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Monday, January 24, 2011

Caffe Pascucci: A Cure for San Francisco's Italophilia?

Posted By on Mon, Jan 24, 2011 at 5:27 PM

click to enlarge Caffe Pascucci's pistachio cappucino.
  • Caffe Pascucci's pistachio cappucino.

Devoted Italophiles, San Franciscans tend to think of Italy in its most pastoral guise, a country filled with artisans passionately crafting humble, exquisite food that sings with innate simplicity and good taste. Our idealization doesn't just apply to pasta, wine, and leather goods, but coffee, too. We wouldn't have grande lattes and the U.S. Barista Championships if it weren't for the 1980s' obsession with Italian espresso bars.

But there's another side to Italy, and it's the side reflected in Caffe Pascucci, the first American branch of an Italian coffee chain. Think Pucci. Or Versace. White padded walls striped with mirrors, glossy red accents, white leather seats shaped like the caps from toothpaste tubes ― it's about the least rustic place in San Francisco.

Think Donatella Versace. In cappuccino form.
  • Think Donatella Versace. In cappuccino form.

I've been to the coffee place three times since it opened a few weeks back ―

it's two blocks away from the office. While the staff are uniformly sweet, the baroque coffee drinks have left me gobsmacked.

Pascucci's yogurt cappucino, a shot of espresso topped

with some tart yogurt and a poof of whipped cream, set off my aesthetic allergies. Hazelnut hot

chocolate tasted like grainy liquid pudding. An Americano was twice as watery as anything I've bought in a 7-Eleven. The

best of the lot: the gray-green "ciaobello pistachio" pictured above. It tasted

faintly of both pistachios and coffee and was crowned with three inches

of whipped cream and macadamia nuts.

Chad Newton, former chef of Fish and Farm, is credited for helping the San Francisco branch design its sandwiches, and they do indeed seem to be made with sustainable ingredients. Granted, it's early days, but the line-caught tuna salad sandwich ($7.95) was made with focaccia so fluffy and dry I had to wet my mouth with spoonfuls of whipped cream in order to swallow. And a "local artisanal cheese" panino with caramelized onions and fig jam was pressed into a greasy, oozy, one-half-inch-thick slab.

Is the gaudiness a direct import from Italy or a misread of American tastes? Hard to tell. Any American wracked with collective shame over Starbucks' new trenta-sized iced coffees should visit Pascucci and order a caffe dei bimbi: a shot of espresso, two inches of whipped cream, and a shower of M&Ms.

Caffe Pascucci: 170 King (at Third), 957-1100.

Update, Jan. 26: Caffe Pascucci's Michael Balyasny responds:
I'm one of the owners of Caffe Pascucci and wanted to write a quick email about your story. I appreciate your honesty, and in fact, I agree with some of the things you wrote. Pascucci is indeed very different from any other coffee shop in the Bay Area. It certainly doesn't fit the mold of places like Four Barrel, Ritual and Blue Bottle (I'm listing spots that roast their own coffee). It's the polar opposite of the rustic, earthy cafe that defines SF's coffee culture.

We didn't see the sense in creating another Ritual knock-off; there are enough spots like that in the Bay Area. We wanted to bring something completely different and knew in advance that many coffee purists would probably be turned off by the idea of a pistachio cappuccino, and that's OK. We never wanted to build a coffeehouse for "everyone," because those kind of places already exist (Starbucks, Coffee Bean & Tea Leaf, Caribou, and to some extent Peet's). Being "middle of the road" doesn't make sense, and copying Four Barrel doesn't either. Just like there are detractors of places like Blue Bottle, there are certainly going to be people who dislike Pascucci.

Our intention is to introduce SF to a different coffee philosophy, founded on exceptional execution of Italian classics (Espresso, Cappuccino) and a menu of creative dessert coffee drinks that no one else offers. There's nothing inherently wrong with getting creative with coffee drinks, particularly when they're meant to be desserts.

Having said that, we haven't done a good job of communicating what our drinks are all about.

To that end, we're updating our menu boards and printed menus. We're simplifying and improving based on feedback we've received in the first two weeks. The Caffe Dei Bimbi is on its way out as are a few other drinks that simply don't make sense.

As far as comparing us to Donatella Versace and the gaudiness that her fashion house consistently churns out, I think that was a bit misguided. We're certainly going with a different design aesthetic than a place like Philz, but we're definitely not this.

Thanks for taking the time to write about our shop and put it on your readers' radars!

Michael Balyasny"

Follow us on Twitter: @sfoodie. Follow me at @JonKauffman.

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