Archived Posts from this Category
Archived Posts from this Category
Still reading? OK, here’s the long version. So what made me lob such an incendiary, sweeping, and judgmental hand grenade? This past week I came across this headline from Roast Magazine‘s news feed: Daily Coffee News by Roast Magazine – Coffee Recommendations From the World’s Greatest Restaurant Chef.
The post cites a Telegraph travel article that’s completely innocuous. But it’s the loaded presumptions behind Roast‘s headline that forcibly poked me in the eye and compelled me to respond.
Because, you see, I’ve never trusted a great chef’s opinion about good coffee. And I’ve come to believe that I probably never will. This is yet another example of why all journalistic efforts and awards that classify coffee as some mutant, orphaned subdivision of food seem misguided and wholly inadequate.
Most great chefs are quite poor at even desserts — at least when compared to their hired gun pastry chefs, for example, they often reach for odd savory creations given palates that are often clueless at how to deal with sweet. Thus it shouldn’t be of great surprise that most great chefs are outright lame when it comes to quality coffee. The continually sad state of restaurant coffee being additional supporting evidence.
So why does public perception seem convinced of the complete opposite?
In recent years, food has firmly become a form of entertainment, and the highest profile chefs have morphed into something strangely akin to lifestyle consultants. As the social status of celebrity chefs has risen, so has a sort of cultural belief that these chefs have come to represent all things fine dining and living — each of them harboring great secrets of a modern illuminati. So much so, today our popular culture is immersed in this mistaken fantasy that chefs always eat out better than you, eat at home better than you, and even vacation better than you. (Yes, there are even absurd apps based on the premise that chefs eat better than anyone else on the planet.)
The reality is that even the best chefs often have terrible diets, have no time to eat well, chain smoke, marinate themselves in hard alcohol, and even shoot up with a little smack or crank now and then. (I’m looking at you, Anthony Bourdain.) And yet consumers seem overly willing to make a misguided mental leap: that just because someone is qualified to make a meal for King Louis XIV, they must therefore eat and live it up like King Louis XIV (though maybe on a slightly leaner budget).
So when American super-chef, Thomas Keller, says he can often be found eating at an In-N-Out Burger, that might help elevate public esteem for the cult favorite burger chain. But that says more to me about Thomas Keller than it says about In-N-Out Burger — which is, quite disappointingly, just another mass-produced, paper-hat, greasy-burger-on-a-bun fast food chain of a slightly different hue. It might also explain why the coffee at Mr. Keller’s restaurants is so poor.
A few years ago when we dined at Keller’s notorious French Laundry, we noted how the espresso there scored lower than a Starbucks at the SFO airport. A good friend of this Web site who ranks high in the local coffee industry (who shall remain nameless) also dined there this past weekend and reported pretty much the exact same disappointing coffee experience. And that’s quite consistent with the poor coffee service we’ve experienced at virtually all of Keller’s restaurants.
But it’s not just Keller.
On an episode of Dangerous Grounds in Rome this season, superchef Mario Batali sent Todd Carmichael to Tazza d’Oro to experience what he thinks is the best Italian espresso, period. Now I love Tazza d’Oro. A major inspiration for this site was the battle between the locals in Rome’s centro storico for who had the better espresso — Tazza d’Oro or Sant’Eustacio il Caffè. But as good as it is, there’s a lot of local legend and historical folklore behind Chef Batali’s choice.
Mr. Carmichael eyeballs Tazza d’Oro’s roasting operations and notices all the Brazilian coffee produced by mechanically harvested megafarms, suggesting how he could do better. And as I recently concluded, even the best espresso from a recent trip to Napoli — a city known even more for the quality of its Italian espresso — could not crack SF’s Top 15. Even look at the Batali-owned U.S. locations of Eataly: there are Lavazza cafés in the U.S. where any Eataly in its native Italy would never consider hosting them on the basis of Lavazza’s vast size and pedestrian quality.
Chef Batali has an impeccable palate for Italian food. But his taste for coffee seems clearly borrowed rather than personally developed. Though who can blame him given everything else he has to obsess about? Even if his habits of hanging out with that vapid sea hag in $1,000 yoga pants, Gwyneth Paltrow, and his trademark I’ve-given-up-hope footwear might suggest that not all his tastes are winners.
Speaking of that ever-popular wine analogy, let’s turn our attention to great chefs and their relationship to wine. Food and wine are like the yin and yang of fine dining. Yet nobody corners great chefs to ask their personal opinions about their favorite wines — so why would coffee even be relevant? Sure, said chefs will be asked about pairing wine with food. But almost never are they asked about their independent opinions about wine.
Why? Because all the respectable wine snobs know that’s not where these chefs excel. When Wine Enthusiast visited Chef Redzepi’s Copenhagen dining scene a few years ago, it failed to even mention wine anywhere in the article. A curious omission for a wine-obsessed magazine.
In 2007 Wine Spectator interviewed Thomas Keller and did an exceedingly rare thing: they asked him directly about his wine preferences. Did he wax about the lush qualities of his favorite vintage of Domaine Dujac Clos de la Roche Grand Cru? No, instead he noted that his favorite wines were young Zinfandels — big fruit bombs, often heavy on alcohol, that were once most commonly known as “jug wines” not all that long ago.
There’s nothing wrong with young Zinfandels or having preferences for inexpensive wines. This isn’t to suggest that great chefs have disproportionately philistine tastes when it comes to wine (or coffee). But professing favoritism for what was once associated with wine’s misery market is hardly what the public expects when seeking the sage wisdom of Thomas Keller’s “distinguished wine palate”.
As for Mario Batali, he promotionally offers his name on a “Mario Batali Selection™” line of wines — curated by Mario and typically offered in the $15-20 range. But nobody believes that’s what he chooses to drink. In fact, Chef Batali seems too preoccupied having his team of ghostwriters come up with new material for his weekly column in the New York Times Magazine — “What I’m Drinking” — where each week Chef Mario celebrates new ways to damage his liver through the versatile elixir of hard liquor.
What Chef Redzepi, Chef Keller, and Chef Batali — and many great chefs like them — all have in common is knowing the limits of their own tastes and opinions outside of food. What they all have become quite good at is knowing how to delegate, choosing surrogates whose opinions they trust: whether that’s a pastry chef, a sommelier, or someone in charge of the coffee service at their restaurant.
All of which isn’t to say that René Redzepi has no taste for decent coffee. Coffee Collective is a Copenhagen, if not world class, coffee institution. But the loaded pretext here is that because Chef Redzepi knows how to forage and make the world’s most delicious moss, that somehow this qualifies him as some kind of coffee oracle. This when his coffee palate is likely far less informed than some 28-year-old local Copenhagen bike messenger who still lives with his parents. I’d rather hear that bike messenger’s opinion about coffee. However, Chef Redzepi has earned his respect and celebrity for what he’s accomplished with food — even if he hasn’t earned it for all things related to taste.
Being an outstanding chef does not bestow any magical abilities to divine good coffee from bad, just as being a certified Q grader doesn’t qualify you as an expert on modern Scandinavian cuisine. So let’s stop pretending that chefs are something they’re not — as if being the executive chef at the best restaurant in the world isn’t enough. They can barely cope with wine or dessert, let alone coffee.
Perhaps if we stop insisting that our food savants must also be multi-disciplinary Renaissance men and women in all matters of taste, we might start deservedly recognizing the coffee specialists for what they truly excel at.
Curiously enough, Chef Redzepi opens the presentation by giving complete credit to his head sommelier, Mads Kleppe, for Noma’s coffee program and suggests that Mr. Kleppe should give the talk. Chef Redzepi then proceeds to monopolize the presentation — with Mr. Kleppe standing on stage nearby.
Long before there was Coffee Bar, Mr. Espresso continually wrestled with the “last mile” of retail coffee delivery. All their quality efforts sourcing, roasting, and blending coffee could be undone by poor storage, an inexperienced barista, or a poorly maintained espresso machine. By opening Coffee Bar, Mr. Espresso could take more direct control of that last mile and better showcase their coffee.
Equator Estate Coffees is another local roaster that hasn’t quite yet had the retail coffee outlet to truly show them off. This was a particularly nagging issue for us on CoffeeRatings.com, where over the years we noted their industry accolades but were continually challenged to find just one among dozens of example outlets where their roasts didn’t underwhelm us.
Equator co-founder and master roaster, Brooke McDonnell, sometimes took to the comments on our blog posts to debate the variances in personal tastes. She was right that personal tastes vary, and none are necessarily more “right” or “wrong” than others.
Sure, we’ve been known to pause over the likes of Stumptown Coffee Roasters — who while clearly in the upper echelon of coffee quality always seemed to rank in the lower end of that class. Someone certainly has to, so why not them?
But if Stumptown marked a natural statistical outcome when forced to jockey for rankings within subjective personal tastes, Equator represented nothing short of an anomaly for us. Ultimately, we had more or less come to the conclusion that our perception-of-quality disparity had less to do with our own coffee palate and more with their relatively loose controls over the supply and delivery chain at the retail end.
Opening in June 2013, Equator Coffees at Proof Lab Surf Shop represents a joint venture where the roaster finally got their own “reference quality” coffee bar. Located at one of the main divides in Mill Valley between traffic into “downtown” and traffic towards Muir Woods and the California Highway 1 beaches, this red-painted wooden shack at the head of a part-gravel parking lot beckons surfers and coffee lovers alike. It seems like an odd place for a surf shop (Proof Lab, in back): sandwiched between the Bothin Marsh and Coyote Creek with no sign of sand for miles. But the surfers (and boarders) come.
There’s a cement patio in front, enclosed from the highway by standing surfboards and a surf-board-inspired outdoor table. The rear entrance to the building has seating among white-painted metal café tables and chairs — and a surfboard table. Inside there are several small wooden café tables set against a wall of Hurley surf advertising. (With surfboards in the rear.) One wall is dedicated to retail sale of various coffees and home brewing equipment.
Using a red, two-group La Marzocco Strada machine, they pull shots with a mottled, textured crema of a medium and darker brown. It looks robust and organic, has a decent body, a full aroma, and a well-blended flavor of herbal pungency mixed with some spices, heavy cherry-like fruit (perhaps just a touch too much fruit for my tastes), and some honey-like edges. Served in white logo Espresso Parts cups with very necessary sparkling water on the side.
It’s a solid cup. It has great visual appeal and seems like it has all the ingredients for excellence. However, you might say the enigma continues a little: as good as it is, it still falls on the weaker side of excellence with still some room for improvement.
Haight Street has taken decades to emerge from its Summer of Love bender. Despite locals declaring “the Death of the Hippie” and the end of an idealized Haight-Ashbury by October 1967, runaway teens and drug addicts continued to flock to the neighborhood seeking social escape while lacking any support networks.
By the time I first visited the area in the late 1980s, the stories of wars between drug dealers, crime epidemics, and kids on LSD falling to their deaths out of Victorian windows had long since vanished. But the chronic problems of homelessness and drug addiction remained. Other than seeing live music at the I-Beam or experiencing the camp of Rock & Bowl (now Amoeba Records), this part of the neighborhood was something you generally avoided after dark.
Today, things are very different. In place of the sketchy Cala Foods (whose closing was celebrated by locals), there’s now a Whole Foods. Gentrification hasn’t scrubbed everything clean, but at least the Golden Gate Park area across the street no longer looks like a refugee camp from a condemned methadone clinic.
And located in a large, tall space adjacent to the Whole Foods parking lot — at what used to be the San Francisco Cyclery — is Flywheel Coffee Roasters, opening in April 2012. They have added to the growing coffee legitimacy of the Upper Haight by roasting their own beans — using a Portuguese Joper Roaster in the back.
The space has a sunny entrance with tall windows facing west over Stanyan St. Inside there is counter seating along the windows, simple stool seating at taller tables, and several other tables indoors. Out back there’s something of an enclosed deck that’s exposed to a little bit of the occasional outdoor breeze. Up wooden stairs is a low-ceiling space with a bit of coffee roasting supply storage.
The laptop zombie quotient is on the high side here (ah, the price of gentrification). This gives it a rather cavernous, library-like feel. They offer cold brew drippers ($4), syphon-brewed coffee ($5), Hario V60 pour-overs, and a new three-group Faema Enova for espresso drinks.
They pull shots with a mottled medium brown crema of some coagulated thickness. It tastes of cloves and other, deeper herbal pungency without much spice nor tobacco: it’s actually a rather narrow, limited flavor profile with little roundedness. This perhaps reflects their usual choice of single origin coffees from Colombia, Kenya, Ethiopia, etc. Served in black Espresso Parts cups with a short glass of mineral water on the side.
It may be far from the better espresso shots in town. However, that a decent coffee house serving decent coffee could exist here was difficult to imagine 25 years ago. At least that much is progress, and we always have a soft spot for truly independent cafés.
This original Stanza Coffee location opened in April 2012 with the explicit purpose of showcasing coffee roasted from outside the Bay Area. As such, it’s unfortunately another example of a coffee shop that has defined itself in the negative: i.e., not by what it does and what it stands for, but rather its identity is wrapped up in what it does not do.
We’re big believers that the best coffee shops — or the best of anything, really — simply chart their own course instead of reacting to what others are doing. Defining your own identity as a foil against what others are up to unwittingly puts your own business strategy into your competitors’ hands. That’s driving from your rear-view mirror.
But if anything, that we now have coffee bars specializing in exclusively imported coffee is a healthy sign for local roasters.
Formerly the confectioner, Coco-luxes Haight Street Boutique, this is a small space along Haight St. with dark raspberry walls, dark wood, beat-up upholstered black chairs, and tables in front converted from the tops of barrels. Further back past the short service counter is an almost diner-like lunch counter where laptop zombies crouch over electrical outlets, sucking much of the life out of the place.
Using a white, two-group La Marzocco FB/80 at the bar, they pulled shots of Intelligentsia’s Black Cat that came with a very even, medium brown crema. While it smelled like it could have been an undetonated brightness bomb, it pleasantly (and not surprisingly) was not: a softer Black Cat flavor of some mild spices and some herbalness in a rounded balance. They serve it with a short glass of still water on the side of their white notNeutral cups.
Despite its good qualities, it is far from the more flavorful and best espresso shots in town. With a mission to showcase roasts from outside the area, they modestly live up to the task but do not take it over the line of excellence. It’s hard to say if the results would be significantly better if they focused more on themselves and looked over their shoulders a little less.
That said, we continually wish we could conveniently sample more coffees roasted outside of the area. We’ve been fans of the multi-roaster concept for years — from Ma’velous through the defunct likes of Café Organica. Hopefully Stanza Coffee will continue to fine-tune their operations to better showcase these imports.
This coffee shop opening in Sept. 2013 received an almost inordinate amount of fanfare. It still gets some of it. One of the latest examples being the New York Times Travel section with a recent piece by their former coffee scribe, Oliver Strand.
Andrew Barnett (of Ecco Caffè fame — now Intelligentsia SF — and currently the Good Food Awards and Cup of Excellence judging) established the coffee side of the operations, starting with his own micro-batch coffee roasts. So there’s some definite reason to get excited about that.
But here’s where things get convoluted. Grafted onto this perfectly good coffee bar is GreenSalads.org. Overlooking the folly of naming your brick & mortar business after your electronic address (e.g., “1800 Flowers? But I only need a dozen.”), they serve salads that read like a checklist of 2013’s most trendy and overdone ingredients: kale, quinoa, Brussels sprouts. Is a cauliflower salad in the cards for 2014? It’s honestly hard to tell if the menu here is meant as a self-parody of SF salad menus or not.
But wait — that’s not all. Also grafted onto this place is Lt. Waffle, offering sweet and savory Brussels-style waffles. One even garnered local 7×7 cover press as the #1 item of their “The Big Eat 2014″ list of 100 things we absolutely must eat before we die. (I know I’m holding off on including that DNR in my advanced health care directive until I eat one.) The salad and waffle offerings come courtesy of Anthony Myint, who partnered up with Mr. Barnett while he was a regular customer at Mr. Myint’s Mission Chinese Food.
We may be established fans of Mr. Myint’s Commonwealth and certainly of Mr. Barnett’s coffee. But the resulting café is a bit of a Kickstarter Frankenstein: an odd fusion of waffles, salad, and coffee with the feel of a schizophrenic food consignment shop.
Even so, that hasn’t deterred SF foodies any. Ever since the 2008 economic meltdown, the restaurant world has been downsizing their menu ambitions while simultaneously upsizing their revenue-per-plate on lunch fare for the common man. Out are top-dollar amuse-bouches, tasting menus, and culinary foams. In are glorified comfort foods: pimped out burgers, pizza, grilled cheese, and salads offered at twice the price we used to pay, and demonstrating less than half of the culinary creativity pre-2008.
If SF diners proved financially apprehensive about splashing out for a new BMW, they’ve proven more than happy to spend almost as much on a tricked out Honda Civic. The fetishized $4 toast was only a matter of time.
But enough about salads and waffles. While good, we’ll leave those details to Mr. Strand’s quoted restaurant review. The coffee side of the house has its act in order even if it doesn’t quite “wow” for the area. It’s a small corner space with virtually only outdoor sidewalk seating along San Carlos. Inside the wide windows open out to the street and there’s a tiny bench for two.
Using a three-group La Marzocco Linea namesake and Mazzer grinders, they pull shots of espresso with an even medium brown crema and a potent aroma. It’s two-sips short and has a moderate body with a flavor profile of some spice and a slightly bright fruity edge. Served in red Heath cups for espresso (white for caps), Illy spoons, and sparkling water on the side.
Things get a little more unusual when milk is involved. Their macchiato has a dense and creamy milkiness that borders on cappuccino territory, despite its diminutive size. It comes with a latte-art heart. We do like the fact that Linea ruffles some coffee fad feathers in not offering any drip coffee options at the small bar here.
Surprisingly, Epicurious had yet to make a notable entry in the obligatory culinary-magazine-rates-national-coffee-shops department. But that all changed this week with the rather ambitious title of “America’s 25 Best Coffee Shops — The ultimate guide to the best coffee shops across the United States”: America’s Best Coffee Shops | Epicurious.com.
We do have to give them an iota of credit. Unlike most of their ilk, they cover coffee without a brand name that suggests an exclusive concern for food, eating, meals, or anything else at the expense of beverages as some kind of frivolous, second-class diversion. But then they did have to ruin it a little by filing the article under their “Where to Eat Around the Globe” category. Facepalm indeed.
Writer Colleen Clark also falls for many of the usual suspects among coffee house article tropes. Like a rapper with mad rhyming skillz just this side of 2 Chainz, she employed several examples of the journalistically lazy caffeine riff and liberally used the trite words “java” or “joe” as substitutes for “coffee”. Imagine if writers playfully used the term “alcoholics” when talking about wine lovers they way they effusively use “caffeine junkies” whenever talking about coffee lovers. Double standard, anyone?
Then there’s the tiresome barista-as-sommelier analogy. She also made several references to the rather dated topic of regional coffee “scenes”: the concept where which urban metropolis you’re in determines whether you can access quality coffee or not is becoming rapidly irrelevant if not already extinct. Now that even the world’s last holdout for terrible coffee — Paris, France — has worthy and redeemable coffee shops, there are no more “coffee cities” anymore than there are wine or tea cities.
All these negatives aside, the article is actually a rather decent assessment of great coffee shops — given Epicurious‘ magazine peers. (Even Forbes tried to get in on the act of reviewing the nation’s best coffee shops.) It might suggest that “it’s hard to separate the real-deal java joints from the flash-in-the-pan trendsters” — a problem that we honestly never knew needed solving. But they at least drew a line in the sand, laying down some of their criteria by which some coffee shops should or should not be included in their list:
So we’ve combed the country for the coffee shops that combine craft with hospitality, for inviting spaces that spark creativity, and for roasters who know how to make your morning brew tell a story. These are our picks for the USA’s top 25 coffee shops.
This beats most of the random nonsense we’ve seen in past magazine lists of this type. Even if some of these criteria are precisely the sort of fluff that frustrated us as distractions from a focus on the actual coffee as far back as 2003: telling stories, named architects, hospitality, etc.
So that you don’t have to turn 25 pages of ads on the Epicurious Web site, we’ve summarized their list here in one place as something useful (and as listed in no particular order):
Risks of the No Coffee Left Behind Act aside, this is a solid list. We will be the first to admit that it is over-represented by San Francisco. But most curiously, although it does well to call out a few smaller independents such as Daylight Mind and Barista Parlor, this list is heavily represented by chains. For a Top 25 list, it’s actually cheating a bit as it actually represents a total of 85 coffee shops.
Has quality coffee in the U.S. reached a tipping point where the independents have come to be outnumbered by the chains? That’s hard to say just yet, but you can’t argue with the quality represented here.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Support 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.
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.
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.
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.
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:
Note that this list disqualifies many of the independent, more obscure roasters that are the pride of the caffès that serve their coffee.
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.
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.
|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|
What a place. Piazza dei Martiri is considered one of the most beautiful and bustling squares in all of Napoli, and who can argue? There is awesome people-watching here under the awnings over tables out front in the piazza: fashionable ladies in extra-large sunglasses, deal-making bankers in business suits, Carabinieri in full regalia stepping in for a brief espresso break.
There’s a monument in the center of the square — a column topped with a bronze statue depicting the “Virtue of the Martyrs” surrounded by four lion sculptures that each represent Neapolitan patriots who died during waves of anti-Bourbon revolutions. Speaking of revolutions, the polizia across the piazza here are often out to keep an eye on demonstrations that frequently take place in the square.
Entering the café itself, it showcases its namesake: an amazing collection of Neapolitan stovetop caffettiere adorning both the outside-facing display windows and the wide walls behind the service bar. It’s almost like a museum to the Neapolitan flip pot coffeemaker. (Everyone in town has one at home for nostalgic reasons, but the all use Bialetti stovetops instead.)
Despite it’s well-heeled appearances, it’s the only café we found in all of Napoli to outwardly promote the “caffè sospeso” project/movement, which oddly and suddenly blew up like the wat lady meme to became a global phenomenon in 2013.
The caffè sospeso, or “suspended coffee”, originated here in Napoli generations ago. Think of it as an altruistic Ponzi scheme. It’s a phenomenon we don’t quite get: if I have $5 to give to feed a starving kid in the Sudan, or to help shelter a woman with a life-threatening need to escape domestic violence, or to give a high-end coffee shop customer a free Frappuccino, the Frappuccino loses every time.
Also surprising, given their clientele, is the use of Kimbo coffee — which is decidedly more proletariat than what is carried by most noteworthy cafés in town. They are known for their espresso, their bar, their pastries (such as their sfogliatelle) — and not much else on the menu, as a good Italian bar should. There are a number of fancy-looking tables inside, a “Ferrari Lounge”, and tablecloths out on the piazza seating.
Using two-group and three-group La San Marco lever machines, they pull shots with an even, medium brown crema. It has a full, robust flavor of some spice and a creamy texture and flavor. Served in La Caffetiera-logo IPA cups (co-branded Kimbo) for just €1 at the bar, though table service gets served with glass and metal cups.
Their milk-frothing may not be very elegant, but the micro-bubbles are somewhat even and have a good texture: it tastes better than it looks. Rated two tazzine and two chicchi in the 2014 Bar d’Italia.
Read the review of Gran Caffè La Caffettiera in Napoli, Italy.
Napoli is a town of doppelgängers. Perhaps fitting with their con artist reputation, Neapolitans are masters of location-based bait-and-switch marketing.
Just take Pizzeria Sorbillo. Operated by Gino Sorbillo and considered one of the greatest and most historical pizzerias on the planet, it is located at via dei Tribunali, 32 and attracts long lines of tourists, foodie blog zombies, and multinational TV crews. Its relatively quiet neighbor at #35 to the east is also called Pizzeria Sorbillo (operated by Gino’s brother, Patrizio). The next door further down at #38 is the ever so slightly more popular place called … wait for it … Pizzeria Sorbillo (operated by Gino’s cousins, Antonio and Gigi).
This might not seem too dishonest given that there are 21 pizza-making siblings from the same Sorbillo family. But they are three distinctively different pizza places with three different owners, three different menus, and three different pizza ovens.
Easy enough, I mixed them up my first time here: it’s quite confusing. Read the reviews on TripAdvisor or Google or Yelp.it — even the ones written in Italian — and you’ll notice that some 10-20% of them undoubtedly reviewed the wrong place and to this day believe they ate somewhere else. Perhaps more accurately, they probably presumed there was only one Pizzeria Sorbillo on via dei Tribunali.
Which brings us to Caffè del Professore, the café (or bar if you will). Many consider its espresso as some of the best in all of Napoli. Its name also refers to the Caffè del Professore roaster, based in Palermo, which is one of the most prized small roasters boasted on the front signage of many a local café in Napoli.
Given its Sicilian origins, Caffè del Professore, the roaster, is actually a little unusual for the region. Culturally speaking, the many discerning Neapolitan espresso drinkers have embraced and prized the local micro-roaster idea for generations. By contrast, New York City only started toying with the idea since around the time that Justin Bieber got his first tattoo. Many cafés in Napoli proudly post signs professing their coffee sources — and the smaller and more local, the better.
But this is supposed to be a review about Caffè d’Epoca, right? Right. And when you walk in front of this small café and look at the bold signage above the door, in the back of the establishment, and along all the sidewalk seating in front, you’d be hard-pressed to say this wasn’t the famous Caffè del Professore on Piazza Trieste e Trento in Napoli.
But the reality is that it isn’t: that place is actually called Il Vero Bar del Professore (i.e., “The Real Professor’s Bar”) at Piazza Trieste e Trento, #46 — and this is #2, just partially around the square. Like many a Twitter handle, at some point the confusion compelled Bar del Professore to add “The Real” as part of their official name.
Confusing? It’s by design. Il Falso Bar del Professore indeed. Oh, they use Caffè del Professore coffee alright. But you will not find the name Caffè d’Epoca posted anywhere here — save for the printed register receipt. That sort of Neapolitan cultural curiosity made us want to check out this place even moreso than the three-chicchi-rated Il Vero across the way.
Despite ample outdoor seating on the front sidewalk under Coca-Cola parasols, inside the space is very tight and quite dark. Locals do come here in addition to a few misguided souls believing they are somewhere else. The locals come largely to avoid the line of tourists across the way and to have a solid espresso shot at only €0.90. And like Il Vero nearby, they promote their own Italian-style hot chocolate: here it’s 32 flavors of Eraclea.
Using a four-group La Spaziale machine at the rear of the dark bar (what, a semi-automatic??), they pull shots of espresso with a medium brown crema that dissipates relatively quickly in the MPAN Caffè del Professore logo cups. It has a balanced flavor centered on spices and some herbal pungency, but it’s surprisingly of restrained strength.
With Pizzeria Sorbillo, even if you didn’t wait for an hour to get into il vero Gino’s, you’ll find that it may not be the world’s best, but good pizza still doesn’t fall far from the family tree. Similarly with Caffè d’Epoca, even if you are fooled by the Caffè del Professore branding (other than the suspiciously out-of-place espresso machine), the espresso is still pretty darn good.
Read the review of Caffè d’Epoca in Napoli, Italy.
Without question, this gran caffè is a city institution. It’s long been considered a gathering place for intellectuals, thinkers, poets, foreigners and locals alike. Opening in 1860 as Il Gran Caffè, it started as a Parisian-styled singing café — or café-chantant — before adopting its current name in 1870. It is rightfully recognized among I Locali Storici d’Italia — an association dedicated to recognizing and helping to preserve some of the historically significant establishments in Italy.
Some of this café’s great historical connections include where Edoardo Scarfoglio and Matilde Serao launched the daily paper Il Corriere di Roma in the 1880s (they later went on to establish Il Mattino in 1891), where Gabriele D’Annunzio penned the Neapolitan classic “‘A Vucchella” in 1919 (here’s a version by Enrico Caruso, famed 1906 SF earthquake survivor), and where Jean-Paul Sartre, Oscar Wilde, Ernest Hemingway, Benedetto Croce, and the aforementioned Giovanni Agnelli each came to sit, think, talk, and maybe even write at some time or other.
Outside there are often crowds of tourists gathering for tours of the Napoli underground. There’s outdoor seating in front under parasols against Piazza Trieste e Trento, which very much feels like the heart of the city given nearby Piazza del Plebescito, Palazzo Reale, and the San Carlo theater.
Inside, there are many rooms of slightly fading glory: stucco, marble, grande chandeliers, ornate detailing, frescoes and paintings by some of Napoli’s great artists of the 19th century, antique woodwork. The place feels almost Torinese in its classic style and sophistication. There are books on coffee making from 1836 for sale. And many of the interior rooms feel like capelle — small chapels as if in a cathedral — dedicated to the art of pastries, gelato, a grand tea salon, etc. Some of these grand rooms were cut off as part of a separate bank established under Facist rule in 1938, but in 2001 they were reunited with the main café.
The often brusque baristi here can be older veterans, but there are some newer faces in the lot. Together they might linger longer on the orders of the locals regulars while speeding up for the tourists. They will preheat their ornate, Gambrinus-detailed MPAN cups, pulling shots from their manual four-group lever La San Marco machine with a striped dark and medium brown crema.
It’s a solid effort with Caffè Moreno coffee: a pungent Napoli-friendly flavor that just edges shy of a tobacco edge. A mere €1 at the bar. The 2014 Gambero Rosso Bar d’Italia rated them two tazzine and two chicchi, which dropped them one chicco in their coffee rating from the 2013 edition (i.e., they were previously rated the maximum of three).
Like many places in Napoli, they have their own specialty drink: the Caffè Gambrinus, consisting of espresso, cacao powder, milk foam, whipping cream, and chocolate sprinkles.
Read the review of Gran Caffè Grambrinus in Napoli, Italy.