I love espresso. It’s my favorite way to enjoy coffee. Even so, I almost never order espresso in coffee shops because, here in the United States, very few coffee shops have mastered the exacting process by which espresso is made. Dr. Josuma John of the Josuma Coffee Company writes that “more than 95 percent of North American espresso is poorly made, and, in fact, undrinkable.” My experience with Pittsburgh-area coffee shops in the last decade provides no evidence to refute Dr. John’s claim.
If espresso in the United States is so bad, why do Americans drink enough of it to support a Starbucks on every street corner? The reason is that Americans drink espresso almost exclusively in the form of milk-based beverages: cappuccinos, lattes, and mochas. Milk and flavored syrups are the main attractions. Espresso serves only as a coffee-flavored backdrop in which bitterness, a characteristic of poorly made espresso, complements the abundant sweetness of milk laced with sugar syrups. American coffee-shop owners thus have little incentive to offer better espresso to their customers – bad espresso is good enough.
Because of this sad reality, I have developed through hard experience the following reliable guideline for ordering espresso at American coffee shops: Don’t. The one exception I make is for new coffee shops, at which I will try a double espresso, just to see what I get. Almost always, I get a bad espresso, bitter and watery.
And that is what I had expected back in April 2005, when I spotted the brand-new sign for Aldo Coffee Co. in my home town of Mt. Lebanon, Pennsylvania, located in Pittsburgh’s South Hills. I went in, dragging my wife along, and placed my order.
Then something unusual happened. The barista asked me, somewhat hopefully it seemed, if I drank espresso regularly. When I said yes, she seemed pleased. When she followed up by asking me if I read alt.coffee, I was stunned. When I observed that she was timing my shot, my brain actually shut down for a few seconds while it forcibly recalibrated itself to accommodate the seemingly impossible: that I was standing in a coffee shop in my home town, conversing with a barista about alt.coffee, and mere seconds away from receiving what was very likely to be good espresso.
And, in fact, the espresso was good. Aldo uses Intelligentsia Coffee & Tea’s Black Cat Espresso Blend, which is a great espresso blend, skillfully roasted. It seems to work well in commercial espresso environments, where extraction temperatures can be carefully controlled. (I think that Black Cat tips into burnt flavors when pulled too hot.) All in all, a delightful cup.
Since then, I have visited Aldo Coffee Co. regularly, typically at least once per week, and the espresso has been reliably good. I would say that out of five cups, I typically get one that is pretty good, two that are definitely good, one that approaches greatness, and one that is great. I don’t recall ever having received an undrinkable cup. At one time (when their machine was running hot or Intelligentsia was off their target profile) I did receive a stretch of cups with emphasized burnt flavors, but still the overall impression was pretty good.
Certainly, there is room for improvement, but with espresso, that is the way it goes. Espresso is a tricky beverage, requiring continual fine tuning and practice. To put Aldo’s performance into perspective, at home, where I can focus on a single customer’s tastes – mine – and I am working with equipment that I have practiced on for about a decade, I don’t do much better: out of five tries I get one pretty good, one good, two approaching greatness, and one great. (One of the great shots is pictured in my blog’s banner.) At most coffee shops, five out of five times I get something not worth drinking.
The only other contender in Pittsburgh is La Prima Espresso, which gets the nod of approval from Tea Leaves guys, whose tastes I tend to agree with. My experience at La Prima, however, has not matched theirs. More often than not, the espresso I have been served was over-extracted. I have received a good cup on occasion, maybe one for every five visits, but for the most part I have left disappointed.
All of this leads me to the following claim: Aldo Coffee Co. is the most reliable place I know of to get good espresso in Pittsburgh.
Good service and food
That Aldo’s owners are willing to invest in making good espresso, a tricky product that I suspect less than five percent of their customers appreciate, suggests they are atypically attentive to all of their offerings. After all, if you are going to cut corners, why not start with espresso?
The Aldo staff seems to bear out this theory. Everybody is friendly, and several baristas know me by name, despite that I’m not a daily customer.
Their sandwiches also point to something beyond the norm. I have tried the “tuna & artichoke” and the “eggplant, prosciutto, & mozzarella,” and both were delicious, reminding me of the typical fare in Italian bars, where they care about these things. The breads (from Mediterra Bakehouse) are crusty and flavorful, balancing with the fillings, neither dominating the other.
I am not a dessert person and avoid coffee-shop sweets, but I do enjoy Aldo’s sfogliatelle. Too much. ’Nuff said.
Good web site
One more indicator that Aldo is not your typical Pittsburgh coffee shop is that they blog. And, unlike me, they keep their blog up to date. Their blog is a part of their web site at www.aldocoffee.com, which has menus, Pittsburgh-related tidbits, and even barista profiles, so you can get to know their staff. This, too, suggests an unusual attentiveness to things that other shops overlook.
It all adds up to good stuff
Good espresso, good service, good sandwiches, good sfogliatelle, and an informative web site featuring an oft-updated blog. Clearly, something unusual is happening at Aldo Coffee Co. I am not sure how they make it happen, but I am sure about one thing: Aldo is good stuff.
Update 2006-03-06: I originally wrote that Black Cat was “darker than a traditional Northern Italian roast.” I just got some more Black Cat, and this batch is lighter than I had remembered. It looks to have just brushed up against the second crack.