March 17, 2004

Why I don't buy a Silvia, or Ode to La Prima

by psu

Home espresso machines are a big business. For a few hundred dollars you can get a machine on par with the stuff that Starbucks is using to make those Venti half-caff double caramel 2-pump vanilla machiatto smoothie drinks for the local teenage set. But here is why I'd rather just go to La Prima espresso.

Really good coffee is a complicated thing.

My wife never drank, and in fact, hated coffee for at least the first 15 years we were together. This is because coffee in the U.S., for the most part, sucks. I believe this is for a few reasons:

1. The coffee is not fresh. Most places use a service that delivers packets of preground coffee that have been aging for months.

2. The coffee is boiled. Most places use drip coffee machines or worse, those industrial strength brewers that boil the coffee and then put it in a tank to keep at a super hot temperature for hours. By the time you see it, the coffee is long dead.

3. The Starbucks curse. Starbucks has made espresso and boiled fancy coffee almost universally available. Unfortunately, only the busiest Starbucks goes through enough coffee to have fresh grounds and people who know how to make a good shot. So most of the time you get tasteless crap with too much milk.

The first coffee my wife drank was a café au lait at Café de Flore in Paris. This is some of the best coffee I've ever had. It's basically a triple or quad shot of espresso in one small cup, and hot milk in another. You mix it into little mugs at the table. Let us compare:

1. The coffee is super fresh. This café sells so much coffee that they have to buy new stuff every day.

2. The people know how to make espresso. The espresso here is so good that it has a rich nutty flavor and little or no hint of bitterness. This is the result of perfect brewing. Every shot is done fresh and the grind and tamping are perfect for the machine they use. Getting stuff this wired in is the result of years of practice and expertise.

In Pittsburgh, we have a single coffee place that can reach this level of perfection on a regular basis: La Prima Espresso in the strip. Like the Paris coffee, the coffee is always fresh. Like the café in Paris, the people at La Prima have been making espresso for years and know just how to do it. In fact, when you go, you should always strive to have one of the veteran bar people make your shot for you because the ones of lesser experience will only disappoint.

Finally, La Prima does not commit the Starbucks Cappucino Sin. To wit, the La Prima Cappucino is not this mutant drink wherein a tiny shot of coffee sits at the bottom of a mile deep sea of foam. The drink is as it should be. Hot, slightly foamy, milk mixed in with a perfect espresso shot so that the foam from the coffee mixes with the steamed milk to form a perfect bond of milky rich, smooth, nutty, perfect coffee goodness.

For me, the La Prima cappucino is the closest thing to the apotheosis of coffee that I've had, short of that café au lait in Paris. It would take me years to come even close to doing something as perfect in my own home, with expensive equipment that is too loud and takes up too much space in my kitchen.

Therefore, as pretty as the Silvia is, I don't think I'll buy one. I'd just make bad coffee with it, and that would be tragic.

Posted by psu at March 17, 2004 11:44 AM | Bookmark This

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