Your local coffee spot can define your neighborhood and your daily schedule like few other things can. It’s often where your day starts to move, where your pre-work ritual starts, where you meet the neighbors, and where your midday pick-me-up caffeine is found. This is what those lucky enough to live near Graham Avenue in Williamsburg find in a wonderful 40-year-old landmark, Caffe Capri (427 Graham Avenue, Brooklyn, 718-383-5744), run by the dynamic brother and sister-in-law combo of Sarah Devita and Joe Rinaldi.
A skinny man with a carefree demeanor, Rinaldi was born in Palermo, Italy, and moved to Argentina as a young teenager to work as a tailor. After 10 years, he decided to visit relatives in Brooklyn and never left. For awhile, he operated a pizzeria two blocks away from where Caffe Carpi now stands, and when he and Devita discovered the building at 427 Graham was for sale, they decided the area was in need of a good café or, in Italian, caffe. “Back then, we had to travel to little Italy to go get a good caffe,” says Rinaldi. “It was always my dream to open up a caffe, even when I was very young.”
The Caffe opened its doors on Valentines Day in 1974. “Back then, the neighborhood was almost all Italians and Jews, and everyone spoke Italian,” says Devita. “They would come in speaking Italian, and I would say what part of Italy are you from, and they would say, we’re Jewish.”
Even today, “some people think they are in Italy when they walk in,” says Devita. You’ll hear Dean Martin singing over the speakers and locals chatting about current events and pop culture. Decorated with a mix of family photos and many portraits of Frank Sinatra, the store sells a few Italian goods such as panettone (a holiday bread with fruit) and sweet dessert crackers. In the back of the store, just past the ornate archway, you’ll always find a few friends and family members watching TV from wicker chairs. If you think it feels like someone’s kitschy living room, you’re not far off — Rinaldi and Devita live above the store.
During the morning hours, a steady flow of new Brooklynites and longtime locals stop in to grab their coffees and chat; Devita asks each person whether they prefer a long or short shot.
Mention Caffe Capri to any regular, and they will instantly tell you to order the “world’s best” iced coffee. Capri still using its original recipe from 1974, putting pure coffee through a gelato maker. “Otherwise, the ice waters it down,” says Devita. The resultant iced beverage is more like a coffee slushy than coffee with ice, which is similar to the way Rinaldi first had iced coffee in Italy. Highly potent, the beverage remains the most popular here. “It could be freezing outside, and they still buy it,” Devita says of the regulars.
Outside of coffee drinks, Caffe Capri also serves traditional Italian desserts and one of the best cannoli in all five boroughs. Filled with homemade ricotta-based stuffing, the treat is a perfect balance of smooth sweetness and crunchy texture from its hard outer shell.
One unexpected top selling recent addition is a portrait of the owners that appears on both t-shirts and coffee mugs. “We can barely keep them in stock,” says Devita.
The coffee shop is going into its 40th year, and both owners are septuagenarians, but they still open the place six days a week. Asked about the possibility of retirement, Devita says, “Where am I going to go? I don’t like the warm weather. I’m not a Florida person.” We’re grateful for that.
This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on July 10, 2014