December 2007

Monthly Archive

Trip Report: A. Cavalli & Co.

Posted by on 30 Dec 2007 | Filed under: Local Brew

This Italian bookstore and import store has been a long-time favorite of ours — but not for espresso. That is until just recently (Fall 2007). It first opened its doors in 1880, making it the oldest store in North Beach. It has changed owners a few times since then, and its newest owners just added espresso bar service.

The A. Cavalli & Co. shop is a North Beach institution — one befitting its age — and it is one of the last remaining, genuine reminders of the true Italian cultural influence on this neighborhood. Its previous owner, John Valentini, retired this year — leaving the future of this SF institution up in question. Fortunately, new owners stepped in and continued the tradition.

They sell Italian language books (including a few of the often-mentioned Gambero Rosso guides, though unfortunately not the Bar d’Italia), magazines, newspapers, CDs, DVDs and VHS tapes, and T-shirts — in addition to various moka pots, Danesi coffee, and some basic pastries from a nearby supplier.

Entrance to A. Cavalli & Co. at a Stockton St. Muni bus stop The new espresso bar inside A. Cavalli & Co.

Inside there are a few small tables with chairs to sit down and relax with a cup. The espresso bar behind the counter consists of a two-group semi-automatic machine, private-labeled by Danesi. Danesi private-labels a lot of their coffee service — from beans, to machines, to cups. And even on close inspection, it’s unclear who are the original manufacturers.

With the Danesi machine, they pull modestly sized shots with a thin layer of dark-to-medium-brown crema. It has a mild herbal flavor, but it’s relatively weak and thin for what we’ve been able to get out of Danesi beans at home. Ernie Friedlander of Caffe Forte recently hooked me up with some Danesi beans, and I was impressed with both how chocolatey they smelled and how good a crema they produced with beans shipped from overseas (I’m generally not a fan of imports). But here there is no chocolate in its aroma or flavor, for example.

A. Cavalli should be capable of more with system tuning and/or practice, however. And of course, they serve it in Danesi logo designer cups.

Read the review of A. Cavalli & Co.

A. Cavalli's Danesi-supplied machine and various coffee accessories The A. Cavalli & Co. espresso


Trip Report: Vincafè (Alba, Italy)

Posted by on 28 Dec 2007 | Filed under: Foreign Brew

Our Espresso in Torino and Piemonte series continues with the last of our reviewed cafés in Alba: Vincafè. Owned and operated by Umberto Penna and Massimo Torchio, this modern, trendy spot in the middle of Alba’s shopping district has a decent amount of indoor seating for having a apertivo, dining on lunch, or having an espresso while watching Italian music videos on the flat screen TV.

However, it is better known for its copious outdoor seating space — which takes over much of the pedestrian-only, cobblestone streets of Via Vittorio Emanuele. It is a prime spot to catch the Alba “fashion show” as locals and Italian tourists alike walk by.

In front of Vincafè's main entrance Espresso bar setup inside Vincafè

Rated 2 chicchi and 2 tazzine in the 2008 Bar d’Italia del Gambero Rosso, their espresso is rather workmanlike. The one exception is their loyal and proud use of Asti’s Ponchione coffee. Otherwise, they use a three-group La Cimbali M32 Dosatron to pull shots with a mottled medium brown crema. It has a pungent flavor of pepper and mild spice. A pretty standard, and decent, cup for Piemonte at €0.90.

Read the review of Vincafè.

The Vincafè espresso


Trip Report: Caffè San Carlo (Torino, Italy)

Posted by on 25 Dec 2007 | Filed under: Add Milk, Foreign Brew

Our Espresso in Torino and Piemonte series continues with a return to Torino’s Piazza San Carlo. Caffè San Carlo may not be among Gambero Rosso‘s top 18 cafés in all of Italy, but they rated it with a very respectable 3 tazzine and 2 chicchi in its 2008 guide.

Chairs in the piazza, in front of Caffè San Carlo Entrance to Caffè San Carlo under the porticos

With so much competition on this piazza, it may be a little surprising that the Caffè San Carlo holds its own. Its espresso may be weaker than its neighbors’, but they offer the best pastries and best milk-frothing for cappuccini on the square. It has seating out front on the piazza and decorative touches inside, with a small mirrored bar with a monstrous glass chandelier. In the morning, they set out their great pastries in the middle of the place.

Breakfast pastries at Caffè San Carlo The four-group Faema at Caffè San Carlo

Using a four-group E92 Faema, they pull espresso shots with a thin layer of a lighter brown crema speckled with dark brown. The pour is relatively large for the region, and thus not very potent. Still, it’s pretty good and comes with more of an herbal flavor of cloves and spice. Served in delicate IPA cups with the Caffè San Carlo logo.

The Caffè San Carlo cappuccino The Caffè San Carlo espresso

When it comes to cappuccini, there’s no real latte art beyond a basic swirl. But their milk frothing and consistency in their cappuccini is perhaps the best on the square — earning them something of a bonus score. Still a pretty good deal at €0.90.

Read the review of Caffè San Carlo.

Ceiling inside Caffè San Carlo Chandelier in Caffè San Carlo


New Zealand: Burger King burned over coffee advertisement

Posted by on 21 Dec 2007 | Filed under: Café Society, Quality Issues, Restaurant Coffee

Power to the espressophiles in New Zealand. A story in today’s news from New Zealand supports our longtime lament that cups really do matter when it comes to coffee quality: Burger King burned over coffee advertisement – New Zealand, world, sport, business & entertainment news on

A New Zealand consumer, B Hay, recently complained that advertising posters within (and company brochures from) New Zealand’s various Burger King outlets prominently featured their offering of “Illy Branded Coffee” — picturing the coffee in an Illy-branded porcelain cup and saucer. Mr. Hay noted that the coffee ordered was served in a “horrible” paper cup, and thus the advertisements were misleading. Burger King claimed that the coffee was only available in paper cups and that they were required to use the image of the demitasse under an Illy licensing agreement.

Mr. Hay was clearly being a pain in the ass about issue. However, the New Zealand Complaints Board upheld Mr. Hay’s complaint, saying that “the serving vessel was an integral part of the enjoyment of certain beverages such as coffee, wine and tea, and drinking any of these from a paper or plastic vessel would be likely to diminish the experience considerably.” The Complaints Board thus found Burger King “in breach of Rule 2 of the Code of Ethics, relating to truthful presentation.”

To which can only reply, “My (burger) kingdom for an adult cup!”


Starbucks Pay-it-forward-gate: A Pyramid Scheme of Good Cheer

Posted by on 20 Dec 2007 | Filed under: Consumer Trends, Starbucks

This year we’ve made a point of avoiding self-indulgent Starbucks posts. For one, there’s a lot more to say about the future of good espresso than there is to rehash about its past — and Starbucks clearly represents its past. (Starbucks hasn’t been relevant to good espresso for almost a decade.) For another, Starbucks gets far too much press and attention as it is, and we’d rather not flatter their navel-gazing PR staff any further.

However, there are occasional stories that rise above the ordinary Starbucks tedium and, after several days of droning, we just have to chime in. This time it’s Starbucks’ “Pass the Cheer” national ad campaign — and their accompanying hired play actors who help execute on the plan: Starbucks Pay-it-forward-gate.

The short of it is that gullible, underpaid newspaper reporters have recently picked up on “phenomena” at various Starbucks: random acts of double-tall, four-pump vanilla caramel macchiato kindness, with one customer buying for the other and passing it along the chain. Cynics have suspected some underhand corporate manipulation all along, and now the evidence is starting to spill out that Starbucks has opted for Viral Marketing 101 tactics in the hopes of re-inflating their flaccid stock price.

Given recent concerns over Starbucks’ nasty case of stock price ED, I half-wondered if their viral marketers really should have instead considered passing along shares of Starbucks common stock. Clearly, no one wants to buy them. However, Starbucks’ could get into serious hot gingerbread latte with the SEC over such a practice. So it looks like Starbucks’ only legal pyramid scheme recourse had to be of the good will/press coverage variety. But a big Christmas good cheer to Starbucks’ marketing department for hoping that the legal kind will help pass along the chain to become the illegal kind.

Pass the Cheer? I'll pass, alright...cheerfully on my way to another café with better coffee.


Trip Report: Casa del Caffè Vergnano (Alba, Italy)

Posted by on 19 Dec 2007 | Filed under: Foreign Brew, Roasting

Our Espresso in Torino and Piemonte series continues with a visit to a Piemonte-based chain of roaster/cafés, called Casa del Caffè Vergnano. Caffè Vergnano has opened 16 roaster/cafés throughout Europe, located in cities as varied as Torino, Milan, Nice, Munich, Düsseldorf, London, one we stopped at in Asti (rated 2 chicchi and 2 tazzine in the 2008 Bar d’Italia del Gambero Rosso ), and one in Alba we’ll review here.

Entrance to Alba's Casa del Caffè Vergnano 1882 Petroncini roaster inside Casa del Caffè Vergnano

Past the bags of unroasted green beans in front with a large Petroncini roaster, you follow an unusual custom for this area but one that’s common for most of Italy: paying first at the separate register (la cassa). At the rear of the café they have extensive, rather upscale seating and food service. Just before it is an espresso bar with dueling two-group Elektra machines.

This place is particularly popular with Alba’s weekend tourists. They serve espresso with a decent, coagulated layer of medium brown crema — albeit somewhat thin in size. The thin body in the cup, however, doesn’t hold up as well. It also has a flavor of medium spices. It’s clearly a good cup — but this kind of local, on-site roasting raises your expectations for freshness, the fullness of the crema and flavor, etc. But instead, it serves as proof that local roasting isn’t apparently everything, and Italian consumers seem to believe that. Offered at a not unreasonable €0.90.

Read the review of Casa del Caffè Vergnano.

Bags of unroasted coffee at Casa del Caffè Vergnano Working the Casa del Caffè Vergnano Elektra

The Casa del Caffè Vergnano espresso

UPDATE: Dec. 28, 2007
A Milan-based location of Caffè Vergnano was also mentioned (and misspelled as “Caffe Vergnanao”) in the Dec ’07-Jan ’08 issue of Barista Magazine — in Anastasia Chovan’s (aka, “the Clover girl”) article on this year’s Host Milan show. The author also noted how the high-end stuff in the States often beats the best in Italy, but she doesn’t seem aware that Milan has some of the worst espresso in all Italy.


Will the smoking ban in France mean the end of café society?

Posted by on 18 Dec 2007 | Filed under: Café Society

As with every anti-smoking measure, the Chicken Littles come out in force to announce the untimely death of a lifestyle or era. This time it is France’s turn: Will the smoking ban in France mean the end of café society? – International Herald Tribune.

What has inevitably happened in every case is that the Chicken Littles were proven wrong. Take Italy, for example, a country that successfully implemented major public anti-smoking measures in 2005 and, IMO, seems all the better for it. Although chain-smoking Italians could give their chain-smoking French counterparts an emphysemic run for their money, Italians seem to have survived their sweeping anti-smoking laws relatively unscathed.

While smoking is no longer allowed in public Italian bars, cafés, and restaurants, the customers have kept coming. And despite the French objections cited in the International Herald Tribune article, Italians have shown no signs of speeding up their leisurely meals, turning tables like American diners on the run. In fact, one of the things we most enjoyed about Italy during our last visit was the notion that a restaurant reservation is always about getting a table for the night — and not just until the next party chases you out with a clean tablecloth and a change of silverware.


Unclear On The Concept: Specialty coffees become the new wine

Posted by on 17 Dec 2007 | Filed under: Beans, Home Brew, Machine, Quality Issues

In the “unclear on the concept” department, this weekend’s Toronto Star published an article that, in its opening paragraph, mentioned “coffee’s elevated status as the new wine.” However, it then proceeded to discuss coffee-pod-based home espresso machines in the same context: | living | Specialty coffees become the new wine.

This is as incongruous as all the luxury cars that now tout their mp3-compliant sound systems — given that the audio quality of mp3s is more like the vintage 78 rpm record when compared with their audio CD predecessor. Just because a technology is new and trendy doesn’t necessarily mean it has made the quality any better (orange-flavored Tang, anyone?).

Even if we buy this silly notion that coffee is the new wine, these pod-based espresso machines are the equivalent of distributing and consuming wine from single-serving juice boxes with straws. Between the pre-ground, stale beans; the inability to alter the time, temperature, pressure, coffee tamp, and other variables of the espresso shot; and the environmental waste of excess packaging — these systems are more akin to a step backwards towards our instant coffee/percolator dark ages.

And if coffee is really going to be the new wine, is there any chance we can please drink it out of something other than a paper cup?

UPDATE: Dec. 18., 2007
Curiously enough, today I discovered a very thoughtful post from a wine blogger who discussed some of his frustrations with espresso: cluelessaboutwine – wine blog: A Bad Workman Blames His Gaggia. As much as the blogger might think he knows little about making a good espresso, I wish more espresso “professionals” had just half his knowledge, awareness, and instincts about quality espresso.


Francis Ford Coppola: The Epic in a Demitasse Cup

Posted by on 16 Dec 2007 | Filed under: Consumer Trends, Home Brew, Machine

Today’s New York Times published a brief article on Francis Ford Coppola’s personal obsession with espresso machines, of which he’s apparently owned some 300 to date: The Epic in a Demitasse Cup – New York Times. Of particular note is a machine that is “an early favorite, a large, silvery old-fashioned machine for the first offices of American Zoetrope Studios, his production company”.

San Francisco’s Cafe Zoetrope uses a rather unique Bosco machine from Naples — a gift from Dr. Ernesto Illy presented to Francis Ford Coppola. But you can even check out his early favorite in the front display window along Columbus Ave.

One of Francis Ford Coppola's early favorite machines on display at Cafe Zoetrope

Meanwhile, at the opposite end of the aesthetic and espresso quality spectrum, we have a story from tomorrow’s Crain’s Chicago Business News about downtown Chicago execs who are “treating” themselves to the art of the plastic pod espresso machine: Chicago Business News, Analysis & Articles | Finer Things: Controlling the office buzz | Crain’s.

Hold that Learjet time share! The way to impress clients these days is a watery espresso with a thin crema — squirted out of a plastic capsule of stale, pre-ground beans after shoving it into a hunk of self-heating plastic. Once again, it just goes to show that power and prestige still cannot buy good taste.


Trip Report: Strumia (Sommariva del Bosco, Italy)

Posted by on 13 Dec 2007 | Filed under: Foreign Brew

Our Espresso in Torino and Piemonte series now heads for the remote Piemontese town of Sommariva del Bosco — a rural town of less than 6,000 residents, considered to be the gateway to the Roero region. But despite its remote location and small town stature, the gelateria/bar/confectioner Strumia has helped put this location on the Italian map.

OK, so maybe only the Italian maps of crackpot espresso hunters like myself. The 2008 Bar d’Italia del Gambero Rosso has honored it as one of the top 18 coffee bars in Italy (awarded both 3 tazzine and 3 chicchi), and it is the only coffee bar that has made that list for five years running.

Strumia's storefront Strumia's Faema behind the counter

Yet the café, and the town, are still very much local secrets. Unlike other towns we visited in Piemonte, virtually no one spoke English here. And our first meeting with the local color involved a disabled couple who literally stumbled into the street, and needed minor medical attention, over the excitement of seeing stranieri (foreigners) in the town centro. (They were going to be OK, fortunately.)

Strumia is an eponymous reference to its owner and proprietor, Tonino Strumia — himself quite a local character. As you might expect from a successful, small town proprietor who loves his trade and has been in business for 30 years, the man simply cannot stop talking. And he also cannot stop offering you samples — specialties of the Roero region as sold in the shop: sweets, gelato, candies, chocolate, pastries, etc. Nothing you can make a meal out of; that’s not the point here. But stay long enough, and Tonino will fill you up with an endless supply of his artisan samples.

Some of the edibles within Strumia that are bound to become store samples for you Tonino Strumia himself makes selections of things for you to try

And, of course, there’s the espresso. Inside, Strumia is decorated in dark brown wood with a couple of small tables. Using a two-group Faema, they serve espresso with a tiger striped/spotted crema of modest thickness. It has a bold, pungent (cloves, thyme), concentrated flavor. Served in Illy designer IPA cups. Table service and still just €0.90.

Read the review of Strumia.

The Strumia espresso 'Downtown' Sommariva del Bosco


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