La Prima Espresso

On March 18, 2004, in Food and Drink, by peterb

In a wonderful rant, psu talks about the perfect cup of coffee, and how there’s only one place in Pittsburgh — La Prima Espresso — to get it. His conclusion is that it’s pointless to buy an expensive espresso machine like a Silvia because it still won’t be as good as what we can get at La Prima.

He’s right and wrong. Whether or not getting a fancy espresso machine is “worth it” is of course a judgment call, but I agree that generally what you’re going to make for yourself isn’t going to be as good as what you get at a good café, if only because of what I like to call the “hot dog in Yankee stadium” effect. You can come really close, but fundamentally no matter how interesting I make my house, it’s not likely to have old Italian men smoking cigars and playing Scopa and trying to hit on the cute Italian teacher from Shadyside Academy while people come in and buy fresh pastries from Antonio next door and jostle to make sure that Elio pulls their coffee instead of the annoying kid with the buzz cut.

OK, maybe not everyone likes that ambience. But I do. Hot dogs taste better when you’re actually in Yankee stadium.

We have a Silvia at work. You can make great coffee with it. But fundamentally, a cappucino at work doesn’t taste as good as one near Campo dei Fiori. There’s also the financial angle: a cappucino is $3/cup at la prima, rounding up. That’s 200 cups of coffee before you break even on a Silvia / Solis Maestro combination, and that’s if we only count equipment and not raw materials. Of course, you may find joy in the process of making the coffee yourself, which is hard to put a price tag on. But if you don’t, unless you’re drinking many per day, it makes sense to pay for your coffee by the dose instead.

Personal to psu: the lousiest, skankiest train station in Rome makes a better espresso than Café de Flore, although I make no promises as to ambience.

Pete’s also right and wrong about Starbucks. He’s right that it’s a shame that they promote the retarded Seattle style cappucino — newflash, geniuses, the hood in cappucino is supposed to come from the milk mixing with the foam from the coffee, not from freakishly aerated milk — but I think he forgets that just 10 years ago if you wanted a cup of coffee on the Pennsylvania Turnpike you pretty much ended up drinking stale Maxwell House that had been cooking for 12 hours. Starbucks’ brewed coffee, at least, is better than that.

Synchronicitously, Goob gives some tips on how to make good coffee at home without spending $500 on an espresso machine and $100 on a grinder. His advice is good — freshness really does trump everything else. For home use, I’m pretty happy with my Bodum vacuum pot, which only ran me about $50 or so.

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5 Responses to “La Prima Espresso”

  1. JonathanH says:

    The perfect cup of coffee is the first of the morning, ten minutes after you wake up.

    Now, you can be like psu and spend those 10 minutes driving madly into town to reach La Prima, or you can be like me and spend those 10 minutes in silent contemplation of your Rancilio Silvia, begging it to heat up just that little bit faster.

  2. StewartC says:

    You’re touching on what I call the Morning Coffee Paradox: how to make/acquire that first coffee you need to wake you up if you’re not already awake?

    Living with a morning person is probably the best way.

  3. JonathanH says:

    Yes, but it’s worse than that – you’ve got to find a morning person who *also* pulls a good espresso!

    It sort of explains why everyone’s buying super-automatic espresso machines…

  4. Kristen says:

    I don’t know if it’s still there, but 7 or 8 years ago there was an Italian cafe called Buon Giorno on Smithfield Street, about a half a block from the Smithfield Street bridge. I wasn’t an Italian teacher but the old Italian guys used to hit on me anyway. And they did a proper espresso and fabulous cappucino. And had great sweets and wonderful lunches, too. I miss that place! Tokyo’s got nothing like it.

  5. peterb says:

    Buon Giorno is still there, and in fact they’ve opened two other storefronts, one in the Strip District and one in Market Square. Their coffee has gone downhill since you were in town, for some reason I can’t quite quantify, but they have continued their fine tradition of having really yummy if mildly overpriced food served by incredibly hot waitresses with foreign accents.

    Come visit Pittsburgh. We’ll find old Italian guys to hit on you. (Hmmm, I sense a new city motto….! Maybe this is why I’m not in marketing).