate what most people recognize as coffee from anything that comes packaged in a proprietary system of cartridges — is only partly facetious.

Pakma Lakshmi pimps Nespresso for the massesPod machine coffee may be marketed and priced as if it were elite quality coffee, but in truth it is arguably just a step up from instant coffee. Top Chef host Padma Lakshmi may have signed on as ambassador to Nespresso. But since Nespresso is pre-ground coffee produced by the world’s largest food conglomerate, she may as well be the ambassador to Del Monte canned peas.

Any coffee brewing system with the option of using whole bean coffee, ground to order, and where the consumer can vouch for the coffee’s roast date, should theoretically have a massive freshness advantage over its pod machine competition. Except that’s not exactly what happens in practice. The Saeco Syntia Focus has this great advantage. But like many of its peers, it squanders it — producing espresso shots that hardly seem like an improvement over pod coffee. Most visibly notable is how sickly pale the crema is on the shots it produces.

Genesis of a sickly pale espresso shot with the Saeco Syntia Focus

The Sickly Pale Crema: Bane to All Superautomatic Home Machines

To improve the shots, we took advantage of several machine adjustments: setting the built-in grinder to its finest grind, setting the volume of coffee deposited in its filter basket to its maximum, and reducing the overall volume of the shots. The first shot the machine produces after powering up is always a ghostly pale blonde and is rather insipid. So we let its built-in “Adapting System” tune itself to the coffee with a few successive shots, which do noticeably improve to a crema that’s slightly fuller, darker, and with more texture that might even include microbubbles.

Hence one of the myths we discovered about superautomatic espresso machines: despite their promise of robotic consistency, the shots are somewhat variable.

Yet despite all of our improvement measures, the best shots we could muster with the Saeco Syntia Focus quite literally paled in comparison to the routine shots we pulled with our Gaggia G106 Factory (with a new brass piston) + Mazzer Mini home set-up. Once we fixed our old home machine, we used a four-day-old roast of The Boss from Barefoot Coffee Roasters to run side-by-side experiments. The flavor and body of the Saeco shots didn’t measure up to the Gaggia pulls, but the visual difference was even more dramatic.

Espresso shots pulled of a 4-day-old roast of The Boss: left with the Gaggia, right with the SaecoAs if the question isn’t rhetorical, which of the two espresso shots looks more appealing in the photo at left? Hint: a friend pointed out that the shot made with the Gaggia “looks like cocoa”. The other shot looks like weak drip coffee mixed with milk. Meanwhile, a brochure that comes with the Saeco (called a “Passport”) states that the crema “should be hazelnut brown with occasional darker shades.”

Despite our Saeco machine adjustments, clearly something is wrong with its extraction. We managed to rule out the Saeco’s built-in grinder as a major problem, as the Saeco offers an option to bypass its grinder with pre-ground coffee. Using our Mazzer Mini, we poured fresh grinds of the same coffee directly into the machine and didn’t notice a significant difference in the resulting shots.

After a lot of trial and error, we narrowed down the Saeco’s failures to brewing times. After a pre-infusion of around 4.5 seconds, the machine runs an extraction for only about 10.7-11.3 seconds. This is significantly less than the 20-second-plus extraction times recommended in most reputable espresso guides. And unfortunately, extraction time is one variable that the Saeco machine does not let you adjust. (A Saeco customer support woman in Ohio attempted to follow up with us to help “correct” our problems, but she never returned our call.)

While the pressure of espresso extraction certainly accelerates the necessary 3-4 minute brew times of proper coffee-to-water contact in a pour-over cup, a mere 11 seconds is far too little brewing time for espresso. We’ve recently seen reviews boasting of a coffee machine’s 45-second end-to-end brewing times, and here the Saeco Syntia Focus requires a mere 33 seconds from button-push to serving.

This is akin to a hospital’s maternity ward boasting that you can have your baby there in only 7 months. Premature babies are bad, and so is premature espresso. Is waiting 10 more seconds that unreasonable to get a properly extracted espresso? How is this a selling point?

Shot of The Boss made from the Gaggia G106 Factory One of the best shots we could pull with the Saeco Syntia Focus

And yet we continue to use the Saeco quite a lot

Despite its obvious quality limitations, we honestly like the Saeco machine and have even grown somewhat fond of it. We still use it quite a lot and even look forward to the so-so espresso that it produces. Why we still use it is largely a matter of push-button convenience. Call it “laziness” or less time spent making acceptable espresso.

Because time is money, despite what the home finance trolls keep telling us. Even the pod machines aren’t quite as convenient as the Saeco, because you can go through several rounds of push-button espresso before having to empty out the tray of spent pucks.

Spent grounds caking up inside the Saeco Syntia FocusBut speaking of spent grounds, the Saeco is far from “self-cleaning”. It’s a bit like automating your own sloppy minimum wage employee, given the internal mess you have to clean up every few days.

The Saeco’s product designers clearly took some shortcuts on keeping it clean back there: the black plastic and embedded compartment make visibility of any coffee ground mess particularly difficult to see without a small flashlight, and the stuff accumulates in the oddest random corners. Let it accumulate too long, and the machine will jam up like a printer — continually spitting perfectly fine ground coffee into its spent puck dumpster, with only a momentary warning light flashing just before nothing comes out of its brew head. Then the lights proudly tell you the machine is ready to brew another shot.

This is perhaps the most aggravating thing about the machine: the “Saeco Adapting System” will waste multiple shots of your best new coffee beans — immediately dumping them in the spent grounds litter bin without even extracting so much as an ounce of coffee — while it tries to adjust itself to the new coffee. There are few things more agonizingly wasteful than seeing your prized, expensive coffee beans being ground up and spit out in a wet, dirty waste bin for several cycles with no indication of when it might decide to produce any espresso.

Surprisingly decent milk frothing from the Saeco Syntia FocusOne surprise was that its milk frothing, with its wacky pannarello wand attachment, is surprisingly good — blowing away my Gaggia G106 Factory in terms of steam pressure and foam consistency.

All things considered, we still wouldn’t pay more than $350 for the Saeco — despite its $1,000 retail price tag. And even for that money, we would rather have a simple, used Rancilio Silvia. Despite its obvious conveniences, we’re reluctant to put top-quality coffee in the Saeco. We certainly wouldn’t waste our best home roasting labors on the mediocre espresso it produces. Fresh roasted beans do make a difference, but beans of the highest quality are largely lost on this machine.

Thus there’s a sort of arrogant hubris to the Saeco Syntia Focus and virtually all of its $1,000 superautomatic home machine competitors. Consumers are promised the “perfect” espresso every time by these devices, and for a cool grand who wouldn’t expect that? But clearly these machines have not benchmarked themselves against what’s long been possible among home espresso enthusiasts.

Instead, what consumers get is closer to Starbuckshome Verismo machine — a home version of the automated push-button espresso experience that CEO Howard Schultz arguably said sucked the soul out of the company several years ago. Rather than offering technology and features that enable home consumers to enjoy the wealth of freshly roasted, top-quality coffee varieties now available on the market, consumers are given the bland, mass-produced experience common to any of 40,000 identical cafés. Worst of all, these home machine manufacturers tell consumers that this is perfection — and that consumers thus have no need to aspire for anything better than the mediocrity they offer.


UPDATE: November 16, 2012
Because we will still continue to experiment despite expecting the least encouraging results, we finally discovered a coffee that really excelled in the Saeco Syntia Focus: Stumptown Coffee Roasters‘ Grand Cru Guatemala Finca La Injerto – La Cima.

This was a bit of a shock, given previous underwhelming results. Grand Cru coffees mark one of the true differentiators for whole bean machines like the Syntia Focus over their pod-based brethren: the world’s elite coffees simply do not have the supply volume to make them a viable option for packaging, mass distribution, and mass production in coffee pods.

Trip Report: Caffé Medici (Austin, TX / downtown)

Posted by on 12 Mar 2012 | Filed under: Add Milk, Beans, Foreign Brew

Last week we were down in Austin, TX for the first time in over a decade. We managed to do just a little coffee exploration downtown. However, we were primarily there attending the SXSWedu conference. No, that’s not SXSW — once a cool independent music conference 20-25 years ago that’s now a bloated, corporate-sponsored wankfest that also sports “film” and “interactive” themes. SXSWedu is related to the main SXSW, but it is crawling with teachers and educators with no money and — in the spirit of teachers buying their class pencils and much unlike the gaudy entertainment bashes and freebies of SXSW — features a cash bar where attendees have to buy their own drip coffee.

Last Friday the conferences crossed over. Suddenly a cold, rainy wind kicked up as all the teachers left, and the town was invaded by an army of rich white people who dress like 8-year-olds and spend all day tweeting on Apple products about their food-trucks-for-dogs start-ups and their trips to Haiti. KMN. Arguably we couldn’t have left at a better time.

Downtown Austin from near the convention center, where SXSW is held Austin's 6th Street welcomes SXSW

But before we did leave, we became quite enamored with the downtown location of Caffé Medici. It’s a small, three-shop chain of Austin coffee bars, and at the downtown location the coffee is excellent and the environment is also great.

They offer patio sidewalk seating in front on metal tables and chairs of what looks like a rather corporate office building. Inside, you can sit at the center bar where the barista works behind one of two red, three-group La Marzocco FB/80 MP machines. There are a few indoor tables, leather bench seating along one wall, and an upstairs for more seating. Order at the counter in back, beneath the massive red wall with Caffé Medici’s “Cosimo” on it, and your order will electronically beam over to the center barista area.

Entrance to Caffé Medici downtown Caffé Medici's center bar and red La Marzocco FB/80 MP

Inside Caffé Medici, downtown Cosimo at Caffé Medici

They mostly pull shots of local roaster Cuvée Coffee with a very even, medium brown crema. They serve it properly short and potent, with a rich body and a nice, blended flavor of spice, herbal pungency, even a little wood and yet a noticeable brightness over the top.

It has a complex flavor, though oddly served in cheap Delco cups and with a side of sparkling water. One day they brought in bags of Verve‘s Sermon blend, so they do a rotation at times. Though one word of warning: the Cuvée Coffee roasts sold at the bar were about three weeks old. But that’s more of a minor complaint.

Their milk-frothing is very wet and somewhat dense — there’s no real foam here — and it comes with decent rosetta latte art.

Read the review of Caffé Medici in downtown Austin, TX.

The Caffé Medici espresso, downtown The Caffé Medici cappuccino: wet, no foam, with bags of Verve Sermon in the background

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