Paris has a lot things, but great coffee sure isn’t one of them. It’s a bit counterintuitive to think that since Parisian café culture is so prominent. Images of sitting outside in wicker chairs in the cold winter under a gas heat lamp sipping a steaming hot drink in the smoke-filled air remind me very strongly of the city. Except that image is all about the ritual, not about the drink. Paris has a strong café culture, but lacks a coffee culture.
It’s incredible that a food-oriented culture which values so heavily elaborate sauces and delicate soufflés, can completely disregard the methods by which to properly prepare an espresso. Even simple ones. I was once thrown out of Café Amazone for suggesting that the doddering owner/barista use the tamp to compress the ground. He instead insisted on using the tamp as a measuring device, compressing the coffee into a spoon, and pouring the loose beans into the portafilter. Even La Caféothèque de Paris and Verlet, which both have fancy La Marzocco equipment and all Arabica beans disappoint. The city is like a parallel universe.
A lot of blame often gets put to the use of Robusta beans versus the more aromatic Arabica. France is able to import these beans from former African colonies at much less cost than overseas Arabica varieties. But frankly, I’m tired of this as an excuse. Even mediocre beans can taste reasonable when prepared correctly. With espresso, 85% of the flavor comes from the process and technique, not the ingredients.
I cannot count the number of “baristi” I’ve witnessed forget to tamp, under fill the portafilter, or even start the extraction and walk away to take someone else’s order. The result is pure culinary neglect. Parisians in general either don’t care or don’t know, as the undemanding clientele is more concerned with the trendy style-aspect of sipping espresso with a cigarette than the flavor. Paris needs a coffee revolution.
In this java wasteland, however, there is hope. Gocce di Caffè in the 2è is the sole consistently perfect espresso I have had in the city. Antonio Costanza, barista/owner from Milan, opened shop in the center of Passage des Panoramas, the oldest covered passage in the city. The covered passage resembles a miniature version of Milan’s Galleria Vittorio Emanuele, with a humble espresso counter and its handful of seats decorating the center. Barista Costanza is the sole person pressing the espresso, so quality remains high and visitors are never at the expense of inexperienced trainees. As a former barista from the main café at Harrod’s London, Costanza speaks excellent English as well as French and Italian.
The beans from Gocce di Caffè come from Milan’s Caffè Guiducci, a family-run shop in existance for over 50-years. The beans are an Arabica-Robusta blend, 80% Arabica and 20% Robusta. Given that 100% Arabica blends are the current trend in US coffee houses, I raised my brows upon hearing of the 20% inclusion of what I was taught were inferior beans. Barista Costanza explained that robusta beans are included to add structure to the flavor. That without their inclusion, the flavor would be too sweet, oily, and one-sided. After doing some research, I was surprised to learn that the majority of Italian espresso bars intentionally include a small pinch of Robusta beans. Robusta beans have essentially become a scapegoat for poor technique.
Espresso at Gocce di Caffè most often tastes of dark chocolate, hazelnut, and at times has a hint of smokey almond. The texture is consistently thick with moderate crema. Barista Costanza’s milk-foaming skills are nonpareil. At times he adds a sprinkle of cocoa powder to enhance the contrast to his art, which with a teaspoon of brown sugar adds rich notes of caramel and milk chocolate. (Authenticity police can simply ask for no cocoa-powder.) Barista Costanzo’s espresso is delicious and can compete against Stumptown, Ninth Street, or Joe the Art of Coffee any day.
All visitors to Paris looking for outstanding coffee must visit. However be warned: if people-watching or fashion-spotting is the intended goal, this is not the place. For that any of Paris’ thousand cafés will do. This is a place for the coffee-obsessed who are tired of espresso with notes of ashtray. And go quickly; so far, it’s dominated solely by locals and Italian tourists seeking sanctuary. And while there, consider suggesting to Barista Costanza that he open a few more locations in the city; there’s a huge need.