Espresso Quest in Boston

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This espresso quest through Boston took place in the spring of 2000.

Now I can say, "Bean there, Done that."

I recently left my place in the comfortable Midwest/Great Lakes region to visit a long-time friend. He lives near Cambridge, Massachusetts; a stone's throw away from Boston. Time ago, and almost ritually, we would find a day between our two birthdays to celebrate. And as we became older, and our ways parted, that special time also parted. You can imagine, then, how anxious I was to take hold the opportunity to visit him. Little did I know that my journey would not only be one of miles, airlines, and subways but also of cultural and culinary revelation. And now I can truthfully say that I've "Bean there, Done that."

Harvard Yard - Boston
Harvard Yard by j.gresham

I was warned, upon returning, not to call Boston "Beantown." And rightly so. Boston is not only known for baked beans but also for beers, cultural distinctions, and of course, American History. But I need to rewind the tape just briefly. The story actually begins in Cambridge and the adjacent town of Somerville. Cambridge houses the distinguished universities of Harvard and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology; the latter being one of the world's most recognized and premier technological institutions. As an engineer, and a graduate of a somewhat smaller-in-stature school, I had only dreamed of the day that I would get to walk the campus of MIT. Dream realized.

However, this story is not about childhood flights of fancy. No; as my more devout readers can attest, there is a hidden agenda. Coffee. And I mean GOOD coffee.

Friday nights in a "college town" are exciting. As a matter of fact, ANY night in a large college town can be exciting. Or at least adventurous. This Friday was of little exception. After a casual meal at the local chain grill-out restaurant, and copious desserts for some in our party, my best friend and I took the suggestion of the waitress and tried out Cafe Paradiso. Let me begin by saying that if a drink is served correctly, then it is a safe bet that most drinks offered will be served correctly AND quality should be of little issue.

The Great Lakes region has its definition of a cafe. Evidently Boston and its surrounding communities have a further developed definition. Paradiso's, even at the early hour of 8 p.m., was hopping. Being the pseudo-snob that I am (and I fully confess this), I ordered my drinks in Italian when I detected an accent from the staff behind the counter (and the beautiful Bezzarra machine sitting atop). Evidently, the Portuguese didn't mind my snobbery and took my order nonetheless. Neither ashamed nor proud, I could only gloat at what I had in my hands: two small saucers, two small cups, two small spoons and perhaps a total of two fluid ounces of liquid gold between the two. Each was capped with a dark reddish-gold layer of "crema." (Crema is the dense layer of micro-bubbles/foam that sits atop an espresso; it serves to capture and protect the aromas of the beverage and is created in the extraction process)

I grinned all the way to the perfectly sized, two-seater bistro table. With a prayer of thankfulness, we had downed our first two demitasse of the night. And they were good. So good, in fact, that we had almost read each other's minds: "Do you want another?" Our seconds were as good as the firsts. It wasn't a fluke. This place actually knew how to prepare a proper single serving of espresso... and make it taste right, too! Well, as you can surely imagine, now my hopes, sights, and expectations had been set. If Boston didn't match up, well then, there was no point in staying.

Boston matched up.

Winding through Boston is a historical walk called the "Freedom Trail." It winds through and past such places as Bunker Hill -- a pivotal spot in the history of American freedom from the British; Faneuil Hall -- a great meeting place for the colonists; and the still-standing residence of Paul Revere. This house sits nestled in what is now called Boston's North End. Little Italy. And as European as they come (at least, by the standards of this Great Lakes lad). The North End, accessible by Boston's well-routed and well-working "T" (subway system), sits precariously in and among non-linear streets and alleys, and perches near "the Big Dig." (Boston is currently undergoing a dramatic change addressing its automobile-crazed citizens' needs for better thoroughfares.) The North End is home to one of the first Unitarian churches the Commonwealth worshipped in (now, Roman Catholic) as well as a myriad of bars, cafes, delis, bistros, groceries, and living quarters.

It should not have startled me so: we were walking towards Hanover Street after having gotten off the "T" at Haymarket. These two "picture perfect" older blokes were sitting on a bench outside one of the cafes, hands flying about madly while their discourse wafted through the air and into the streets. An elderly woman, charging in her own unique way across the street, shouted out to a younger man -- something akin to an order but with a quaint spot of gentility to it. Patrons flooded in and out of the local eateries and bars; their conversations, while thought to be between themselves, were picked up by wandering ears. All of this in Italian.

Little Italy

Let me say that there are too many cafes in Little Italy. What were they thinking? How could the two of us POSSIBLY sample the goods at EVERY stop? Alas, it was our dutiful task to try, despite the odds. The walk along the Freedom Trail began early. Once we braved, and survived, the madness of the city market, having completed half of the trail, we were revived by the liveliness of Little Italy. After having finished the Church, and having crossed the mall which housed the famous statue of Paul Revere and his horse, a small and clean-looking bar sat before us. The sign above it proudly displayed "Lavazza"; the number one consumed and exported commercial espresso of Italy. I couldn't stand it anymore. Our stomachs had not yet finished dealing with the early morning breakfast massacre, and our bodies needed encouragement to continue the journey. I led. My friend, I'm sure questioning my impetuous nature, followed. The bar comfortably held a handful of patrons. Harry Connick Jr. was in the stereo, and a shiny Cimbali sat atop the bar. A few moments later, Harry was still in the back of my mind and leaking from my lips (although I am an atrocious singer) but my tongue was singing the praises of a beautifully crafted espresso. Our day could now officially continue.

Boston's Little Italy
Boston's Little Italy by Deann Barrera

I must skip through the details that proceeded my first North End experience. Suffice to say, we did a grand amount more walking. Fortunately, my best friend has very good taste. Our travels returned us to Little Italy, and our appetites delivered us into the caring hands of the waitstaff at Mother Anna's Italian restaurant. Here's a trick for anyone wishing to get good food, fast: Go early. You say you're a late-night dinner person? That's why God made desserts. Eat dinner early. Walk it off. Recharge with some coffee. And right when the lines start forming at the restaurant, you're already seated in a charming cafe downing a thick and well-packed cannoli topped with chocolate and crushed walnuts. And the gelato: it walks well with you; whether you're sporting a cup or a cone.

Hanover Street, mentioned above, 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 complements 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; 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 espressos 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 some areas, the Midwest/Great Lakes support a somewhat standardized price. Boston, although a few coins higher, also featured consistent pricing. I'm sure that, when taking 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 outside 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, as well as 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 a matter of 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 beyond your own community before getting quality coffee drinks.

In the meantime, there are only two places to go and 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.

Published: May 2000, Last Modified: September 2011