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Trip Report: Moonside Bakery and Cafe (Half Moon Bay, CA)

Posted by on 11 Sep 2014 | Filed under: Foreign Brew, Local Brew

We’ve written before about the questionable coffee situation in Half Moon Bay. Another one of the town’s exceptions to a coffee flashback to 1988 San Francisco is downtown’s Moonside Bakery and Cafe.

This bakery/café has been around for over 20 years. It may get mixed reviews for its service and some of its pastries, but they deserve special mention for sometimes making the most out of Equator Estate coffee where many other locations have struggled with the product. They offer sidewalk seating out front among parasols for all those grand sunny days in Half Moon Bay (OK, that’s a joke for you tourists). There are two tiny tables inside and an indoor rear patio with a lot more café tables and chairs in the back — inside the Courtyard Shops warehouse space.

Entrance to Moonside Bakery & Cafe in Half Moon Bay Service counter inside Moonside Bakery & Cafe

Baked goods and an oven inside Moonside Bakery & Cafe Rear seating of the Moonside Bakery & Cafe in the Courtyard Shops warehouse space

The key to the quality of the shot, which they make from a two-group La Marzocco Linea at the back, is in its shortness: a mere two sips for a single when it’s excellent, three or more sips when it’s just pretty good.

When pulled short, they leave a thin layer of a chocolatey, dark brown crema — which isn’t very impressive save for its color. But when it almost looks like two sips of hot chocolate, the body is dense and the shot is robust, potent, full-bodied, with a flavor of cinnamon, chocolate, and very few bright notes. Normally on longer shots (three or more sips) the crema is an even, medium brown. As a longer shot, the flavor is more typical: herbal pungency with some woodiness, a minimal chocolate edge, and few bright notes.

Served in mismatched Delco, Tuxton, Lubiana, or Vertex cups and saucers — depending on what’s available. Honestly, guys — did you hold up a flea market for these?

The milk-frothing here can be firm but not too stiff, creamy without being dry, and served in regular coffee mugs. While it can be one of the best Equator shots around when it’s short, it’s not consistently so. Sigh.

Read the review of the Moonside Bakery and Cafe in Half Moon Bay, CA.

La Marzocco Linea behind Moonside Bakery & Cafe The Moonside Bakery & Cafe espresso and dogged-looking cappuccino

Trip Report: Rustic Bakery Café (Larkspur Landing, Larkspur, CA)

Posted by on 05 Sep 2014 | Filed under: Foreign Brew, Local Brew

Rustic Bakery has earned awards for its baked goods, but its espresso service is surprisingly good. This location sits at the end of the Larkspur Landing for the incoming ferries, in the Marin Country Mart.

They have extensive outdoor space with white-painted wooden picnic tables under parasols at multiple zones around the building. Inside they have some stool seating among shared, long tables. They serve many baked goods in addition to salads, sandwiches, and wines.

Outdoor patio in front of Rustic Bakery Café at Larkspur Landing Service and some seating areas inside Rustic Bakery Café

Baked goods on offer inside Rustic Bakery Café Lines can get long inside Rustic Bakery Café

For espresso, they serve Stumptown from a two-group La Marzocco Linea behind the cashiers. It is a daringly short shot — almost just a single sip — with a textured medium brown crema.

While most Americans might complain about the scant volume — a sign advertises a 4-oz pour that’s closer to 1-oz — the result is potent and yet balanced. It has a potent aroma, and it provides a single sip with good (not overly extensive) body and potency. There’s some molasses and modest spices in the flavor mix, and it’s surprisingly lacking the Stumptown brightness bomb acidity.

This is arguably one of the best expressions of Stumptown coffee we’ve encountered anywhere, including various Stumptown cafés. Served in classic black Nuova Point cups.

Read the review of Rustic Bakery Café in Larkspur Landing, Larkspur, CA.

La Marzocco Linea inside Rustic Bakery Café The espresso at Rustic Bakery Café

Trip Report: Sogni di Dolci (St. Helena, CA)

Posted by on 25 Aug 2014 | Filed under: Café Society, Foreign Brew

This weekend’s Bay Area shakeout…

We managed to review this café a few hours before, and again a few hours after, the Napa earthquake that struck early yesterday morning. Staying overnight with friends in St. Helena on Saturday, some 20 miles from the epicenter, we experienced it as a moderately strong, somewhat lengthy shake.

Many in the house — half-awake at 3:30am after the shaking subsided — exclaimed, “That was a big one!” Tragic damages and injuries aside, it was not very big. Despite it being the largest earthquake in Northern California in 25 years and causing an up to $1 billion in damages, it was a minor jolt in comparison to the 1989 Loma Prieta quake. That one I experienced from the ground floor of UC Berkeley’s then-brand-new LSA building. Whereas yesterday’s quake was rather silent, the Loma Prieta quake came with an unmistakably monstrous roar that sounded like a large truck was slowly scraping a 10-ton Dumpster across a nearby parking lot.

Entrance to Sogni di Dolci with front patio Inside Sogni di Dolci

Hopefully this weekend’s quake will serve as a good emergency preparedness opportunity for the many Bay Area residents whom have experienced nothing like that in at least a generation. But my guess is most have no idea what’s coming.

For all of today’s protests over tech workers driving up housing costs and bringing giant buses to their neighborhoods, few could probably fathom 1989′s mass exodus of “undesirables” from that era — then colloquially called yuppies. Within a few months after the 1989 quake, many sold their homes at a loss, fleeing in fear for states like Arizona and Nevada because they could no longer trust the ground they stood upon here.

Sogni di energia elettrica

After reviewing Sogni di Dolci on Saturday afternoon, we had intended to check out the St. Helena edition of Model Bakery Sunday morning. That plan was thwarted when the western half of St. Helena’s Main Street was left without power. Model Bakery may have been open for business — and still had lines for their baked goods — but there were no working cash registers, no working credit card systems, and certainly no working espresso machines.

Sogni di Dolci was more fortunate, with power long since restored to the east side of the street. The lines were longer, given how the power outage limited options for downtown’s morning coffee zombies, and they processed the queue quite slowly.

Opening in May 2010, this Italian-themed espresso bar/gelato shop/panini bar/booze bar expanded into the next door space at 1144 Main St. in 2012 to grow from 17 to 47 seats. The growth plan included an expanded menu to also cover dinner items, but the place still functions better as a full-service bar & café than as a full-service restaurant. Behind the 1144 doorway is their new full bar, with its long counter of upholstered stools and a variety of unique beers on tap and in bottles (in addition to wine).

Interior of Sogni di Dolci from the back Sogni di Dolci's La Marzocco FB/80 and HDTV

At the center as you enter is their three-group, red La Marzocco FB/80, so they’re making the right coffee investments — even if they’re using Lavazza beans (which, btw, we surprisingly like). Above that is an HDTV often showing soccer matches (e.g., a Ligue 1 match between Saint-Étienne and Rennes on our last visit). There’s also a short, stand-up piano, a number of dining tables in back in addition to their café tables in front plus an enclosed outdoor sidewalk patio with metal café tables under parasols. At the service counter they have a good selection of gelato.

The interior décor is aspirationally upscale: with mirrored walls, dark-painted wood, Italian light fixtures hanging from the ceiling, and darkly painted wood bench seating lining the entire entrance perimeter. But despite the owner’s wife studying art in Florence, the hallway of black & white photos she brought from all over Italy combined with a patchwork of sometimes-incongruous Italian-themed décor makes it a bit like Italy by way of suburban New Jersey. For example, we may love Amalfi, but the big illuminated postcard photo is a bit much. (Having started watching the great new Italian TV series Gomorra, adapted from the 2008 movie Gomorrah, I was subtly reminded of the decorations within Immacolata Savastano’s home.)

For espresso, they pull surprisingly (and pleasantly) short shots with an even, medium brown crema. It’s potent with a good body: one area where the owners wisely decided to buck the New Jersey Italian stereotypes. It has a blend of traditional Lavazza flavors of mild spice and herbal pungency and is served in Lavazza-logo IPA cups. Their milk-frothing tends to be light and airy but consistent. Overall, a worthy espresso.

Read the review of Sogni di Dolci in St. Helena, CA.

The Sogni di Dolci espresso The Sogni di Dolci triple and double-shot cappuccini

Trip Report: Taylor Maid Farms (Sebastopol, CA)

Posted by on 06 Aug 2014 | Filed under: Foreign Brew, Roasting

Taylor Maid Farms has been a Sonoma County coffee institution since 1993. When the overused term “third wave coffee” was first coined by Wrecking Ball‘s Trish Rothgeb (née Skeie) many years ago, she was roasting here at the time. With locations in “downtown” Sebastopol and inside Copperfield’s Books in San Rafael, in 2013 they moved their Sebastopol flagship café and roasting operations to The Barlow as part of its reinvention and reopening.

The Barlow

The Barlow is a grand attempt at rural renewal. Originally opened in the 1940s as the extensive Barlow apple factory and processing plant, the fortunes of Sebastapol — and its apples — changed with the times. As apples yielded merely a fraction of the crop value when compared to grapes for Sonoma County wines, the apple industry (and the Barlow apple factory) all but perished in the region.

Entrance to Taylor Maid Farms Some of the grounds of The Barlow in Sebastopol, CA

For example, Sebastopol’s infamous Gravenstein apple — a flavorful but not the most supermarket-shelf-friendly apple — had to be rescued from extinction by one of the few Slow Food presidia in the country, an annual apple fair, and other public awareness measures to shore up the county’s agricultural biodiversity.

Meanwhile, the economic changes to the region also created something of a jobs crisis. One solution to the problem arose in the 2013 construction and opening of the nearby Graton Resort & Casino — a nearly $1 billion investment that brought some 1,600 new local jobs. A stark contrast to this approach, and one perhaps much more fitting for the area, was the reinvention of The Barlow.

Inspired by the opening of San Francisco’s Ferry Building Marketplace and Napa’s Oxbow Public Market, The Barlow was reopened in 2013 as a consumer-friendly home to artisinal food, wine, and even coffee production. It’s a vast campus with an extensive network of modernized warehouses, dwarfing the Ferry Building and Oxbow markets. And word from the locals has it that anything served on its grounds carries a number of local production requirements.

Front counter inside Taylor Maid Farms in Sebastopol Taylor Maid Farms logo inside

From the rear of Taylor Maid Farms, Sebastopol Roasting operations at the rear of Taylor Maid Farms in Sebastopol

Taylor Maid Farms at The Barlow

In front of the shop along McKinley St., Taylor Maid Farms offers some rather extensive front patio seating. Inside there are two levels of café tables and chairs, a wall of coffee and equipment for retail, and a lot of counter and stool seating near open glass garage “delivery” doors. There’s a lot of rough, reclaimed wood paneling, concrete floors, and a large rear space dedicated to their coffee greens and roasting operations.

They cover the electrical outlets here, and the environment responds in social kind by being a somewhat vibrant community space where locals and tourists alike tend to talk to each other instead of zoning out in front of screens. Given the region’s many denizens who look like a Phish tour bus just crashed down the road and scattered the occupants everywhere, this should not come as a surprise.

For retail coffee equipment, they sell everything from a Rancilio Silvia, Aeropress, Clever and Hario drippers, Baratza grinders, and their own trademark cans of roasted coffee (but they also sell it to measure in bags). They offer five different pour-over menu coffees to choose from for either “Brew Bar Hot” (five methods at different prices) and “Brew Bar Cold” (two methods).

Brew station at Taylor Maid Farms, Sebastopol Merchandising on the walls at Taylor Maid Farms, Sebastopol

A café coffee plant? Sure enough in Taylor Maid Farms Filter coffee menu inside Taylor Maid Farms, Sebastopol

Using a two-group La Marzocco Strada (and three Mazzer grinders), they pull shots with a darker-to-medium brown, even crema and a flavor that blends in bright notes but is otherwise dominated by molasses and chocolate tones. The thinner body is about the only complaint.

Served in black Cremaware cups with a glass of still water on the side. Their milk-frothing can be a little crude, and their drinks tend to run wet/milky rather than dry/foamy. While the macchiato might be a little heavy on milk, the 6-oz cups for their cappuccino keeps it balanced.

Read the review of Taylor Maid Farms in Sebastopol, CA.

Working the Strada at Taylor Maid Farms, a barista whom locals suggest is a double for Scarlett Johansson The Taylor Maid Farms espresso

A Taylor Maid Farms cappuccino Alleyway alongside the Taylor Maid Farms entrance at The Barlow

Trip Report: Back Yard Coffee Co. (Redwood City, CA)

Posted by on 25 Jul 2014 | Filed under: Café Society, Foreign Brew, Local Brew

Originally opened as Caffe Sportivo circa 2008 with a strange homage to a fitness joint (due to a physical trainer who ran the place), this independent coffeehouse introduced better coffee standards to Redwood City — a Peninsula town that locals often jokingly call “Deadwood City.” (…If you must compete with “Shallow Alto” — i.e., Palo Alto.)

In 2012 the same owner changed the name and the vibe of this place to something closer what it is today: a darker corner coffeehouse with a focus on coffee, wine & beer (and minimalist food items), and live music nights. Perhaps in this game of perpetuating bad puns, this place could carry the nickname “Black Yard Coffee Co.” Basic black is sort of the theme here.

Entrance to Back Yard Coffee Co. in Redwood City Service counter inside Back Yard Coffee Co.

The focus here on coffee now is oddly fortuitous given its address (Brewster Ave.). While there is some token outdoor café table seating under parasols along two sides of the building with limited parking in the rear, the vibe is really inside this place. It’s dark: the interior has long sofas and counter seating beneath tinted windows. And black everything: tables, floors, chairs, painted wall sections, etc. The laptop zombie presence is noticeable without being overwhelming — perhaps due to the emphasis on live and recorded music.

Seating area inside Back Yard Coffee Co.They emphasize their Stumptown Coffee supplies, using multiple roasts for their V60 pour-over service. For espresso they use a highly customized three-group Synesso machine at the bar, pulling shots with an even, medium brown crema. It has the expected Stumptown brightness and a flavor of apples, spices, herbal pungency, and some molasses with a potent body as well. Served in black (of course) classic ACF cups with no saucer.

This is solid coffee for an area where that can be still a bit hard to find.

Read the review of Back Yard Coffee Co. in Redwood City, CA.

Synesso machine and service counter inside Back Yard Coffee Co. The Back Yard Coffee Co. espresso

Trip Report: Blue Sky Farms (Half Moon Bay, CA)

Posted by on 27 Jun 2014 | Filed under: Add Milk, Foreign Brew, Home Brew, Starbucks

Not unlike Carmel, CA, Half Moon Bay is a smaller oceanside community that serves as something of a test of quality coffee penetration. Located only 30 miles from San Francisco, and possessing its own Peet’s and Starbucks (unlike Carmel), Half Moon Bay remains surprisingly isolated and remote from many of the coffee fads and baseline standards that the cityfolk up north have grown accustomed to.

Thus finding a solid espresso in town is a real challenge. Half Moon Bay is fraught with many wrong turns and dead ends that lead to an over-extracted, watery ash flavor that many San Franciscans might recognize from 1988. But there are some mild exceptions — such as Blue Sky Farms.

Blue Sky Farms from Highway 1 Coffee and breakfast menu inside Blue Sky Farms

This roadside café, coffeehouse, and nursery (yes, nursery — the plant kind, that is) constitutes a rather dark wooden hut that you might miss if you drive up Highway 1 too quickly out of Half Moon Bay towards El Granada. There’s a parking lot with a main entrance to the rear of the building, right alongside the nursery and gardening supply.

Inside the simple wooden frame building, it has a typical rural café feel. It might seem a little like a family-run spot, but it’s more together than that. They serve baked goods, breakfast items (eggs, burritos, weekend waffles), and other light dining fare. There are several indoor metal-topped café tables — and some worn wooden picnic bench seating in the rear patio outdoors.

Patrons inside Blue Sky FarmsUsing a three-group Conti machine in the service area, and Moschetti coffee (Moschetti makes their service area presence well-known in Half Moon Bay), they pull shots with a pale to medium brown mottled crema served short in a shotglass-sized cup (Romania ceramic from IKEA). It has a healthy body and a smoothed-out flavor of mild spices.

For milk-frothing, they can be a bit irregular and frothy — but they will ask if you want your cappuccino wet or dry. Their milk-based drinks are deceptively large-looking and come in white or blue IKEA cups. All things considered, you will hope for something better — but this is one of the better coffee options in this outpost town.

Read the review of Blue Sky Farms in Half Moon Bay, CA.

Three-group Conti machine inside Blue Sky Farms The Blue Sky Farms espresso

Espresso nel caffè: Rai 3 Report

Posted by on 07 Apr 2014 | Filed under: Barista, Beans, Consumer Trends, Foreign Brew, Home Brew, Machine, Quality Issues, Robusta, Starbucks

As we noted last month, tonight on Rai 3 — a regional TV news network in Italy — they aired an investigative exposé on the state of espresso in Italy titled “Espresso nel caffè”: Report Espresso nel caffè. Rai 3 produced this as an episode of their Report program, which has been something of a platform for barebones investigative journalism since its inception in 1997. (Think a scrappier 60 Minutes on a shoestring budget.)

This nasty shot of an unclean espresso machine in Napoli won't qualify as coffee pornThe 51-minute segment isn’t groundbreaking for either journalism nor for any awareness of coffee standards. That said, it is aspirationally legitimate coffee video and television. Far too often on the Internet, the idea of a good “coffee video” — with few exceptions — is equated with a sensory montage on YouTube or Vimeo packaged like a roaster’s wannabe TV commercial.

There’s never any storytelling (“Plot? We no need no stinkin’ plot!”) — just coffee porn close-ups of the stuff either roasting or brewing, complete with a coffee professional’s platitudes voiced over B-roll. Coffee fanatics have largely only encouraged these low standards by joining in on the self-congratulatory social media circle jerk that follows video after identical video.

How a coda di topo should not look...The Report episode begins by covering the necessary espresso machine hot water purge before pulling an espresso shot — and by noting how few baristi know to follow this practice. A Lavazza trainer notes how 70% of the aromatic properties of coffee are lost within 15 minutes of grinding it. Comparisons are shown of a correct and incorrect coda di topo (or “rat’s tail”) pour from an espresso machine, showing how equipment can get gummed up without proper and immaculate cleaning. The program also reviews how few baristi know how much arabica versus robusta is in their blends, noting the resulting impacts on flavor and costs.

Luigi Odello on ReportThey visit cafes such as Gran Caffè Grambrinus and Caffè Mexico at Pizza Dante, 86 in Napoli. They interview some heavy hitters — from Lavazza to Caffè Moreno to Kimbo, from Biagio Passalacqua himself to Davide Cobelli of the SCAE (featured last month in Barista Magazine) to Luigi Odello of Espresso Italiano Tasting fame. And probably too many guys in lab coats.

Overall, the program is a bit condemning of espresso standards across all of Italy. But remember, this is a national news program that targets the general public: the goal is to educate and, in some ways, outrage the public about what they may be putting up with currently. If only one percent of the coffee porn videos in English would attempt something so high-minded as that.

UPDATE: April 8, 2014
Effective communication often changes behavior. In response to Rai 3′s Report yesterday, a Campania region commissioner has come to the defense of the region’s espresso: Campania Report, Martusciello: “Il caffè napoletano è una eccellenza”.

Defensive posturing aside (he’s not alone), the commissioner also welcomes those interviewed for the program to visit local Napoli coffee shops and producers to witness the mobilization Napoli has mounted in response. As such, Andrej Godina has done God’s work: raising public awareness of lagging coffee standards, starting a dialog, and inciting action to improve these standards.

UPDATE: April 14, 2014
Antonio Quarta, president of the Associazione Italiana Torrefattori (AIT, Italian Roasters Association), commented on the Report in today’s paper: Quarta: «Il caffè fa bene, ma è importante che sia di qualità». In short, he notes that the SCAE has its own high professional standards, but that applying them to every gas station and airport serving espresso in Italy doesn’t exactly tell the whole story either. He’s a little defensive, as you might expect, but investigative journalism thrives on finding worst-case scenarios and drawing much more widespread conclusions from them.

Another expert look at the espresso in Napoli, Italy

Posted by on 03 Mar 2014 | Filed under: Barista, Foreign Brew, Quality Issues, Roasting

Maybe it’s just me, but Napoli has come up a lot since I posted our survey of the espresso there two weeks ago.

Over the weekend I attended the comedic play Napoli! at SF’s American Conservatory Theater. I can’t remember a play where coffee played such a central role in every scene. Then last night, Neapolitan film director Paolo Sorrentino won the Best Foreign Film Oscar for La grande bellezza (The Great Beauty). Like any good Neapolitan, he even thanked soccer player and Napoli patron saint, Diego Maradona:

Both works of art come recommended, btw.

However, last week we also came across a great contrarian article (in Italian) about the espresso in Napoli by Andrej Godina: ANDREJ GODINA A NAPOLI – Un viaggio, una giornata alla scoperta del presunto mito del caffè di Napoli. In it, Mr. Godina tours Napoli to sample the local espresso and is mostly left with a bad taste in his mouth.

Andrej Godina prepping machines at the Nordic Barista CupChances are you don’t know Mr. Godina, but it’s fair to say he has credentials. He earned a PhD in Science, Technology and Economics in the Coffee Industry at the University of Trieste studying the scientific papers of Ernesto Illy; he is an SCAE (Specialty Coffee Association of Europe) Authorized Trainer, Master Barista, and Barista Examiner; and he works at Dalla Corte — an espresso machine manufacturer in Italy whose lineage brought about the E61 group head and the company La Spaziale.

Rather than follow a quality guide, like a Bar d’Italia, he and his barista trainer, Andrea, arrived in Napoli by train and began choosing a number of coffee shops at random. In short, they found them all quite terrible despite the legend of Napoli’s great coffee — which goes back the the 18th century and is even supported by some of Illy‘s own research conducted there.

Oily beans in a grimy grinder in NapoliHe discovers minute-and-a-half (i.e., over-) extractions, stale coffee, burnt coffee, dirty cups, grinders with oily build-up, and bitter and astringent espresso. He also dispenses a lot of the folklore behind why Napoli espresso is so “good”: it’s the water, it’s the special roasting process, etc. He even takes a pot shot or two at caffè sospeso (suspended coffee), the Neapolitan caffettiera coffee maker (la tazzulella), and the zucchero-crema. After tasting some dozen espresso shots, the best he could rate them was a 4 out of 10 — with a 6 being acceptable.

It’s one hell of a condemning indictment. Is it fair? In our reviews, it’s true that we targeted many quality caffès with advance research. But we also mixed in a number of places at random and didn’t find them to be too far off the mark. (Save for one horrid exception in the guest breakfast room of a Napoli hotel.) Mr. Godina also dismissed Gran Caffè Gambrinus with a 4/10 rating — which we found to be quite good, even if nothing in Napoli would crack our Top 15 list for San Francisco.

A random restaurant espresso at the Il Monastero restaurant in the Castello Aragonese, IschiaIt just shows that a lot still comes down to individual tastes and preferences. While Mr. Godina and I may agree on how good Illy can be in Italy, his company is located in Milano — which we’ve long lamented as one of the most underachieving coffee cities in Italy with many places serving the Dunkin’ Donuts of Italian espresso. Mr. Godina also rates an espresso in Piazza San Marco, Venezia as one of the best he’s ever had. Historical, absolutely, but we would never consider the espresso quality at the likes of Caffè Florian worth writing home about.

We stand by our assessment that the random espresso in Napoli beats the typical baseline quality standards at any other city in the world to which we’ve been (and we’ve been to a lot). But as Mr. Godina’s article proves, opinions will vary.

UPDATE: March 26, 2014
It looks like the Milan newspaper, Corriere della Sera, has picked up on Mr. Godina’s story: La sorpresa: a Napoli un caffè pessimo – Corriere.it. A series of these vignettes about the coffee across Italy seems planned for a coming video report on Rai 3.

UPDATE: April 2, 2014
And the intrigue continues to build: Aj: Press release – Andrej Godina’s reply: ready to debate with other expert coffee tasters. Mr. Godina is accused by some of slandering the coffee in Napoli, while his defense is that he’s raising awareness of better standards across all of Italy. This is all good, popcorn-munchworthy stuff, folks.

UPDATE: May 13, 2014
Mr. Godina takes his coffee tasting tour to the Trieste of his graduate school days and discovers much better espresso: SCRIVE ANDREJ GODINA – Ma anche nella mia Trieste… Ecco il diario, tutti i voti, le valutazioni, l’analisi degli errori nei principali bar del capoluogo giuliano, even awarding the historic Caffè San Marco in Trieste an 8.8 score.

It’s Epicurious’ turn for “America’s Best Coffee Shops”

Posted by on 01 Mar 2014 | Filed under: Café Society, Consumer Trends, Foreign Brew, Local Brew, Quality Issues

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.

Daylight Mind in Kona, HI, courtesy Epicurious.comWe 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.

If it’s about quality, why do we still write about it as a crude caffeine fix?

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?

Barista Parlor in Nashville, TN, courtesy of Epicurious.comThen 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):

The rise of “independent chains”?

Blacksmith in Houston, TX, courtesy of Epicurious.comRisks 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.

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

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