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Coffee & Tea 13

North Beach Cappuccino Crawl - Crema Sutra

Stanley Stephan | Apr 25, 200312:58 AM

I’ve been spending some time in North Beach recently and decided to do my own personal quest for the best cappuccino in the neighborhood.

The biggest surprise was that of the 14 places I tried, only two served the same type of bean (Graffeo). Four café’s roasted their own beans and finished at the top in my list.

Here’s my qualifications: What I want is good espresso with foam to slightly take the edge off. It’s a delicate balance. I like an assertive blend but not so bitter that it tastes like something that sat on the office coffee warmer all afternoon.

The classic cap has 1/3 espresso, 1/3 milk and 1/3 foam. Too often there’s so much milk in the cappuccino, you can’t taste the coffee.

I also love a dense foam, however I also enjoy those supper frothy foams that look like lovely white clouds nestling on top of the espresso.

I despise those cappuccinos that are really café latte wannabes. If I WANT a café latte, I’ll ORDER a café latte. I did not ask for a ’dry’ (foam only) as opposed to a ’wet’ (aka latte with foam) cappuccino. IMO, if you have to ask, they aren’t making it right.

Since this is about the cap, I didn’t mention the ambiance or other items unless there was something I thought was really unusual about the place or food.

There are some good coffee links below that discuss coffee terms like crema, chiaro, cupping, ristretto. etc...

There' also information about the history of coffee. For example, the name cappuccino is derived from the hooded robe worn by Capuchin monks due to its "cap" of foam. An aside, if you are ever in Rome, check out the church where the cappucin monks are 'buried'. It is one of the most bizarre exhibits ever.

For some reason, since I started the quest, I've had trouble sleeping. The list in the order of best to worst, IMO.

Stella Pastry Cafe
446 Columbus Ave.
San Francisco, CA 94133-3902
(415) 986-2914

Bean: Lavazza
I went back a second time to make sure that this was as good as I thought, since I tried it first. It was. There was a foamy top with the thick creamy layer sitting on top of the perfect espresso. A mix of thicker cream is topped by a lighter airy foam. The coffee is pleasantly bitter and strong without being burnt.

Caffe Puccini
411 Columbus Ave
San Francisco, CA 94133
(415) 989-7033

Bean: Café Puccini roast
This had the best foam, it was almost dessert-like, not too dense , not too foamy or airy. I savored spoonfuls of this sweet froth. There were all types of nuances and complexities of flavors in the coffee, a word I thought I would never associate with coffee. To me, each cup usually has one note that is either good or bad. There were all sorts of good roast bean flavors in this rich, without being overpowering, roast. It was assertive and yet had a golden mellowness to it.

They also have some good house-made Italian tortes including a ricotta torte. You have to like a place that serves Chicken parmigana sandwiches.

Caffe Italia
565 Green St
San Francisco, CA 94133-3905
(415) 576-1033

Bean: Caffe Italia roast
This was the most impressive, cloud-like foam. I said “wow” when I saw it. Good strong espresso. I was disappointed when the former bakery that occupied this site closed. It is still a bakery, but much scaled down. The whole cappuccino crawl was worth it discovering this brew.

Caffe Malvina
1600 Stockton Street
San Francisco, CA 94133-3316
(415) 391-1290

Bean: Caffe Malvina roast
Frothy foam that was fine, neither very good or very bad. The espresso was deep rich and strong with hints of chocolate. As close to the edge of pleasantly bitter without being obnoxious.

Caffe Trieste
609 Vallejo St
San Francisco, CA 94133
(415) 982-2605

Bean: Café Trieste blend which it imports and roasts.
Thick foamy cream with a swirl of crema. Strong full-bodied, bordering on a good bitter, brew.

Steps of Rome
348 Columbus Ave
San Francisco, CA 94133
(415) 397-0435

Bean: Misela D’Oro
Lighter foam with a nice twist of crema. They put imported powdered chocolate between the espresso and foam. Mild pleasant brew. I know this won best cappuccino this year, but I like more bite to my espresso and it didn’t have the nuances of Caffe Puccini. There have been some Chowhound posts about attitude here, but on my two visits, they were nothing but gracious and friendly.

Caffe La Piazza
700 Columbus Ave
San Francisco, CA 94133 Phone: (415) 392-9290

Bean: Graffeo
This shop is just up the street from Graffeo. The foam was very similar to the Steps of Rome. It was a medium foam with a lovely brown swirl of crema. There was too much milk in it for my taste making it more latte-like and diluting the strong flavor I admire in Graffeo.

This is a lovely little shop that took over an old ravioli store. More of a neighborhood joint where everyone knows each other. Sinatra, Bennet, and the like play gently in the background. Narrow marble counters line the windows where you can take a seat and gaze out at the street. The windows slide open on hot days. There a huge old-fashioned cash register. You can get your bagel with Proscuitto. They are said to serve an excellent pannini. Haven’t tried it though.

Caffe Sempione
641 Vallejo St
San Francisco, CA

Bean: Mr. Espresso
This was really latte in a cup with a little foam on top. The serving size was generous. Pleasant latte like drink but no cappuccino. Besides, I loathe Mr. Espresso.

I do like Caffe Sempione, though and will tolerate the Mr. Espresso. It is the artiest café in North beach. The walls are covered with paintings by local artists. There are books by local authors for sale, including an excellent book about the cafés in Rome. There are free poetry magazines. Jazz plays in the background. There’s a huge piano in the café and I asked if they had music programs. The answer was no. The piano was just there if someone wanted to sit down and play. Other than Starbucks, it’s one of the few places open at 6 a.m.

Caffe Greco
423 Columbus Avenue
San Francisco, CA 94133-3901
(415) 397-6261

Bean: Illy
Foam was too airy. The coffee was to weak and watery. I’ve never been a fan of Illy coffee.

270 Columbus Ave
San Francisco, CA 94133

Bean: Marin Market Coffee
Most generous cup. More latte like than cappuccino. Medium foam

Victoria Pastry Co
1362 Stockton St
San Francisco, CA 94133
(415) 781-2015

Bean: Torrefazione Italia

The foam is light, the brew nondescript. It seems that in the past, I enjoyed their cappuccino better.

Mara's Italian Pastry
503 Columbus Avenue
San Francisco, CA 94133-2801
(415) 397-9435

Bean: Graffeo
This place isn’t about the coffee. There was a card game going on which I had to wait to finish before my order was taken. The froth was the sloppiest. While Graffeo is my favorite coffee, I just don’t like it as espresso.

Cafe Francisco
2161 Powell St
San Francisco, CA 94133-1948
(415) 397-2602

Bean: Sunrise Baking Company
Almost non-existent froth. The espresso was metallic and left a powdery feel in my mouth.
The soups here are house made and this is a dog friendly café.

348 Columbus Ave
San Francisco, CA 94133

Bean: Prebeca
Well, BIG points off for serving it in a clear Irish coffee glass. It had a decent foam and was the closest I saw to the classic 1/3 foam, 1/3 milk and 1/3 espresso. The coffee had an unpleasant metallic taste.

Surprisingly, this place serves Mediterranean food. They had Shawarma, dolmas, falafel, hummus, taboule, babaghanesh and Greek salad. You could get your morning bagel with hummus or eggplant. A sort of med/Italian/Jewish fusion place, so to speak. Big couch in the café, It had the look of the Grove.

Coffee glossaries:

A brief history of coffee:

A little more about those Cappuchin monks:

The site below has some good articles about coffee and tea. Check out the archives.



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