Wednesday, November 18, 2009

More Café Memories: Torrefazione Café

The first years I lived in Portland, it was hard to imagine hanging out in cafés.  Which was just as well, because there weren't that many.  But a few years and three kids later, something exciting happened.  Torrefazione came to town.  If Starbucks created a widespread thirst for espresso drinks (Berkeley cafés did it for me), Torrefazione focused that thirst.

(For info on the second and third wave coffee movements read this and this)

For a long time, Torrefazione had just the one café on NW 23rd.  It was not a part of town I frequented, so my visits there were reserved for showing Portland off to out-of-town visitors.  But rightfully so.  Torrefazione was perfect.  The coffee was delicious, and served in Deruta ceramic cups.  The round wooden tabletops had round Deruta tiles set in the center, plants sat on Deruta pedestals, and Italian baristas carefully pulled shots (this was the first place I routinely saw baristas dumping expired shots), steamed milk, and spoke Italian amongst themselves.

View Set the WABAC Machine to Berkeley Cafés: Back for Seconds in a larger map

But I was to be even luckier.  Torrefazione opened a second branch, just a few blocks from my house.  By then, my kids were only a little older than my siblings and I were in that picture taken at the Piccolo.  I was thrilled to introduce them to cafe life.  Instead of grenadine and tamarindo sodas, the kids usually drank a small bottle of Sanbitter soda or chinotto (a bitter citrus).  Perfect training drinks.  The Sanbitter mimicked bitter aperitifs (I figured some day I'd like to have a before dinner drink with them), while the chinotto was slightly reminiscent of tamarindo (my childhood favorite), with its cola-esque flavor.

Our local Torrefazione was connected to a produce market, a fish market, and a small delicatessen.  I loved the way I could escape home to pick up something for supper and then, oh well, might as well have a cappuccino since I was already there.

Torrefazione somehow attracted a mix of society you don't always see in cafés.  Waiting in line you'd see couples stopping for coffee while walking their dogs, retired gentlemen giving their wives a break, tattooed college students, high school girls dressed uniformly in Uggs and expensive jeans, and Eritrean cabbies waiting for their next fare. This branch was also managed by an Italian, who kept the place neat in the way Italian cafés always seem to be.   He was never without work.  If no one was in line, he'd zip around, wiping off chair rungs or sweeping the floor.

And it was something of a training ground as well.  Chris Brady worked as a barista there before starting Portland's Extracto Coffeehouse and Cherry Coffee Roasters.  And Jeremy Tooker was there before he started first Ritual Coffee and then Four Barrels in San Francisco.

There was one year, a magical one, when my kids were all in school, and I had more time on my hands than I had since before college.  I took to walking to Torrefazione every day with a book.  I never read that book at home.  Instead, I gave myself an hour a day to fall into it, to read without distraction.  The first book I chose was Anna Karenina.  It wasn't until this week that I connected reading Anna Karenina in a café with my first date at the Med with Pavel.  Okay, it's a tenuous connection, I'll admit.  But I like it.  I'm going to keep it.

Things had started to go wrong after Starbucks acquired Torrefazione in 2003.  Laying off the Italian managers was the first bad omen.  Sometime in 2005 I walked in to find the baristas packing the Deruta ceramic cups into boxes.  Food industry health requirements mandated that they'd have to start using normal china.  The pottery, which was of course chipped by now, could apparently not be cleaned properly.  The silver lining to this sad state of affairs was my timing.  The baristas packed 5 of their cups and saucers into a box and gave it to me.  We've suffered no ill-effects drinking from those cups daily for 4 years.

By the time summer came, it seemed clear that sooner or later Starbucks would shut down the cafes.  My daughter, Grace, got a summer job at Torrefazione, and a few weeks later was summoned to a meeting at Starbucks.  They served coffee that had been made with both Starbucks and Torrefazione beans, "to symbolize our merging".  They were told the cafés were closing, and were offered positions at local Starbucks.  Out of the 4 local Torrefaziones, I didn't hear of any workers who took Starbucks up on their offer. 

The last day came, a sad one.  Long time locals went to say good-bye, tears were shed.  Grace was able to buy some of the Torrefazione wares, after promising none would turn up on ebay.  I'm keeping her table for her, hoping she might just forget it's really hers.  And the last day at our branch, Gretchen Milhaupt, a painter who was a regular,  came in with a bunch of pastels she'd done of the café in 1998.  I got one of the last ones.  It hangs opposite our espresso machine at home, I can't tell you how often I glance up at it and let my mind wander back to those quiet afternoons spent with Anna, a cappuccino, and myself. 

And that espresso machine at home?  Pavel had decided he wanted a particular Olympia Maximatic machine.  He took a day off from work in the mid-1990's, and called stores around the country.  Finally, someone at Zabar's in New York City told him they had a new one that had been returned, and was therefore affordable.  Did he want to look at it?  Normally, that would have been out of the question for us.  But my parents happened to be in New York that week, so they took a cab over and checked it out.  And picked it up for us.  Like the Anna Karenina story, it's only today that I realize and appreciate us getting our machine the same way my parents got theirs: with our parents' help.  I hope one day we can pass the favor on to our kids. 

Even the kids' artwork was coffee-driven; these hang above our Olympia

Years later I finally made it to New York.  It was a short visit only, so one afternoon, while Pavel took the kids the the Natural History Museum, I made the trip to Zabar's, to see the place responsible for our Olympia machine that had become the hearth of our home.  I spent some time wandering the aisles, and then stepped out of the store.  Just for a minute, but it was enough to miss the best 10 seconds of fame ever, thanks to Pavel's message to me over the PA system:  "Giovanna, your family will meet you in the salamis".  It has a nice ring to it.  Family, salami, coffee memories.  What could be better? 

  At a café in Venice with Pavel.  It's not Torrefazione, but it's Italy.


Dan said...

I remember coming back from a three week vacation in Italy in '93 and stumbling into Torrefazione, purely by chance, for the first time. They had Carmina Burana on the stereo, and I had a cappuccino that magically transported me back to Florence. It was a sad sad day when Torrefazione closed.

Francesca said...

Reading this made me cry!! Being the youngest sucks, I barely remember anything!
I do remember the Cabbies though, and the PA at Zabars.

And I do drink Chinotto here all the time. :D

Giovanna said...

Yes, those first few years with Torrefazione were special. Going there always felt like such an escape. And yet it was right in our backyard.

Don't worry, Francesca--I'm the youngest too, and I remember plenty. I suspect you'll have all sorts of stories of your own.

And glad you're drinking your chinotto!

Grace said...

Mom - I will never forget that that table is mine! Never!

I think one of the best Torrefazione memories for me was that year on my birthday when it was just the three of us, and there was a band playing. Good day. Another is our Thursday morning coffees together that year... and a sadder one is when Bush got re-elected.

And, of course, working at Torrefazione created all sorts of wonderful experiences. But it's different from behind the counter.

Giovanna said...

Rats. Foiled again. Hopefully Grace will at least serve me coffee and cookies on that table when she wrenches it away from me.

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