Photo II: Anna and Domenico Agovino at La Casa del Caffe in the Morris Park section of the Bronx. Credit Suzanne DeChillo/The New York Times // Photo II: customers enjoying their coffee
Espresso’s Disciples Worship Here
By Jeff Gordinier - March 04 2014 - http://www.nytimes.com
You can travel to La Casa del Caffe, on Morris Park Avenue in the Bronx, and try to coax Anna Agovino into spilling some of the secrets behind making a perfect cup of coffee. She will shoot you that Fellini-worthy smile of hers, and she’ll be patient with your questions. For a minute or two.
But eventually she’ll throw a simple question back: “You want espresso?”
And you do. That espresso, after all, is the reason you’ve walked into this stark little room with Neapolitan soccer paraphernalia on the walls and zany Italian game shows on the TV. It’s why there tends to be an afternoon line of customers snaking along the counter. If you hover in that line next to Fabio Saglimbeni, a hairdresser who lives in Rockland County and makes a regular pilgrimage to stand and wait for Mrs. Agovino’s careful ministrations, he might turn to you and say, “So you came to have the best coffee in New York City?”
Mr. Saglimbeni is not the only patron at La Casa del Caffe who is apt to make a declaration like that. Plenty of customers see Mrs. Agovino, a 58-year-old mother of three who spends most of each day beside a vintage Faema machine, as a sort of espresso-pulling angel. For these worshipful, flirtatious, caffeine-seeking disciples, many of whom have roots in Italy, and many of whom are men who appear to get an extra jolt of wakefulness whenever the seraph happens to smile, she has something that trumps an entire army of Brooklyn baristas wielding their Japanese filters and pour-over kettles and charging an arm and a leg for a sip: a magic wrist.
“It’s very difficult to get this type of quality,” said Alessandro Borgognone, the restaurateur behind Sushi Nakazawa, in the West Village, and his family’s place, Patricia’s, a few steps from La Casa del Caffe. There have been days when Mr. Borgognone has dropped in for a $2 shot of Mrs. Agovino’s handiwork in the morning, and another after lunch, and one more at the end of the night. What keeps him coming back is the matchless layer of creaminess at the top, often sought after by espresso fanatics as a sign of true mastery.
“The head is so thick that it almost takes a minute for the sugar to sink into the espresso,” Mr. Borgognone said the other day, taking an instant to gaze at the froth before succumbing to a sip.
Mrs. Agovino grew up in southern Italy, but she found her calling one day in the Bronx, in the late 1990s, when her husband, Domenico, realized he had to dash out of his coffee shop to attend to an errand, thereby leaving his wife stranded at the Faema.
“I don’t know how to make a caffè,” she recalled of that do-or-die moment. “I’m in a panic.”
Her panic subsided. She got to work. She hasn’t really stopped working since that day, because it turned out that she had a gift. And after a while, no one in the Morris Park neighborhood, where the population is predominantly Italian, wanted a shot pulled by anyone else. (Not even her husband, who specializes in installing and repairing espresso machines.)
“I tried to hire somebody to work for me,” she said. “After one week, I had to say, ‘I’m sorry, I don’t need you.’ People started complaining.” Her own standards seem to be the highest of all. “If I make an espresso I don’t like, it’s too watery, I throw it away,” she said. “I want people here to know what’s the real espresso.”
In her mind, that real espresso depends on a range of tiny details — and the barista’s determination to be as precise as possible with each one. The way the cups stay warm stored on top of the machine. The way the machine is cleaned nightly, so that it doesn’t become caked with bitter residue. The way you grind the coffee beans — she uses the Italian brand called Essse — so that the grains of powder are not too fat and not too fine. The way you adjust the grind to respond to the temperature and humidity of the air. “When the weather change, I change the grind,” she said.
Her devotees, though, remain convinced that something else is at work — something mysterious, maybe even divine, having to do with the movement of her hands. “It’s important that it’s always the same hand making the coffee,” Mr. Borgognone said. “Consistency, consistency, consistency. It’s very important. She knows the machine best.”
Mrs. Agovino believes the secret has to do with something more basic. “I think I just like the coffee,” she said. “I love it. I drink it all day.” She has been known to down 13 or 14 cups in a single day. Somehow she sleeps just fine.
“Why you think I look so young?” she said.
La Casa del Caffe, 1036 Morris Park Avenue, the Bronx; 718-931-7816.