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New York's Best Espresso?
By WILLIAM GRIMES
How can this be? The city has more Italian restaurants than parking spaces. All of them serve espresso. Delis serve espresso. Groceries serve espresso. About the only place you cannot get espresso is a Chinese restaurant, and I'm not even sure about that. I am sure, though, that the chances of getting an espresso worth drinking hover perilously close to zero.
Here's what I want. A few sips of coffee, full bodied verging on syrupy and so rich it needs no sugar, topped with a thick layer of khaki-colored cream. Here's what I get. Way too many ounces of thin bitter liquid with ragged scumlike traces of foam.
After years of complaining, I decided to get to the root of the problem. Why can't New Yorkers, who demand the best, get even passable espresso?
To arrive at an answer, I talked to Italian coffee makers. I talked to cafe owners who care deeply about espresso. I talked to New Yorkers who shed tears of frustration every night, people for whom the espresso deficit ranks up there with high-priced real estate and violent crime as the most undesirable aspects of living in this city.
After my listening tour, followed by a tasting tour, I think that I now understand the problem — and why there will probably be peace in the Middle East before we work our way out of the current crisis.
First, the thing itself. Espresso is a way of making coffee. Water heated to a precise temperature is forced at a precise pressure for a precise period of time through beans reduced to a precise grind. The liquid that emerges should be very dark, thick and rich, with a tan layer of emulsified oils and proteins on top that the Italians call crema.
There's nothing debatable about any of this. When I asked Ennio Ranoboldo, the managing director of Lavazza in the United States, to describe the perfect cup of espresso, he did not wax poetic. "There's almost a scientific definition," he said. Then he laid out the numbers or, as he put it, the "technical parameters."
The water must be heated to a temperature between 194 and 203 degrees Fahrenheit, then forced at nine bars of pressure, or about 135 pounds a square inch, through a quarter-ounce of finely ground coffee for 25 to 30 seconds, creating exactly one ounce of espresso.
Nothing could be clearer. So what's the problem? People, for starters. The people at the machine and the people paying for the espresso. Most restaurants and cafes assign low priority to coffee and coffee making. "The guy who cleans your table is the guy making your espresso," said Pepi di Giacomo, the area manager for Danesi coffee, and an owner of Tarallucci e Vino, a cafe on 10th Street in the East Village.
In Italy, making espresso is a profession and an art. In New York, it's a lousy job. And part of what makes it a lousy job is that New York does not really have an espresso culture. The consumer is undiscerning. Cafes do not dare serve a one-ounce espresso for fear of being accused of shortchanging their customers. Some deliberately grind their beans coarsely so that the water moves through it more quickly. Customers do not then have to wait an interminable half-minute. Many cafes make double espressos by running twice as much water through a single-espresso dose of grounds. Some manage to bungle the entire process, creating espresso that is both bitter and watery.
"The stream of espresso coming out of the machine should look like a mouse tail," Ms. Di Giacomo said.
No one complains, because the local taste has adapted to harsh, watery coffee, as often as not served in a little paper cup that looks as if it came from a doctor's office.
Ms. Di Giacomo, who can talk about the fine points of espresso for hours, likes to refer to the four M's necessary for a good cup: miscela (the blend), macinatura (the grind), macchina (the espresso machine), mano (the skill of the machine operator).
There are many pitfalls within the realm of the four M's. Overly conscientious machine operators pull the handle out of the machine, empty the used grounds and then either run water over the handle or leave it detached from the machine. As a result, when they return the cold handle to the machine to make you a cup, the espresso does not reach the right temperature.
Lazy operators fail to warm the espresso cup. They don't clean the machine daily. And even if they do clean the machine, they don't get the settings right. And even if they do get the settings right, the place doesn't sell enough espresso to keep the machine humming along at highway speed, where it's happiest.
Last but not least is New York water. It wins contests for purity and flavor. It makes for great pizza dough and bagels. But it might not be ideal for espresso. This is a matter of some controversy, but Roy Forster, who is in charge of quality assurance for Illy coffee, insists that the local water is deficient in calcium, which adds body to espresso. "You need four to six grains per gallon," he said. "New York has less than two grains per gallon." The ideal espresso water, all experts agree, can be found in Naples. Mount Vesuvius and the volcanic soil may have something to do with it or the city's ancient water pipes. It's mysterious.
Mr. Forster strongly endorses the water of Los Angeles and Scottsdale, Ariz.
For the calcium problem in New York, Illy has developed a cartridge, like a water filter or purifier, which contains resin, calcium and a sodium charge. Water passing through the cartridge picks up calcium, but sodium bombardment prevents it from adhering to the espresso machine's walls.
If this sounds a little obsessive, that's the hallmark of espresso lovers. For years, in my fruitless search for a decent cup, I have chased down leads supplied by a friend, Frank de Falco, who is fluent in Italian and demanding about espresso. Like a birder, he calls in sightings from time to time. The best was a newly arrived barista, a barman, from Verona. Mr. de Falco discovered him working the espresso machine at Buon Italia in Chelsea Market. He swore that his one great mission in life was to give New Yorkers real Italian espresso, and for about a month he did.
Then he disappeared, only to resurface at Terramare Cafe, on 65th Street near Madison Avenue. I dropped in, but he was only warming up, getting the feel of the machine. I gave him time to settle in. When I returned, the gentleman from Verona had vanished yet again.
Mr. de Falco's latest enthusiasm is Via Quadronno, on 73rd Street, near Madison Avenue. Real Italian atmosphere, he promised. It's just like leaning up against the bar in a Roman cafe. But make sure you go in the morning, when the young Italian guy is making the coffee. I did. It's good espresso, a Trieste blend called Antica Tostatura Triestina.
Another de Falco tip led me to Higher Grounds, a cafe in the far East Village. I asked for an espresso. "A short one?" the owner said. His eyebrows told me that the right answer was yes. His eyes had the overfocused look of someone who takes in a lot of caffeine every day. He began tamping down grounds in the espresso handle. He poured scalding water into a ceramic espresso cup. He began monitoring the mouse tail of coffee that flowed from the machine. Then he aborted the entire process, yanking the handle from the machine, dumping out the coffee and starting over.
"The grind's not right," he said. "It was damp outside earlier, and now it's drier. I need to adjust." Eventually I got my espresso. It was the real thing, although the blend was idiosyncratic, based on Nicaraguan coffee. I added the place to my list, although Avenue C is not exactly on my beaten track.
Back at Tarallucci e Vino, Ms. Di Giacomo, who grew up making espresso in her parents' cafe in Abruzzi, stepped over to the espresso machine and made a cup. She started criticizing her own product even before the first drop hit the cup. "There's a breeze coming in the window, and that's going to mess up the temperature," she said. She put a cup in front of me and appraised the crema. She found it wanting. She complained about her machine. "Over at Mezzogiorno, now that's a beautiful old machine," she said. In fact, Ms. Di Giacomo's espresso was easily one of the two or three best I sampled in the last week, rich, robust, syrupy — satisfying in every way.
My wanderings produced the usual disappointments. Cremcaffè, in the East Village, had been recommended as the one place in the city that made espresso using Cremcaffè coffee from Trieste. It was so-so. The espresso at Fauchon, formerly Sant Ambroeus, Madison Avenue and 77th Street, I found wretched, a textbook case of far too much liquid, with a burnt bitter flavor.
The once-promising Terramare Cafe, a Euro hot spot on East 65th Street, failed to deliver, and at a high price, too.
Other failures: the brand-new Crestanello Gran Caffè Italiano, across from the main branch of the New York Public Library; Cafe Bari in SoHo; and, leading the hall of shame, Caffè Dante, near New York University, where the brew tastes exactly like liquid cardboard.
Honorable mention must go to Dean & DeLuca in SoHo, which served a good, solid cup, and Café
Gitane on Mott Street, where the Lavazza espresso has a pronounced winy character. Starbucks seemed about average to me, perhaps a little better, but marred by the burnt over-roasted quality that seems to be the company style. Restaurants did not figure into my quick survey, for practical reasons. No one wants to order a meal to get to an espresso.
Anything better than mediocre counts as a victory. The odds are very, very tough. "I'm very often disgruntled even at our own accounts," said Mr. Forster of Illy. "I set up a machine at one restaurant and adjusted all the settings myself, made a perfect cup and then sat down at a table and ordered a second espresso five minutes later. I got a bad cup."
If the quality assurance guy at Italy's leading coffee maker cannot score a good espresso under direct supervision, what hope is there for the rest of us? My solution is simple. When the need for a real espresso becomes overpowering, buy a ticket to Rome, tell the taxi driver to head straight for the Sant'Eustachio cafe. The espresso will be perfect. A little expensive, but surely worth the trouble.