Archived Posts from this Category
Archived Posts from this Category
The 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.)
It’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.
Despite being a relatively large island, you can get around most of Ischia through a combination of walking and its rather dubious-yet-functional public bus system. Starting from the island’s main transportation hub of Ischia Porto (i.e., the actual ferry port) and the nearby bus terminal, walk east, towards Ischia Ponte, for about a half-mile and you’ll encounter Bar Calise a Ischia.
This massive café resides along a more suburban-looking stretch of Ischia’s Via Antonio Sogliuzzo. The Bar Calise owners started their business nearly a century ago in nearby Casamicciola Terme. But in 1960, as the neighborhoods east of Ischia Porto experienced a great deal of expansion and development, the owners branched out to this flagship location on Piazza degli Eroi.
It has several signs off the main road to flag down drivers and an assortment of pedestrians. It also has a rather extensive parking lot (for Italy), a wide swath of outdoor garden seating, and some indoor seating inside the huge café and bar. Besides the various panini, pizza, pastries, and many other edibles, they also serve a decent espresso.
Using dueling three-group La Cimbali machines with a gold patina at the rear bar, the professionally dressed baristi pull shots with an even, medium brown crema that’s a bit full in the (Porland) cup for the region. (Though it is still only about three sips.) It’s a dark, rich pour with a good body and some smokiness over that characteristic Passalacqua pungency that characterizes much of Napoli.
Order at the bar for only €1 — though most patrons order the table service version for €3 with a relatively flavorless cookie served over the top of the cup. Rated two tazzine and one chicco in the 2014 Bar d’Italia.
Read the review of Bar Calise a Ischia in Ischia, Italy.
Like it’s more famous and cosmopolitan sister, the island of Ischia resides in the Gulf of Naples. But that’s where the similarities end.
Capri draws mostly international tourists on day trips seeking the fashionable high-life. Years ago while hiking Capri’s (highly recommended) Villa Jovis around 8am one Sunday morning, a peek over a cliff’s edge revealed a marine invasion of ferries and tour boats from all directions that must have rivaled D-Day on the beaches of Normandy.
By contrast, Ischia draws far more tourists and yet has a completely different feel. For one, 80% of the tourists are Italians — most of whom stay overnight. Ischia is a larger island and supports a much greater number of local residents, giving it a strong sense of community. The island feels more like a connected suburb of Napoli (despite the one-hour-plus boat ride). And then there are the spas and hot springs.
As for Ristorante e Bar Cocò: what a complete scene. It’s hard to overstate how much this local café resides at the center of an entire island’s social fabric. A combination bar and restaurant, this Ischia institution opened in 1951. The island locals who flock here partly do so out of the quality of the place, but perhaps moreso because of its stunning location: along the shores at the base of the footpath that leads to the dramatic Castello Aragonese.
Built by Hiero I, tyrant of Sicily, in 474 B.C., the site of this castle has since been alternatively sacked/occupied/expanded by Parthenopeans, Romans, Visigoths, Vandals, Goths, Arabs, Normans, Swabians, the Angioini, English, and the Bourbons.
Mornings, afternoons, and (in particular) evenings, people gather at this watering hole at the base of the footpath to eat, drink, and mostly socialize beneath the shadow of the castle. There are many Italians sitting out front for table service beneath a thatched roof (where they serve €1.70 espresso instead of the in-bar €1). Inside there’s only a cashier and standing at the bar — other than seating inside the neighboring restaurant with shorter hours.
At the bar they use a four-group lever La San Marco machine to pull dense, syrupy shots of Caffè Moreno. It has a dense thickness and outstanding body with an even, dark brown crema that looks a bit like a dark brown egg yolk at times.
Read the review of Bar Cocò in Ischia Ponte, Italy.
Along the Amalfi Coast, Maiori is the larger counterpart to nearby Minori. Like Minori, its roots date back before the Romans: it was founded by the Etruscans under the name “Reghinna Major” (with Minori as “Reghinna Minor”). Unlike Minori, Maiori is a larger, “L”-shaped town and boasts the longest unbroken stretch of beach along the Amalfi Coast.
The place where that “L” draws back from the coastline and climbs inland is the broad Corso Regina, marking the social and commercial heart of Maiori separate from the town’s attractive beachfront promenade. Pasticceria Napoli is located along that Corso Regina — a few blocks up from the beach. It is a tiny, local establishment. While it lacks the service volume, finesse, and notoriety of a Sal de Riso (in nearby Minori), it’s an excellent local example of a neighborhood pastry and espresso shop.
The small, non-descript space has a few indoor, colorful-plastic-backed café tables. There’s often a number of tasty baked goods on display, and behind the bar (with its prominent Illy branding) is a two-group La Cimbali machine.
With it, they preheat the Illy-logo SPAL cups and pull shots with an even medium brown crema of good thickness and no heat spots. It has an Illy flavor of wood and spice, but with a robustness typical to Illy when consumed in Italy. The barista here can be a character but extremely friendly: the staff here are known for their exceptional friendliness.
Rated a respectable two tazzine and two chicchi in the 2014 Bar d’Italia. A solid effort for a mere €0.80.
Read the review of Pasticceria Napoli in Maiori, Italy.
Positano is an impossible town. By that, I mean that the place even exists — grafted vertically onto cliffs overlooking a gorgeous sea — defies belief. Glimpsing just a single photo of the place was all I needed to convince me that I had to first come here nearly 12 years ago. And I certainly am not the only one.
John Steinbeck visited Positano on multiple occasions. His essay in the May 1953 issue of Harper’s Bazaar is said to have put Positano on the tourist map. Which then lead to inspiring Patricia Highsmith to write The Talented Mr. Ripley in 1955. Her novel became a 1999 film that was also partly shot in Positano.
A decade later, Positano inspired a visiting Mick Jagger and Keith Richards from The Rolling Stones to pen the song “Midnight Rambler” — from the brilliant 1969 Let It Bleed album — in its cafés. La Brezza Net Art Café wasn’t around at the time for Jagger and Richards, but there’s a high probability that one of the cafés where they did write it stood in La Brezza’s place back then.
Because La Brezza makes the most of its prime beach location in fashionable Positano. There are two floors inside that feel a little bit cramped, but most of the activity of its patrons naturally takes place on the front patio under canvases or among the sidewalk tables along the paved walkway down to the beach.
They serve beachside gelato and various lunch items with a view over the sand and the small, wooden fishing boats beached on the shore. Inside their espresso machine might look like a chrome Fiorenzato, but it is a two-group Esprèsso by SAB.
Using Irio Caffé from just over the Amalfi Coast mountain range, they pull shots with a darker, rich-looking crema with the occasional lighter medium brown heat spot. Not surprising given Irio’s wood-roasting processes, it has a woody and smooth flavor of mild spices but a body that runs a little thinner than expected. At €1.50, it’s a little pricey — but half the cost of table service (which is still worth it, given the hangout).
And good enough for Gambero Rosso’s 2014 Bar d’Italia to rate it 2 tazzine and 2 chicchi.
Read the review of La Brezza Net Art Café in Positano, Italy.
This bar/café on the main Piazza Vescovado is something of a local Ravello institution. Founded as a family business in 1929, it is now operated in the hands of three Schiavo brothers who are part of the successive generation.
With its name inspired by a Neapolitan coffee roaster of the time, the writer Gore Vidal is said to have made a habit of hanging out near its glass entrance — chatting it up with a visiting Sting or Bruce Springsteen over a glass of Chivas Regal. There are also classic photos about of former first lady Jackie Kennedy hanging out at this café with “Godfather of Style” and head of FIAT, Gianni Agnelli, from August 1962. While these may be events from only this past century, they still give you a sense of time and place.
By contrast, in America we seem so enamored with new, shiny things that we encourage a disposable culture that extends to our own history. At five years, you’re overlooked; at ten, you’re forgotten; at twenty, you’re a candidate for a wrecking ball. Trendy pop-up coffee shops and restaurants seem like a natural outcome of our disposable culture. (We recently read an historical revisionist comment from Ritual’s Eileen Hassi suggesting that only Ritual and Blue Bottle were doing the things they were doing in SF when they started up eight years ago — completely dismissing the forgotten likes of Café Organica, who was already making better coffee at the time and doing more “third wave” things those two hadn’t even dreamed of yet.)
Getting back to Mrs. Kennedy’s Summer of ’62 stay in Ravello, it’s odd today to think of the wife of a standing U.S. president spending three weeks cavorting about with one of the world’s most notorious playboys in Gianni Agnelli — all the while JFK (himself an international playboy wannabe by comparison) stayed back in Washington, DC. But these are facts that were undoubtedly kept from American public eyes at the time.
Mr. Agnelli reportedly made a number of visits to this café over the years, which reportedly stirred up friendly barbs with its owners. Because you see, the Schiavo family are granata — i.e., devout fans of the Torino football club, Torino FC. There are still supporter signs inside the café to this day. Among various other titles, Mr. Angelli was also something of the patron saint of their cross-town rivals and sworn enemies, Juventus FC.
The café itself seems to have evolved and grown in distinct stages. It re-opened in July of 2013 after a three-year renovation hiatus, covered in scaffolding. In front there are awnings and seats in the main piazza. Inside there are several tables and a service area, and off to one side it expands into a café space next door (Humphrey’s Room) that looks like a glass greenhouse.
Besides serving Chivas Regal, a lot of good gelato, and lunch items, their coffee service uses a three-group La Cimbali M39 and coffee from Cafè Sombrero in nearby Vietri sul Mare. It comes with a mottled medium brown crema and tastes of a milder blend of spices. Served in larger, patterned Thomas cups.
Maybe not legendary espresso, but it’s still good.
Read the review of Bar Al San Domingo in Ravello, Italy.
The town of Amalfi gives the Coast its name. Dating back to the 9th century, it is one of the four key Maritime Republics of Italy, and it is still represented on the flag of the Italian Navy to this day. Unlike the sleepier Ravello up the nearby cliffs, Amalfi is heavily overrun with tourists during the high season.
Andrea Pansa first opened as a café in 1830. It is thus is quite legendary on Italy’s Amalfi Coast. It’s known primarily for its chocolate (there are many resellers who use the Pansa name in town on their storefronts) and its confections. Located right on the most popular public square in town, it attracts a lot of foot-traffic plus tourists/locals who lounge on the café tables beneath the sun umbrellas out front. They sell a lot of tourist-friendly limoncello as well.
The reputation here isn’t unfounded. The 2014 Gambero Rosso Bar d’Italia awarded it 3 tazzine and 2 chicchi — making it one of their most exceptional coffee bars in the Campania region. Yet despite the obvious signs of entitlement, the staff here are exceptionally friendly and engaging.
Among the towns and cities of Campania, Amalfi is one of the few outposts we’ve found for Portioli coffee from up north — and Pansa makes the most of it. They use a three-group GIME Sinfonia (from Portioli’s espresso machine arm) to pull shots with a medium brown, even crema. The shot is balanced — and brighter and not as dark or pungent as most in the region. Perhaps owing to its northern Italian blends. The flavor is weighted more towards spices and light pepper. Cheap at a mere €0.80.
Read the review of Andrea Pansa in Amalfi, Italy.
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.
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.
Behind 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.
Welcome to a new series of coffeehouse profiles from Napoli (Naples), Italy and its environs. Unlike previous regional series we’ve posted over the years, this time we’re starting off with individual café reviews and saving the summary for the end.
So why Napoli? It’s one of the most influential, if not the most influential, cities in the world for espresso. And although we’ve explored the Napoli espresso scene before, that was 11 years ago — a year before we even started CoffeeRatings.com. This time, over some two weeks in Napoli and its environs, we generated formal reviews of 28 places: most of notable local regard, but some not to mix things up.
There are many great places to check out in Napoli. But Caffè (or Bar) Mexico is a sentimental, beloved favorite among the locals; many consider their coffee the best in town. Hence it is one of the best places to start.
This is a popular location of a small, Napoli-based chain of cafés designed to showcase the coffees of Napoli-based Passalacqua roasting. If that sounds a little like Coffee Bar‘s relationship to Mr. Espresso, that’s not purely by coincidence. Carlo Di Ruocco, Mr. Espresso himself, has frequently cited Mexico among his favorite espresso bars in Napoli.
Passalacqua is a somewhat typically classic coffee roaster of the region. With family-owned-and-operated origins dating back to 1948, a company like this in America would be burdened carrying huckersterish “artisan” and “craft roaster” labels whenever their name appeared. Not so in Napoli, as they are more typically the norm than the exception.
This small storefront is located on the popular gathering spot of Piazza Dante. Like others in the Mexico chain, everything seems to have an orange hue due to the interior design and color scheme of the place. In addition to the quasi-Mexican tile work. Why they chose the name “Mexico” is something we haven’t deciphered.
The emphasis here is on “casual”, however, as there is very little visually that would tip off Mexico’s esteem and perceived greatness. Hence there is stand-up service at the bar and no seating. The Gambero Rosso Bar d’Italia has given the Mexico location at Napoli’s Via Alessandro Scarlatti, 69 a rating of zero tazzine (i.e. little in the way of environment) and two chicchi (i.e., excellent coffee) every year in the annual guides we’ve had since 2007 — including the 2014 edition we just purchased in Italy.
But beware: this location in specific also caught the attention of PBS European travel man and cult leader, Rick Steves. By “cult”, we don’t mean the crank-up-the-Nancy-Sinatra-because-Janet-Reno’s-gonna-burn-your-house-down variety. That’s more Philz Coffee. But we have run into Mr. Steves in Vernazza where Steveniks were literally prostrate before him, exclaiming, “We’re not worthy!” Wayne’s-World-style. Fortunately we encountered none of that here.
The uniformed baristas pull shots from an orange, four-group, manual lever La San Marco machine — also typical of the finest coffee spots in Napoli. Mexico offers two primary types of espresso, or caffè caldo per their menu: zuccherato and amaro. The former comes pre-sweetened with a little sugar, and the latter without any.
Amaro roughly means “bitter” in Italian, but in American marketing lingo it would be called “unsweetened”. In America, the word “bitter” has purely negative connotations, whereas an amaro, for example, is also the name of a desirable class of after-dinner drinks in Italy (think Fernet Branca).
The context of the amaro is actually a rather critical cultural distinction when it comes to coffee, and it is a topic worthy of its own future post. (I’ve already written a lengthy comment on it.) The trendy flavor profiling of coffees more towards the sweet and even sour end of the spectrum in recent years has as much to do with catering to more child-friendly, simple-carbohydrate-craving tastes as it does a reaction to the heinous dark roasting practices of the past that masked too many potential flavors.
Perhaps this sounds like a trumped-up conspiracy, but the concept has direct precedence in things such as the proliferation of sweet cigars that have been tailored more for younger people. Thus coffee now has more candy-like characteristics. And there are folks like James Hoffmann scooping off espresso crema under the premise that anything “bitter” is universally bad — as if the very idea of bitterness has no redeeming value nor role in the human appreciation of taste.
What you’ll find in Mexico’s — and almost every other Neapolitan — espresso is a decided nod towards a more (dare we say?) “adult” flavor profile that’s exceptionally light on fruit. And yet it is never ashy, rarely smoky, and not at all bitter in the most culturally common sense of the word.
We found that the zuccherato added little sweetness over the amaro, but we rated the amaro here: a flavor of mostly pepper and pungent spice with a little bit of brightness and — as common to the Neapolitan espresso style — little in the midrange of the palate. It has a healthy, richly textured medium brown crema that occasionally comes with the mark of a heat spot. Served in Passalacqua-branded IPA cups for €0.95.
We’re not saying it was the best espresso we had in Napoli. But we’re not saying it wasn’t either.
Read the review of Caffè Mexico in Piazza Dante, Napoli, Italy.
No, this is not a joke. If there’s one thing we do at CoffeeRatings.com, it’s test things out before we judge. What else can explain all the gut-corrosive espresso shots we’ve subjected ourselves to over the past ten years, seemingly in violation of the Nuremberg Code.
Nespresso — Nestlé’s espresso pod cash cow — is a heavily loaded topic. Our somewhat-dismissive reviews of their home espresso machine systems have attracted far more user comments than any other subject. (Many of the comments oddly coming from new home espresso machine owners seeking validation of their purchasing decisions.) And for several years, some of the world’s finer restaurants have simply punted on their coffee service and succumbed to the pod.
Coffee-loving nations in Europe have particularly embraced Nespresso — ones you’d never associate with such a prepackaged, processed product. In Lisbon seven years ago, we asked the question why? Just a year ago, Nespresso installed its first café and boutique in Union Square backed by an immense amount of marketing money and fanfare — which itself will be the subject of a future post.
Opening in November 2012, this international chain of Nestlé-owned boutiques planted its San Francisco flag at the site of a former Guess store. There’s a ridiculous amount of pomp and pretense here for what amounts to be pre-ground pod coffee that’s been oxidizing for weeks after roasting. Walk inside, and you can tell the management has been taking notes from their favorite Apple stores. (Truth be told, Saeco and their showcase cafés and boutiques are hardly that different.)
There are staff in black suits that each talk or ask questions about you “being a member”. It all feels a bit like Scientology meets an aspirational Starbucks. They have many cream-colored leather lounge chairs paired at faux wooden-top tables, sofas, long white countertops with iPad displays (surprised?) and white metal stools. There’s also a few leather stools at the front service counter, behind which the staff use a number of their plastic Nespresso home espresso machines to produce the retail coffee beverages here. Although there are two dedicated Astra machines (made of metal even) for frothing milk.
The air is filled with lounge music circa 2001, and downstairs is their boutique — or showroom for machines and member-purchased coffee pods. Although they offer some food items and pairings, the focus is clearly on their coffee product line.
Ordering their “Ristretto” shot (note the use of capitalization) for a ridiculous $4 ($5 for doubles), they inserted one of their pods into a $200 Nespresso U home machine. The experience is a bit mind-blowingly incongruous.
Here you have everything short of a white-gloved servant offering your coffee on a silver tray with a side of Beluga caviar. Yet in the background you can hear the distinctively cheap buzzing sound of the Nespresso home espresso machine — the kind you associate with an aerating 10-gallon fish tank filled with blue tetras — when the staff push a button to produce your coffee from a prepackaged pod. It’s akin to walking into the French Laundry and having your meal prepared with a Betty Crocker Easy Bake Oven.
But enough about the imagery: it is, after all, about how it tastes in the cup. The resulting shot lacks much aroma, but it has a decent-looking, even, medium brown crema. The flavor is blended well and is surprisingly mellow for a supposed “ristretto” (ranked 10 out of 10 on Nespresso’s strength scale): mild spices and tepid herbal notes. But everything about the shot is tepid: a light and vapid body, and a flavor that misses the mark on any kind of character.
This is the part we find most objectionable about the whole pretense of Nespresso to begin with. Peel back the layers of “pay no attention to the man behind the curtain,” and underneath it all Nespresso represents a step forward in convenience but a step backwards in quality. At that moment, it struck me that Nespresso was coffee’s version of farmed salmon: a flabby, bland facsimile of the real thing that’s tailored more for the needs of mass production and distribution. Except here the Nespresso comparison is more of an insult to farmed salmon.
There’s nothing wrong with liking farmed salmon. But let’s call it what it is and price it accordingly. Served in Nespresso cups with designer spoons and sugar.
Read the review of the Nespresso Boutique & Bar in SF’s Union Square.