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

Where Coffee is not Food and Transparency is not Quality

Posted by on 20 Jan 2014 | Filed under: Café Society, Consumer Trends, Fair Trade, Quality Issues

The 2014 Good Food Awards in SF's Ferry Building, courtesy Daily Coffee NewsWords can mean a lot. When it comes to coffee, that can mean words like “food” or “transparency”. We’ve noticed both of these words coming up a lot in recent public discussions about coffee quality, and yet neither word really belongs in the conversation.

Today’s Daily Coffee News from Roast Magazine registered examples of each in an article on the recent Good Food Awards held annually here in San Francisco. In case you’re not familiar with “the GFAs,” they were born out of the Slow Food Nation event held here in 2008 with many of the same key players at the helm (at least on the coffee side of things). The goal of the awards is to recognize “outstanding American food producers and the farmers who provide their ingredients.”

What’s In A Name?

This is how one eats coffee as foodAll worthy goals. But here’s one of our long-time pet peeves, albeit a small one: coffee is labeled as “food”. Perhaps it seems innocent enough. But while the coffee industry has spent years belaboring the point of trying to be taken as seriously as wine, there’s is simply no way wine would ever be classified as “food” at an awards event.

It has none of the nutritional values of food; you do not eat it. What are we, civets? Sure, you could say that both food and coffee are consumed, but you could say the same for unleaded gasoline.

Restaurant coffee will surely suck as long as coffee is treated as food’s red-headed stepchild — and not something worth recognition outside of food’s long shadow the way wine enjoys. And because the “food media” provide only superficial and patronizing cover of beverages is why Karen Foley, formerly of Fresh Cup, started Imbibe magazine. There are reasons they are called “barista” — the Italian word for bartender — and not “waiter” or “waitress”.

However, let’s turn to a topic that’s a bit more controversial: transparency.

Just Because It’s Transparent Doesn’t Mean You’ll Like What You’ll See

You can roughly define coffee transparency as visibility into its entire supply chain: from seed to cup. It’s about assigning the proper credit (or blame) wherever deserved and exposing just’s in the bag and behind its pricing.

Oh, it will be amazing, alright...

It’s critical stuff. So much so that international coffee guru, roaster, and former barista champion, Tim Wendelboe, had this to say about transparency some three years ago:

A lot of high quality driven roasters, including ourselves, preach that transparency is the most important part of our trade.

There are a number of good reasons for this. One is sustainability of coffee growing and business practices — i.e., ensuring that not only can you find your favorite coffee sources, but that you can reward and encourage all of those behind its proper growing, harvesting, processing, storage, and shipping practices. Another virtue is the reproducibility of results, so that growing season after growing season you can ensure that you get a similar if not better product each time.

But what transparency is not is a measure of quality, and this is where we see a lot of coffee consumers — and even some purveyors — confusing the two. Just as Fair Trade is an economic program but not a quality certification, transparency has everything to do with the means of achieving your results but it is not a measure of quality in those results. The means are being confused with their ends.

On Traceability and Micro-lot Terroir

Which is why we appreciated that Jen Apodaca, 2014 GFA Coffee Committee chair, didn’t take the bait when Daily Coffee News asked in their article, “Are there specific benchmarks for criteria like traceability, transparency…” [etc.]. Because the fact is that transparency doesn’t have a flavor — I can’t taste it directly in my cup. The GFAs are trying to recognize sensory qualities more than intellectualized ones.

Even more to the point, the fact that one coffee is more traceable than another does not mean it is of any better quality: your coffee could be highly traceable but still taste like ass.

Kermit Lynch says, 'Your terroir sucks!'One of the most common ways coffee consumers experience transparency and traceability is through labels such as single origin (Serious Eats?: yet another coffee-is-food reference!) or micro-lot coffees. There’s a misplaced sense that having greater precision in where your coffee comes from somehow naturally means it’s of higher quality. It does not.

The merits of this precision are more psychological than sensory. We’ve seen a lot of coffee professionals donning their best Mr. Yuk faces when someone dares to dilute the pedigree of a single row of coffee shrubs by blending coffees to achieve a specific flavor profile.

We can overlook that this kind of “master race” obsession with purified gene pools has gotten our species into deep trouble in the past. But when that geographic precision becomes the primary goal of a coffee in itself, you’re no longer seeking the best taste outcome in the cup but rather some intellectual notion of a purist expression of its terroir. You’re not thinking about optimizing for flavors as much as you’re thinking about pinning your pristine collection of butterfly species inside a museum case.

And coffee has a lot of bad terroir. Kermit Lynch, the infamous Berkeley-based wine importer and maker, recently said this about terroir:

Look, there’s great terroir and there’s lousy terroir. A wine showing terroir doesn’t mean it’s good.”

I guess we all can put that in our ever-popular wine analogy and smoke it.

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: CoffeeShop_ (Bernal Heights)

Posted by on 12 Jan 2014 | Filed under: Beans, Café Society, Fair Trade, Local Brew

Taking a short respite from our series on espresso in Napoli and the Amalfi Coast, we have a couple of local coffee shop reviews to catch up on. One is the obscure and eponymous CoffeeShop_.

This dive of a coffee shop has been operation since 2012, but the overwhelming majority of locals in the neighborhood wouldn’t know it. It kind of defines the term “understated”, so you pretty much have to stumble upon it.

Entrance to CoffeeShop_ on Mission St. in northwest Bernal Heights Since you may miss CoffeeShop_, you can always look for the inconspicuous Roccapulco across the street

It’s a tight space with no seating, inside nor out, though thankfully they do offer their espresso in “for here” cups anyway (Pagnossin cups with no saucer). Though even with the tight space and nothing to sit on, you’ll often find people hanging out inside.

In addition to espresso drinks they sell Hario drip coffee (they also sell the drippers) and baked goods from Batch. Their coffee is proudly sourced from Emeryville’s Ubuntu Coffee Cooperative, which also explains some of the other “hippie crap” on the drink menu such as yerba mate and matcha.

Coffee menu inside the tiny CoffeeShop_ Hario filter brewing and Promac espresso machine inside CoffeeShop_

Using a two-group Promac, they pull shots with a very creamy texture. It has an even-textured medium brown crema with a flavor of pepper and mild spice with some modestly sharp brightness (to let you know the coffee is freshly roasted). But without potent fruitiness or candy-like sweetness.

Three generous sips, and we’re still not entirely sure why the espresso shots get the nickname “Dirty” here. (As in: “I’ll have a Dirty, please.”)

Read the review of CoffeeShop_ in Bernal Heights.

The CoffeeShop_ Promac machine The CoffeeShop_ espresso - or a 'Dirty' as it's also called

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

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