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May 2000 Issue
Enjoying the Boston Coffee Scene
by Chris Schaefer
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Hanover Street, mentioned earlier, is littered with bars -- both coffee and alcoholic. Cafe Graffiti proudly, and boldly, states in their table-top menu that they "Do Not Serve American Coffee." Good! Because their cappuccino is pleasantly topped with sweetened cocoa powder and compliments after-meal conversation well. But don't think your cup need runneth over with espresso. Sambuca and grappa makes for one interesting evening! But the most intoxicating feature of the North End resides in its adherence to quality.

Cafe Vittoria, Boston's oldest (est. 1929) and perhaps most interesting cafe, featured -- and this is a guess -- one of every espresso machine ever manufactured. (OK, this is a stretch; but we'll leave it at the fact that I could not count how many different machines were housed in this place!) And it is a diverse cafe: one side is bistro-styled while the other is the more traditional bar. And that was just the ground level. Below-decks had two more styled cafes and people everywhere. Most impressive, however, were the number of functioning machines. I counted, quickly, a total of six different commercial espresso machines in operation, between the two floors. In the windows and adorning the walls were turn-of-the-century Victor Arduinos, micro-Cimbalis, Pavonis, Faemas and Gaggias galore! Neopolitan flip-drips, moka pots... as far as the eye could see, there was one type or another of an Italian brewing apparatus.

"How was the coffee," you might ask? Good. Of course, the sambuca and the atmosphere had something to do with it.

Don't think this is unique to Hanover. I walked into at least two other bars that featured non-functioning, antique espresso machines. This slice of history is almost as deep as the American variety is to Boston as a whole. And since I wouldn't deprive my friend of the history of espresso (as well as anyone within earshot), it was a haven for the night's story-telling.

How were the drinks, on the whole? Again, the consistency of quality and preparation was wonderful. Outside of one of the many espresso we partook, every drink was served correctly, quickly, and tasted like the tale-told espressos from the pens of Illy, Schomer, and Davids (and the questionable one was merely a darker roast than the previous we had that day). Almost as surprising as the quality and consistency, was the pricing. In Italy, a shot of espresso coffee is at a fixed price. Here in the United States, while wildly fluctuating in areas, the mid-West/Great Lakes support a somewhat standardized price. Boston, although a few coins higher, also featured consistent pricing. I'm sure that, when taken into consideration the cost of living in Boston to that of Chicago, Milwaukee, or Detroit the espresso would be nearly identically priced. Amazing!

The implications of this are quite simple: if Boston can harbor high-quality espresso bars and feature consistently made drinks, then what is wrong with the rest of the United States? Certainly, I don't wish to defend the torrent of idiocy that has been at the footstools of our American specialty coffee scene. So, having said that, few other urban and non-urban populations can, and do, host such a strongly and culturally unique atmosphere. Sure, there are "little Italys" all over the U.S. And there is GOOD espresso to be had in and out of these communities. But how did Boston get it right? I'd like to think that the demand for quality has had something to do with it. Also, the age of the community as a whole. Milwaukee's Italian community is less mature -- this is reflected in their lack of traditional coffee bars serving up traditional, non-Americanized coffee.

Perhaps I am resting too strongly on the side of pessimism. I should, instead look at this as a hopeful sign. If the North End can dish out a double ristretto with a sweet snap on the back of the tongue but a subtly strong finish that lingers for the rest of the walk (to the neighboring bar, for another espresso) then it is only time before others can (and will, I hope) attain this. So let me say, with some degree of hesitation, that our future can be very bright. That, while Boston has a great espresso scene, you may not have to travel any further than your own community before getting quality coffee drinks.

In the meantime, there are only two places to go to get great espresso: Boston's North End and my place! Fortunately for you, I don't charge $2 a cup.*

*Obviously this is not true. Espresso bars and cafes are retail service operations. You the customer can control how your drink is prepared and served. And you the customer can force the tide towards better coffee here in the U.S. It's only a matter of time.

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