Profundity for Two Dollars a Cup at Stella Caffé
In Rome, just a few steps from the Pantheon, there is an old coffee shop. I don't know its name. Inside this coffee shop, men in dress uniforms stand primly behind a wooden bar; a silvery mirror at their backs runs around the entire U-shaped shop. You receive your cappuccino standing up, and drink it at the bar. There are no stools. It isn't just that the coffee tastes rich, chocolaty, and pleasantly punishingly bitter going down. It's that, once inside your body, this particular cappuccino changes your attitude about life for several hours. Let the record show that I am not typically susceptible to coffee-based rapture. Usually when I order, I say, "I'll have a coffee" and I ask for "a medium"; I am hard-nosed about coffee, proud to drink it thin and East Coasty, like a brown chore. But this Roman cappuccino was the driving factor in my life for an afternoon; pressed to describe the experience, I can only say it made me a better person in every way.
I know of only one place in downtown Seattle where you can come close to this experience. Stella Caffé opened November 17. Its specialty is a magical Roman cappuccino. Respecting the modern person's needs, Stella also has an extraordinary decaf version. The shop has no stools at the American hickory bar, where Seattleites are learning that standing while drinking may cause unexpected cordial conversation. In this 100-year-old building (formerly a bar called the Flamingo) there are, indeed, seats for staunch nonstanders. A red leather bench stretches along one side of the elongated and high-ceilinged cafe, which has white-paned windows cut out of brick walls, each windowsill housing a neat pyramid of boxes of panettone, an Italian fruit bread (the preferred breakfast specialty—order it grilled). A crystal chandelier, the decorative white ceiling tiles, and black-and-white marbled tables finish off the decorous look. I keep expecting Marcello Mastroianni, rest his soul, to walk in the front door.
If he did, I would immediately recommend to him the ricotta cannoli ($1.50), whose virtuous taste is enough to gently erase years of screechy memories of candy-bar sugar abuse and its attendant crashes. A sandwich is advisable, too: made with fresh ingredients from Frank's in the market (with meat—Italian-style roast beef, Italian sausage—and more-than-just-perfunctory nonmeat options, including a mushroom-gruyere-arugula concoction) and perfect ciabatta baked by "a guy named Mario out of Kent," says proprietor Rob Wilson. Every sandwich is $5.99, with the exception of the Italian tuna ($6.99).
Wilson's storied history ranges from being a successful but debauched small businessman years ago to servicing espresso machines in Italy to fighting for customers in the coffee wars of Sydney, Australia, where the high Italian population means cafes everywhere. Wilson's wife, Josie, is the daughter of Italian immigrants to Australia. The two met in Seattle, moved to Sydney for eight years, then moved back to Seattle—with their now-6-year-old son, Alex, a fixture at the cafe—to run a roastery last year. Their company, Stella, named after Rob's sister (and also the nickname of his roasting machine from the '20s), is also a wholesaler to various places (for instance: Frontier Cafe and the Bohemian).
What made the Italian Renaissance so powerful—an emphasis on life in this world, not the next—is what Wilson is banking on with Stella. He is a great talker and says things like, "People are living as though they are on their way to a party called life" and, "It comes down to humanity and good common sense." Both of these comments were part of an extended philosophical meditation about coffee: Wilson believes people are due an exceptional coffee ("everyone deserves two things: their vice and their peace"), from a friendly neighborhood server, at a bona fide public house (the long version of the British "pub"), at a good price. The Roman cappuccino is, in fact, a profound experience at $2.
The Wilsons are adding beer and wine this spring, but for now it's coffee, orzo (a distinctive barley drink), panettone ("I won't serve scones!"), sandwiches, and desserts. There's also a miniature Italian grocery store at the back of the cafe, stocking tins of Italian tuna packed in olive oil, boxes of De Cecco pasta and Balocco panettone, Italian fruit candies, and a fine sweetened chamomile tea that also happens to be instant. Stella is for food and drink lovers—humanists—not snobs.