Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Caffe’ Mingo: A Slice of Life in Florence

It’s July in Florence and it’s hotter than Dante’s Inferno. Tourists are everywhere. They queue outside the narrow courtyard of the Uffizi Gallery an hour before the museum opens. They swarm all of the well-known landmarks of this city. They crowd the shops.

But even in the most touristed areas of the city there is another Florence. A place where people work and live; where they meet in the evenings to discuss the day’s events; and where they share the secrets of this great city. It’s not so much knowing that this other place exists. Of course it does. It’s that it exists right under our noses, yet it’s easy to miss.

Maria and I were fortunate to be staying at a bed and breakfast in the Piazza San Martino. The plaza is about the size of a postage stamp, yet life flows around it like the river of tourists that are led by their guides below my window to where it is believed that Dante once lived. While many of the tourist haunts are minutes away by foot in all directions—including the Uffizi, the adjacent Piazza della Signoria, and Dante di casa—San Martino is bustling in other ways. There’s a very active courthouse that’s open six days per week, one of the city’s oldest restaurants, and of course, the requisite historical sites (including the Torre Della Castagna, an ancient tower built in the 10th Century, and the tiny chapel of the Compagnia dei Buonomini, where Dante may have been married and which also served as a refuge for once wealthy households who lost everything because of political alliances).

The centerpiece of this activity was the Caffe’ Mingo. In the morning it serves espressos and pastries to the attorneys, judges and other court officials before they go to work. In the afternoon it serves hungry tourists. In the evening it becomes a place for locals to have drinks and talk. It’s also the time for the staff and a few neighbors to have their evening meal, which they do in style. The cafĂ© has a tiny inside space but the main activity is outside in the center of the square. Three people operate the space, Nino, the owner, Daniela, who looks like a body builder, and Amanda. Maria and I spent our time there in the mornings and evenings during our five-day stay in Florence and left them alone during their busy lunch times.

Tourists having lunch at Caffe' Mingo. Daniela, standing, is taking their orders.

While Nino may be the boss and Daniela may be built like an Ox, it’s Amanda, a Filipino native, who runs the place. Petite, wiry, fast and loud, she seems to know everyone who passes on the piazza, from the sanitation workers and delivery men to the owners of the local businesses. She calls them all by name loudly, standing on her toes as she waves with a smile a mile wide.

Another view of the lunchtime crowd.

The first evening I sat there drinking wine and enjoying a meal and taking some notes, Amanda treated me to a glass of limoncello and she discounted the meal a bit. Between the three of them I never ended up paying full-price for anything. Amanda only said she could tell I was a good person.

The next evening when Maria arrived from visiting her family in Amsterdam, she was obviously tired from her trip. We were going to split a bowl of pasta with pesto and a salad. She looked at my wife, shook her head as if something wasn’t right, and said that she was going to make Maria pasta with ragu and that it was on the house. Again we finished our meal with a complementary limoncello. Maria attacked it as if she hadn’t been fed all day. Amanda absolutely refused all tips.

On our final night, we had dinner at the restaurant in the piazza, Trattoria del Pennello, one of Florence's oldest restaurants, and finished our night with Proseco at the cafe while the staff and neighbors were having their meal. Nino, a gelato addict, had bought some for dessert for the staff. He gave us some to have with our drinks. We chatted through the night in broken English and awful Italian.

They didn’t treat us as customers. They treated us like friends and for that we’ll never forget them.

Historically, the Piazza San Martino was a place that served the poor. On Sunday mornings this tradition continues as poor residents of the city come for free meals. The food is handed out from this white car and devoured quickly before the cafe opens, which on Sunday is later than other days. Nino cleans the remains before opening, which makes him unhappy. There's nothing like listening to someone curse out loud to no one in Italian.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

The Best Coffee to Ever Come Out of a Civet’s Ass

This is one of those times when I wonder, who was the first person to think that this was a good idea?

While visiting Maria’s family in Jakarta, Indonesia, this past June, her aunt and uncle (Lisa and Han) were kind enough to make the one hour drive through unbearable traffic to a west Jakarta shopping mall so I could taste the rarest and most expensive coffee in the world: Kopi Luwak.

Kopi means coffee in Indonesia and Luwak is the local name for the Asian Palm Civet, a member of the Viverridae family, although they are often casually referred to as tree cats or weasels.

The coffee is produced when the civet eats whole coffee berries, which contain the fruit and seed. The proteins in the animal’s digestive juices break down the fruit’s outer layer and the more acidic portion of the beans inside, which gives coffee its bitterness. The bean passes through the animal’s system and is defected whole, still covered in some of its outer layers. Some lucky fellow collects the beans, and washes and dries them. The combination of the digestive juices of the animal and its ability to pick the ripest berries are said to be the source of its unique flavor. The beans are then given a light roast, which helps the coffee maintain its flavor.

This brew is the Holy Grail of serious coffee drinkers and those into exotic foods and beverages. It has appeared in several television shows (including Oprah) and is the source of many well-written stories. It even played a key supporting role in the movie, “The Bucket List,” starring Jack Nicholson and Morgan Freeman. Here is Freeman’s character, Carter Chambers, explaining to Edward Cole (Nicholson), a Kopi Luwak connoisseur, the coffee’s unusual source:

Here is another video with a more scientific, although a bit dramatized, explanation:

In the mall restaurant named after the coffee, I enjoyed a cup of the brew, which cost about $20. I can attest to the coffee’s lack of bitterness. It was the smoothest coffee I ever tasted. However, I did not experience the complexity of flavor that is exulted in its many descriptions. The restaurant also sells a less expensive blended version of the coffee, which was bitter and otherwise tasteless. While I was happy to have this once-in-a-lifetime experience, I chose not to buy any to bring to back with me. I still prefer Philadelphia’s La Colombe.

The author with his eyes in shadows but still smiling after his Kopi Luwak experience.

Saturday, November 7, 2009

A Joyous Finale for a Philadelphia Institution

It’s the end for a Philadelphia institution that was much loved by everyone who lives in the region: The Spectrum. The arena is to be razed (possibly by implosion on New Year’s Eve) to make way for a hotel and entertainment mall.

The facility, completed in 1967, is best known as the home of the Philadelphia Flyers hockey team and the 76ers basketball team. However, it also hosted circuses, ice shows, boxing and wrestling and just about any other event that could be crammed into the building, which held anywhere from 17,000 to 20,000 persons depending on the performance. It was in constant use.

While I have attended many wonderful sports events at the arena, what I remember most are the concerts, particularly during the ‘70s and ‘80s when live music ruled. I don’t know how many concerts I attended (could be in the hundreds) but I have seen everything from the Allman Brothers to Frank Zappa. The short list also includes Willie Nelson, Emerson Lake & Palmer, Cat Stevens, Grateful Dead, Muddy Waters, Yes, Rick Wakeman, Neil Young, Crosby Stills and Nash, the Electric Light Orchestra, Edgar Winters, Leon Russell, Jethro Tull, Pink Floyd, Eric Clapton, Bruce Springsteen and Bob Dylan. I’m taken aback with the breadth of music I experienced.

The first show I ever attended there was a 1973 charity concert by AM radio station WFIL (remember rock ‘n’ roll AM radio?). There were only a few thousand people to see a bill that included: Billy Preston, Lou Reed, Slade, Dr. Hook & the Medicine Show and a new band from California called The Eagles.

During the past year, a number of acts known for their many and memorial performances at the arena returned for a final shows. Among them were Neil Young, the Grateful Dead (which played the Spectrum 53 times, more than any other musical act) and Bruce Springsteen. On Oct. 23, Philadelphia area musicians The Hooters, Todd Rundgren and Hall & Oates headlined a concert titled "Last Call."

For some reason (probably just scheduling), Pearl Jam (which according to the Spectrum's historical listing of concerts, only played the venue once) was given the honor of being the last band to perform at the legendary arena, on Oct. 27, 28, 30, 31 (Halloween). From what I read (here and here) and the videos I’ve seen, the management couldn’t have chosen a better act to close the building. Over the four nights, the band performed 103 different songs, exhausting their own catalog of songs and playing covers that included The Who’s “Baba O'Riley,” Divo’s “Whip It” and Neil Young’s “Rockin’ in the Free World.” The final show was a marathon event of more than 3 hours and 40 minutes in which the band played 41 songs. The set included one of the band’s first hits “Alive,” which lead singer Eddie Vedder said in honor of the closing of the Spectrum they will never play again.

Below are four videos from the Pearl Jam shows, three from the final night on Oct. 31 and one from the Oct. 30 show.

The Who's Baba O'Riley from the Oct. 30 show:

Divo's "Whip It":

Neil Young "Rockin in the Free World":

"Yellow Ledbetter," with a "The Star-Spangled Banner" guitar solo ending, the last song played at the Spectrum.

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

The Perfect Caffe Latte

I’ve always had a tremendous amount of respect for those who’ve become successful by doing one thing very well. La Colombe Torrefaction makes coffee and arguably does it better than anyone else in the country.

There are many places to get the Philadelphia-based company’s artisanal coffee blends and chances are you may have had it in other coffee shops, markets and in many of the finest restaurants in the country—including, La-Bec Fin, Daniel and Le Bernardin. My favorite place to enjoy the full flavor and richness of this wonderful product is by ordering a caffe latte in its original retail location just off Rittenhouse Square.

High ceilings and large windows allow plenty of sunlight inside. A simple layout of chairs and tables allow folks to mingle or relax and provide something that is rare in a retail environment of any kind: space. Behind the mahogany bar, skilled baristas prepare drinks with precision, efficiency and artistic flare. Housed in Italian hand-made Fima Deruta cups and saucers, the caffe latte is the perfect blend of warm milk and espresso. Its silky texture and rich, mild flavor warms the soul. It also is consistent, so no matter who is behind the bar, the results, even with its high standards, are the same.

The coffee bar is located in the city’s swankiest neighborhood, a half-block from its most popular park, and a quick stroll from its business district. This results in a true mix of office workers, creative folks, students, those who toil in the leisure arts (unemployed), and workers from the small businesses in the neighborhood. It’s a great place to people watch, read or meet others without the corporate pressures to buy more or move along that are part of the environment of chain coffee houses. In fact, its owners, Todd Carmichael and Jean-Philippe Iberti, are open about the fact that their primary focus is producing great coffee, even if it turns off consumers. For example, the cafe serves a limited number of coffee drinks and serves them all in a single size. The only other things customers can purchase are a small selection of French pastries, excellent French hot chocolate and coffee beans to go, which they will grind for you.

The company specializes in blending coffee. With few exceptions (such as a blend made only of beans from Africa), it has offered four blends since its beginning nearly 15 years ago: Corsica, dark roast; Phocea, medium dark roast; Nizza, medium roast, used for Espresso; and Monte Carlo, decaffeinated. At home we mainly use Corsica and Nizza.

It’s hard to believe that 25 years ago there were only a handful of places to get good coffee in the U.S. Then along came Starbucks, which educated Americans on the wonders of European coffee. But the company, along with other chains that followed, became more interested in world domination than in producing good coffee in a quality environment. Many independent coffee houses fall short because the owners and their staff often lack the experience and skill to make a quality product or create the proper experience.

By sticking to what it does best, La Colombe gets it right.