Without question, this gran caffè is a city institution. It’s long been considered a gathering place for intellectuals, thinkers, poets, foreigners and locals alike. Opening in 1860 as Il Gran Caffè, it started as a Parisian-styled singing café — or café-chantant — before adopting its current name in 1870. It is rightfully recognized among I Locali Storici d’Italia — an association dedicated to recognizing and helping to preserve some of the historically significant establishments in Italy.
Some of this café’s great historical connections include where Edoardo Scarfoglio and Matilde Serao launched the daily paper Il Corriere di Roma in the 1880s (they later went on to establish Il Mattino in 1891), where Gabriele D’Annunzio penned the Neapolitan classic “‘A Vucchella” in 1919 (here’s a version by Enrico Caruso, famed 1906 SF earthquake survivor), and where Jean-Paul Sartre, Oscar Wilde, Ernest Hemingway, Benedetto Croce, and the aforementioned Giovanni Agnelli each came to sit, think, talk, and maybe even write at some time or other.
Outside there are often crowds of tourists gathering for tours of the Napoli underground. There’s outdoor seating in front under parasols against Piazza Trieste e Trento, which very much feels like the heart of the city given nearby Piazza del Plebescito, Palazzo Reale, and the San Carlo theater.
Inside, there are many rooms of slightly fading glory: stucco, marble, grande chandeliers, ornate detailing, frescoes and paintings by some of Napoli’s great artists of the 19th century, antique woodwork. The place feels almost Torinese in its classic style and sophistication. There are books on coffee making from 1836 for sale. And many of the interior rooms feel like capelle — small chapels as if in a cathedral — dedicated to the art of pastries, gelato, a grand tea salon, etc. Some of these grand rooms were cut off as part of a separate bank established under Facist rule in 1938, but in 2001 they were reunited with the main café.
The often brusque baristi here can be older veterans, but there are some newer faces in the lot. Together they might linger longer on the orders of the locals regulars while speeding up for the tourists. They will preheat their ornate, Gambrinus-detailed MPAN cups, pulling shots from their manual four-group lever La San Marco machine with a striped dark and medium brown crema.
It’s a solid effort with Caffè Moreno coffee: a pungent Napoli-friendly flavor that just edges shy of a tobacco edge. A mere €1 at the bar. The 2014 Gambero Rosso Bar d’Italia rated them two tazzine and two chicchi, which dropped them one chicco in their coffee rating from the 2013 edition (i.e., they were previously rated the maximum of three).
Like many places in Napoli, they have their own specialty drink: the Caffè Gambrinus, consisting of espresso, cacao powder, milk foam, whipping cream, and chocolate sprinkles.
Read the review of Gran Caffè Grambrinus in Napoli, Italy.
News like this tends to elicit a mixture of validation (i.e., “Good coffee is serious business!”) and a little envy (i.e., “My business makes great coffee, so where’s my $25 million?”). So why Blue Bottle?
To read some of the explanations out there, it’s an investment in “slow coffee” or “craft coffee” (the latter term we avoid for potential confusion with “Kraft coffee” — aka, Maxwell House). We read about their “brand cache” and their “commitment to freshness” — which aren’t exactly unique.
Like any business, Blue Bottle also has it’s problems and flaws — over-extension beyond the reach of their quality controls being one big example (e.g., see our recent review of Fraîche.) But Blue Bottle is doing a number of things right, and we’re surprised that some of them aren’t being reported.
How most roasters sell coffee to consumers is broken and outright wrong. This is rooted in an old industry problem we’ve long lamented here, which is approaching customers from an inside-out approach instead of an outside-in one. Past examples of this discussed here on this blog include coffee cuppings for layman consumers; we’ve gotten into long, drag-out debates on this topic with the likes of Peter Giuliano — co-owner and Director of Coffee at Counter Culture Coffee and Director of Symposium at the SCAA.
But it is symbolic of the coffee industry’s chronic inability to adopt a consumer-centric approach. Rather than think about how coffee is experienced by consumers, many coffee purveyors first try to shoehorn consumers into the perspective of industry insiders. Thus most coffee people today sell as if only to other coffee people — not to consumers.
Blue Bottle, on the other hand, exhibits one of the better examples of a coffee company that’s trying to fix that. One way to clearly see this is on their Web site. Last year, Blue Bottle sat down with the Google Ventures design team and an agency in Montreal to rethink their Web site. What they found is that most retail coffee Web sites emphasize things like a coffee’s origin — stuff that’s of great relevance to how people in the industry think about coffee but is often a meaningless descriptor to a consumer. That’s not how consumers buy coffee.
They discovered that primarily selling a coffee under the “Kenya” designation is a little like the early days of selling personal computers, where PC dealers emphasized things like processor clock speeds, memory cache sizes, and PCI slots. All of which made great sense to the way industry insiders thought about computers but were just gibberish to most layman consumers. Today’s ubiquitous Apple retail stores are successful, in part, because Apple addresses consumer needs without weighing it down with superfluous industry insider gibberish.
This could explain some of the popularity of Philz Coffee‘s Harry-Potter-like alchemy: the nonsensical labels on their coffee blends (e.g., “Ambrosia Coffee of God” or “Silken Splendor”) might be at least as meaningful to consumers as calling something “Kenya Nyeri Gatomboya AA”.
If you look at Blue Bottle’s Web site redesign, notice how it leads with the things that are most meaningful to consumers: how they brew their coffee and what devices they might have at home to brew it. Their Web site also emphasizes consumer brewing guides to complement this cause.
I’m not the only one who has either avoided or abandoned the long lines at Blue Bottle Coffee in San Francisco’s touristy Ferry Building Marketplace location. But some may be surprised that these lines aren’t entirely by accident.
Another smart thing Blue Bottle does (and they’re far from the only ones) is apply queuing psychology at such a publicly visible location to influence perceived demand and value — or what FastCompany last year called “The Wisdom of the Cronut.”
The painful morning wait for cronuts is likely to be contributing to the product’s popularity. The fact that people are waiting signals to others that they too should be in on the trend.
–FastCompany, “The Wisdom of the Cronut: Why Long Lines Are Worth The Wait”
What’s worse than a line that’s too long? A line that’s too short. We’re talking some Disneyland mental mojo here.
Think of all the tourists walking by in the Ferry Building, saying, “Do you see that line? That must be some pretty good coffee!” Or even the revenue-per-customer-transaction winner of, “If we’re going to wait in line this long, we may as well also pick up a Blue Bottle hoodie, a Hario Buono kettle, and a coffee subscription.”
On the subject of coffee subscriptions and how they’ve reportedly reached “trendy” status finally, Blue Bottle has been at it for quite a while. We may not get the point of adding another middleman for the brief window consumers play the field before settling down more with their favorite coffee purveyors. But we do like the longer-term prospects of buying direct from the roasters you do come to enjoy, which suits Blue Bottle extremely well.
For Blue Bottle, coffee subscriptions have become where they make most of their money. Although revenue-per-customer is higher with prepared retail coffee beverages, so are the underlying costs. Because when you drink that latte, the main ingredient — and biggest contributor to the price of the beverage — is labor costs. For selling coffee subscriptions as a bean & leaf shop, the additional costs are little more than drop shipping.
This has transformed how Blue Bottle approaches coffee sales, as most coffee businesses still sell to consumers like most other real-estate-based point-of-sale businesses. Thus at tourist-friendly locations such as the Ferry Building, Blue Bottle is no longer suggesting that visitors take home a freshly roasted 12-ounce pack. Rather, they suggest that they sign up for a running coffee subscription shipped regularly to their home.
And when it comes to venture capitalists who are most familiar with funding software companies, investing in a subscription business gets them very excited. After all, virtually every software business has spent the past decade trying to shift consumers from retail purchases to subscription models.
Called “Cafè Amadeus” on the front door, this place is often referred by the more familiar Italian spelling of “Caffè Amadeus”. Either way, it is a popular neighborhood Napoli café along the busy Piazza Amedeo (and its nearby metro station) — catering to many locals without leaning too heavily towards the more upscale institutions up the Chiaia district. This makes it a more “casual” (by Italian standards) and family-friendly environment for locals rather than tourists.
They have seating up an interior staircase and plenty of Parisian-styled outdoor seating along the sidewalk under a canopy along Piazza Amedeo. With their sidewalk seating in cozy booths behind glass windows for street watching, they’re open late at night and even operate as a sort of local Denny’s: catering to teens socializing late to the sounds of Italian pop music videos. They also offer various edibles, like an Italian diner, plus the usual bar drinks (including Nonino grappe).
Using a four-group lever La San Marco machine (the local machine of choice) under heavy use with its Mazzer grinder in the corner and Caffè Seddio beans, they pull two-sip-short shots that are strongly pungent, served somewhat hot, and come with a darker brown, even crema that can sometimes be textured with a medium brown swirl. They shots can vary a little along with their body at times.
We ordered the “Normale”, or “amaro”, espresso on the menu for our rating purposes. But they also have amazing milk-frothing that comes out like a soft whipped cream. They are also the only place in all of Campania we’ve seen produce latte art, which is generally frowned upon in the region as too frilly and superfluous. Very much unlike Aussies and Kiwis, Neapolitans generally frown upon latte art as if it’s “playing with your food”.
Rated one tazzina and two chicchi in the 2014 Bar d’Italia. And a respectable €1 at the bar.
Read the review of Cafè Amadeus in Napoli, Italy.
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.
This 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.
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.
The 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.
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.
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.
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.
Words 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.”
All 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Continuing 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.
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.
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.)
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.