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Trip Report: Gran Caffè Cimmino (Chiaia District, Napoli, Italy)

Posted by on 26 Jan 2014 | Filed under: Foreign Brew, Robusta

Returning our series of café reviews to Napoli proper, it’s not easy to top the local reputation of a place like Gran Caffè Cimmino. This is a true grand café, and multiple sources in Italy regard it as one of the best places in Napoli for espresso — if not the best place.

The Gambero Rosso Bar d’Italia thought so throughout much of the early 2000s: awarding it its highest rating for both coffee and the café itself: i.e., three chicchi and three tazzine. By 2007, they dropped their café rating a touch (two tazzine), where it has remained since. But as of the 2014 edition, no café in Napoli rates higher.

Entrance to Gran Caffè Cimmino in Napoli's Chiaia district Pastries in the entrance window of Gran Caffè Cimmino in Napoli's Chiaia district

Pastries inside Gran Caffè Cimmino in Napoli's Chiaia districtThis location resides in the heart of Napoli’s Chiaia district — known for its fashionable shops, well-heeled businessmen, upscale nightlife, and high rent addresses. The mothership Gran Caffè Cimmino, established in 1907, still resides further out in the nearby Posillipo district. As a true gran caffè, they offer full bar service, amazing pastries (they even have an “artisan pastry lab” in Posillipo), and other quality edibles short of a full-on restaurant.

Here there’s plenty of outdoor seating for people-watching on the fashionable Piazza Giulio Rodinò under insanely large parasols. Using a four-group La San Marco lever machine at the inside bar and wood-roasted Italmoka coffee from Napoli, they pull shots with an even medium-brown crema in proudly local MPAN cups.

Gran Caffè Cimmino's outdoor seating in Piazza Giulio Rodinò Baristi in uniform inside Gran Caffè Cimmino

The flavor is of milder spices, and we found it to be surprisingly tepid and mild for what’s considered a Neapolitan classic: it tastes more of Milan than Naples. (And it’s no secret that we’re continually underwhelmed by the espresso in Milan as an Italian underachiever.) This is likely due to their reliance on 100% Arabica blends with no robusta.

One of the two brother co-owners of Gran Caffè Cimmino — Antonio Fantini — previously worked Caffè Mexico at Via Scarlatti from 1948 onwards for a number of years, using only 100% Arabica blends. The classic Neapolitan blend typically contains a measured amount of quality robusta for strength and balance, and Caffè Mexico today uses decidedly robusta-friendly Passalacqua roasting.

Given the price of everything that surrounds it, it’s ridiculously cheap at €0.90 at the bar. The 2014 Bar d’Italia calls out their cappuccino, calling their milk-frothing particularly dense and consistent (it is). They are also known as a “cult” location for their caffè shakerato.

It is not our favorite espresso in Napoli, and it’s flavor profile may be a bit atypical for local tradition. But we’ll definitely place it on our “must stop” list.

Read the review of Gran Caffè Cimmino in the Chiaia District of Napoli, Italy.

Inside Gran Caffè Cimmino in Napoli's Chiaia district with La San Marco machine at the back The Gran Caffè Cimmino espresso with water served on the side at the bar

Trip Report: Calise al Porto (Ischia Porto, Ischia, Italy)

Posted by on 24 Jan 2014 | Filed under: Foreign Brew

Tourists waiting to board the next ferry back to NapoliThe most appropriate way to end a series of espresso reviews on the Italian island of Ischia is perhaps a review of one of the last places to order a shot as you leave. This most recent expansion of Bar Calise‘s mini empire on Ischia island opened in April 2002. It’s located near the port and the ticket booths for the ferries back to Napoli.

While there’s a nicely appointed bar inside, the space is somewhat tight and distributed through many smaller rooms throughout the building. There are multiple levels of informal and more formal seating in back, and out front there are several outdoor tables.

Side entrance to Bar Calise al Porto Main street entrance to Bar Calise al Porto with outdoor seating at right

Using a newer, three-group La Cimbali machine at the bar, they pull shots of Passalacqua with an uneven medium brown crema. It’s a rich cup with a bit of smoke bordering on ashiness, but it’s still quality. Just €1 at the bar.

Definitely not the best espresso shot you’ll have had on the island. But it’s better than 95% of the espresso you’ll find near a transportation hub anywhere else in the world.

Read the review of Calise al Porto in Ischia Porto, Ischia, Italy.

Baristi working Bar Calise al Porto's La Cimbali machine The Bar Calise al Porto espresso

Trip Report: Gran Caffè Vittoria (Ischia Porto, Ischia, Italy)

Posted by on 22 Jan 2014 | Filed under: Café Society, Foreign Brew

This grand café and bakery has been servicing more upscale patrons around Ischia Porto for over a century. As a true grand café — though they call themselves a “Pasticceria – Gelateria” — they also are known for cocktails and light meals.

Located on an upscale piazza (Piazza San Girolamo) just below the grand gardens, they offer extensive outdoor seating spaces along Via Vittoria Colonna with a long deck and dozens of café tables under broad sun umbrellas located across of the corner café.

Corner entrance of Gran Caffè Vittoria in Ischia Porto Entrance to Gran Caffè Vittoria with cakes and gelato on display

Patio seating across the street from Gran Caffè Vittoria in Piazza San Girolamo A bar's bar: drinks inside Gran Caffè Vittoria in Ischia

In front they display some of their famous cakes and gelato, and inside there’s a full bar (with a couple dozen bottles mounted upside-down for easy pouring) and more seating towards the back. But the main attraction is the outdoor space, perfect for people-watching along to a 70s American funk soundtrack on the speaker system (at least when we visited).

Using a four-group La San Marco lever machine at the bar, they pull shots of Caffè Moreno with an even, medium brown crema. It has a rich flavor more in the range of spices and some herbal pungency but almost no tobacco notes to it. Served in IPA logo cups, and only €1 at the inside bar.

Rated a surprisingly low one tazzina but two chicchi in the 2014 Bar d’Italia.

Read the review of Gran Caffè Vittoria in Ischia Porto, Italy.

Gran Caffè Vittoria's four-group La San Marco lever machine The Gran Caffè Vittoria espresso

Trip Report: Arago (Ischia, Italy)

Posted by on 20 Jan 2014 | Filed under: Foreign Brew

Located along the popular Via Luigi Mazzella strip in Ischia Ponte, this pasticceria/café operated as My Way Café from around 2010-2013. Arago took over in 2013 and made a decidedly upscale move in the process, but they still use the three-group, chrome MyWay Pompeii lever espresso machine leftover from the previous café.

In front they showcase a number of their delicate pastries, and in back is a separate room for their gastronomia (i.e., more an eatery) among several tables. The bar space is tight, but they will serve you an espresso at the counter for €1.

Entrance to Arago near Ischia Ponte Passalacqua signage outside Arago in Ischia Ponte

It comes with a textured medium brown crema and a bold Passalacqua flavor of strong pungency and some tobacco. Served in Passalacqua-logo cups from Club House.

Their milk-frothing skill is more than adequate. And as is frequently the case around Napoli, their cappuccino comes with a dusting of cocoa unless you request otherwise.

Read the review of Arago in Ischia, Italy.

Arago's MyWay Pompeii lever machine: a holdover from when it was previously My Way Café The Arago espresso and cappuccino

Trip Report: Dal Pescatore (Sant’Angelo, Ischia, Italy)

Posted by on 17 Jan 2014 | Filed under: Foreign Brew, Restaurant Coffee

Ischia point of Sant'AngeloContinuing our series on espresso in and around Napoli, we return to the island of Ischia. This bar/restaurant at the Sant’Angelo tip, near the commune of Serrara Fontana, is known mostly for its fish. Not entirely shocking, given that the place is named “by the fisherman”. And it is, after all, perched with highly desirable sea views at Ischia island’s southernmost rock outcropping.

Out front there’s a lot of patio seating with deck chairs and parasols: it looks like the deck of the Titanic washed up here. Further back inside is more of a cavernous space that’s carved in curved stone walls with a few café tables. And in addition to serving fish and pizza, in back there’s a stocked bar that also serves espresso.

Signage and just some of the vast seating in front of Ischia's Dal Pescatore More of the vast patio seating in front of Dal Pescatore

Using an older four-group lever La San Marco 85-LEVA-4, they pull shots with an even, relatively thinner darker brown crema in IPA cups. It has a bold Passalacqua flavor of herbal pungency, some wood, and just a touch of tobacco without being too smoky.

A little pricey at €1.20 at the bar, but not surprising given the remote location. While it was rated a respectable three tazzine and one chicco in the 2013 Bar d’Italia, for what ever reasons it entirely dropped out of the 2014 edition.

Read the review of Dal Pescadero in Sant’Angelo frazione di Serrara Fontana, Ischia, Italy.

Entrance with bar deep inside Dal Pescatore Looking out at the patio from inside Dal Pescatore

Dal Pescatore bar with four-group La San Marco 85-LEVA-4 The Dal Pescatore espresso - made from Passalacqua coffee

Trip Report: Chromatic Coffee Co. (Santa Clara, CA)

Posted by on 15 Jan 2014 | Filed under: Foreign Brew, Roasting

For those who lamented the closure of the great Barefoot Coffee Roasters at this South Bay strip mall location in 2012 (and we were among them), Chromatic hasn’t missed a beat since it moved in right afterwards.

Opening in October 2012, Chromatic picked up very much where Barefoot left off: a great attention to coffee-making detail and roasting their own. It also didn’t hurt that when we first visited, they espoused a playlist featuring obscure-but-outstanding ’80s & ’90s college radio. (“Johnny’s Gonna Die” by the Replacements, “Chapel Hill” by Sonic Youth, etc. — stuff for which we have an immense soft spot.)

Familiar entrance: this time to Chromatic Coffee Wall o' merchandising inside Chromatic Coffee

Table seating inside Chromatic Coffee Another view of Chromatic Coffee's merchandising wall

One small change from Barefoot is that the wall of merchandising is on your left instead of your right as you walk in: various roasts, coffee equipment, and the occasional marketing swag. The café table seating hasn’t really changed at all, featuring several smaller tables and chairs arranged out in front of the coffee bar and extending towards the back.

Using a three-group La Marzocco Strada machine and their Gamut Espresso blend, they pulled shots that weren’t too heavy on body but have some nice chocolate tones with some caramel and a little orange peel. This is not a brightness bomb espresso (thankfully); there aren’t any sharp edges that mask other flavors. There’s balance, nuance, and some subtlety here: all qualities that are lost on many newer roasters.

One might hypothesize that the trend towards highly acidic espresso shots has parallels in the ever-popular wine analogy, where American consumers have shown a strong preference for overly big, fruity, and oaky wines with the finesse of a sledgehammer. While there’s no right or wrong when it comes to personal taste, we’re reminded of those who put hot peppers on everything they eat just to taste their food at all.

Fortunately, Chromatic’s espresso is nothing like that. In fact, it’s a great espresso that should be the envy of virtually any neighborhood in the world. Even if the service here can be painfully slow at times — as in Blue Bottle Mint Plaza slow. But who wants to rush quality, right?

Read the review of Chromatic Coffee Co. in Santa Clara, CA.

Coffee for sale at Chromatic Coffee Service area inside Chromatic Coffee

Chromatic Coffee's Strada machine The Chromatic Coffee espresso

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Trip Report: Bar Calise a Ischia (Ischia, Italy)

Posted by on 07 Jan 2014 | Filed under: Café Society, Foreign Brew

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.

Roadside sign for Bar Calise off of Via Antonio Sogliuzzo Seating and entrance in the garden at 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.

Inside a wing of Bar Calise a Ischia Some of the lush gardens inside Bar Calise a Ischia

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.

Baristi at Bar Calise a Ischia operating their La Cimbali The Bar Calise a Ischia espresso

Trip Report: Bar Cocò (Ischia Ponte, Italy)

Posted by on 03 Jan 2014 | Filed under: Café Society, Foreign Brew

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.

castello Aragonese at Ischia Ponte Entrance to Bar Cocò in the shadow of Ischia's Castello Aragonese

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.

For San Francisco area residents, imagine if Angel Island was encircled by a few smaller, more casual versions of Sausalito. Except Ischia goes back to at least Greek settlers in the 8th century B.C.

Italians socializing at Bar Cocò along the castle bridge Italians strolling past Bar Cocò in the shadow of the Castello Aragonese on Ischia

All generations socialize outside of Bar Cocò Footbridge from Castello Aragonese to the main town of Ischia Ponte

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.

The island of Ischia from Castello AragoneseBuilt 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.

Thatched entrance to Bar Cocò Service bar area inside Bar Cocò

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.

A two-sips short shot with a deep, darker flavor of pungent herbs and cloves served in Cocò-logo IPA cups. No wonder the 2014 Bar d’Italia rated them two chicchi (and one tazzina).

Read the review of Bar Cocò in Ischia Ponte, Italy.

Manual La San Marco machine at the bar inside Bar Cocò The Bar Cocò espresso

Entrance to the neighboring Ristoranti Cocò along the footbridge The Bar Cocò logo IPA espresso cup is an homage to the Castello Aragonese

Trip Report: Pasticceria Napoli (Maiori, Italy)

Posted by on 31 Dec 2013 | Filed under: Café Society, Foreign Brew

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.

Coastal panoramic view of Maiori, Italy - courtesy of Wikipedia

Maiori's long Corso Regina leading up from the beach Maiori's Corso Regina looking back to the beach

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.

Entrance fo Pasticceria Napoli in Maiori, Italy - with Illy branding Inside Pasticceria Napoli, overlooking the pastry case back towards the entrance

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.

Pasticceria Napoli's La Cimbali machine The Pasticceria Napoli espresso

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