Replica of a 1917 espresso machine
"Everything here is imported,” Kaitlyn says.
“Everything?” I ask.
“Everything, except for Ferrila and me.”
Ferrila, the other barista, gives a little wave from the strangest espresso machine you ever did see. It’s like a silver space capsule for monkeys.
“Oh,” says Kaitlyn, “and the food is locovore. We buy our fruit and veggies locally.”
Glad to hear that, ’cause in one hand she’s holding a square white plate loaded with a scarlet splodge of lasagna — my veggie lasagna. In her other hand, sitting on a triangular plate, is a chunk of baguette cut into slices.
Hey, maybe it’s an Italian baguette — this is an Italian joint, after all. It was exciting to come across this black-and-gold place about a quarter of an hour ago. It’s in a beautiful old two-story Hillcrest building, with a Romeo and Juliet balcony fronting the second floor. Below the balcony, there are two black canvas canopies, and in gold letters and red numbers, the name: “Caffe Vergnano 1882.” Very Olde Worlde. Yet, through the window I could see that inside it was La Dolce Vita modern: blond wood, comfy-but-sleek black furniture, that espresso machine, a white, floor-to-ceiling frosted glass wall, backlit with the etched “Vergnano” name coming through. You can imagine this in Roma.
Hector shows how to brew the perfect espresso
So in I came, hoping they’d have something more than Italian coffee on hand at this time of night. It was around 9:00, when most eateries are stacking chairs on tables.
I sat down at a cool, severely square table. The walls are cream, dark green, and wine red, the red dotted with photos of other Vergnano places in Europe and Canada. The only round things in sight are tall, silver coffee-bean dispensers, and that ginormous espresso machine from Italy. The guy in charge, Hector, says it’s a replica of the world’s first espresso machine, from 1917, like a steam locomotive stood up on end.
I got the menu. Whew…prices okay. Panini start at $7; salads $7, $8. More serious stuff’s also around $8. Pollo al Marsala (“Tender slices of chicken breast sautéed in Marsala wine, served with rosemary potatoes and green beans”) topped the price list at $10.50. Of course, Italian coffee’s their main deal. It runs from $1.95 for a “piccolo” espresso, through $3.50 for a “shakerato” — chilled creamy coffee in a martini glass — to $4.95 for another cold creamy drink called a “cremino.” No drip coffee. Espresso only. The ladies sprinkle an “1882” stencil in cinnamon onto the fancier drinks.
“That year, 1882,” says Hector, “is when Enrico Vergnano started selling coffee, near Turin. Nearly 130 years later, I am their first place in the United States.”
But, hey, food. The panini ($6.95) look good. There’s turkey breast with hearts of artichokes and tartar sauce or grilled veggies with brie cheese or prosciutto with mozzarella, tomato, and lettuce. There’s a “zuppa verde,” vegetable soup of the day, made here, Hector says. And I see a lady eating a salad with tuna and olives a couple tables over — “insalata mista,” she says, ($7.50). It looks pretty filling.
Hector — he’s Italian, from Savona, near Turin — tells me they can make anything on the menu, even though we’re heading toward closing time, including the “pasta del giorno”; it’s pesto sauce today ($7.75). “I make it myself,” he says. “We also have a lasagna al forno you might like. It’s vegetarian. I put in squash, yellow zucchini, green zucchini, one layer of eggplant, a layer of pasta, a layer of béchamel, tomato on top, parmesan on top of that…”
Love pesto. And the lasagna’s more expensive, at $9.25. But it sounds so warm and inviting, I go for that. When it comes, with heavy cutlery and a black cloth napkin, fresh is the word. There’s even a slightly crispy panini base. It all makes for luscious, creamy, crunchy chomping. With the slices of baguette, it’s more than enough food. I have a glass of water to wash everything down.
Hector comes over. “Like at home?” he asks. I nod. “Better.” (Sorry, Carla.)
“Italian men are very particular,” he says. “They fight with wives over dinner because their wives never cook exactly like their moms did. It’s the same with coffee. If an espresso sits in the cup more than 30 seconds, we throw it away. There are no Starbucks in Italy.”
I get an espresso ($1.95). Ferrila brings it on a black tray with a little flat biscuit and a shot glass of water. Classy.
“Drink that before your coffee,” says Hector. “Clear your taste buds.” I slurp the water and glug the coffee. Beautiful end.
I ask if he has Wifi here. “People sitting silent, alone with their computers?” he says. “No. We want to be social. Two men came in and started playing backgammon last week. I went over and thanked them, because this is what I want us to be.”
Turns out Hector’s lucky to be, at all. “Once I had a restaurant in Caracas, Venezuela, with 22 employees. I got robbed. They threw us in our walk-in freezer. We survived. So lucky. One of the employees who hid let us out, after the robbers left. Then, when I was working 16 hours a day for Hilton, I had a stroke, at age 43. And when I was lying there in the hospital, four words came to me: ‘It’s…not…worth…it.’ My wife said, ‘Hector, you could return to Italy, Savona, the farm, a cow, and some hens. Slow down!’ But I always wanted to have a little Italian coffee shop in the United States. I contacted Vergnano, and one year later, I have it! I’m very happy.”
Only thing lacking? A Vespa, to zip me off in style.
The Place: Caffe Vergnano 1882, 3850 5th Avenue (between Robinson and University), 619-255-1882
Type of Food: Italian
Prices: Breakfast croissant, $3; plain omelet, $5.95, with ham and cheese, $7.50; turkey breast panini (with artichoke hearts and tartar sauce), $6.95; grilled veggies with brie panini, $6.95; zuppa verde (vegetable soup), $6.95; salad with eggs, beans, tuna, and olives, $7.50; pesto pasta dish, $7.50; veggie lasagna, $9.25
Hours: 7:00 a.m.–11:00 p.m., daily
Buses: 1, 3, 10, 11, 83, 120
Nearest Bus Stops: Fifth and University (Fourth and University for 3 southbound)