Espresso

by Scott London

Espresso Cup

I had my first espresso in a backstreet café in Venice. It must have been 1985 or ’86. I had arrived on the night train from Zagreb, Croatia, achy from a long and sleepless night. I stumbled out of the train station and into a café and ordered a coffee. What I didn’t know was that “coffee” in Italian is synonymous with espresso.

It came in a white ceramic demitasse cup, gave off a strong and slightly sweet aroma, and was topped by a curious brown foam. It wasn’t what I expected, or wanted. What I thought I ordered was a cup of brewed coffee, black and unsweetened. But this was something else.

Not knowing any Italian and in any case too weary from a long night of travel, I decided to simply take the poison and let the caffeine do its work. I held the cup to my lips, took in the curious aroma, and had a sip. Then another. And then a third. The fourth sip finished it off.

It was a new and altogether unforgettable taste sensation — like taking in the essence of coffee in its purest form. This wasn’t just a coffee, it was an elixir. I was intoxicated.

It wound up being the first of countless espressos I had during my weeklong stay in Italy, and each one worked its magic like a kind of secret potion.

After leaving Italy and returning to Sweden, where I lived at the time, I started ordering espressos everywhere I could. It became a virtual obsession. But it was hard to find the kind of espresso I’d had in Italy. Even the fancy coffee houses outfitted with gleaming new espresso machines and serving Italian roasts seemed to come up short.

When I eventually moved to the States, getting a good espresso became almost impossible. Sometimes I would order a double shot, and the kid behind the counter would hand it to me with a frown on his face, as if to say, “Are you really going to drink that straight, without any whipped cream or syrup added?”

Sometimes I would happen upon a café that served a decent espresso, but it was so hit-or-miss that the same café, the same machine, the same roast, even the same barista often served me a good cup followed by a foul and poisonous one.

Starbucks prided itself on serving consistently good espressos, but the experience was never quite right: the shots were too small, the cup too large, and the flavor, well, mediocre and generally unsatisfying. Plus, I hated the pretense of it all — asking for a double espresso and having a barista correct me with “doppio,” as if I had committed some sort of ordering faux-pas.

Besides, the smell inside those Starbucks stores is off-putting to me, like a combination of burnt coffee and cough medicine.

At Starbucks, baristas still occasionally hand me a double espresso with one of those unforgiving looks: “Wouldn’t you like me to add some steamed milk to that?”

Then I found Espresso Roma café in Berkeley. It was like being back in Venice 25 years ago. Espresso at its best. When I first found the place, I went three mornings in a row. Every espresso was exquisite. Perfection in a cup.

Now I go there every time I’m in the Bay Area. I can hardly wait to get up in the morning and head down for the first cup of the day. The guys working the machines are a delight to watch. They’re like clockwork — fast, efficient, flawless.

The place is on the corner of College and Ashby. If you love espresso, go there. The Yelp reviews are mixed, but that’s not on account of the coffee. The place is loud and sometimes has dirty tables, single women complain about guys hitting on them, that sort of thing. Also, people are finicky about their addictions, and coffee is no exception. So it’s no surprise perhaps that reviews vary.

I still drink my espressos straight, unsweetened. A piece of dark chocolate goes nicely with it, but is hardly necessary.

It’s not an addiction exactly, but a weakness to be sure. And short of returning to Italy, I can’t think of a better place to indulge it than at Espresso Roma Café.