Springing forward got you slumped back this week? You’re not alone. On average, a person loses two and a half hours of shut-eye the week right after the clocks move forward. The solution? Coffee.
“Piccolo Café started as a coffee stand at the Union Square Holiday Market,” says founder and executive chef Michele Casadei Massari. “I was living in Sardinia, working as a chef, when the letter arrived saying I got a space. It was so exciting! The postmark on the letter had the whole village gossiping. I had a dream. I was driven by a dream of opportunity — the American dream, I suppose. I had always been told that this was a place where you could succeed if you worked and used your mind and your skills. I made a bet on myself that I could sell coffee in New York. And now, here I am.”
With four locations around the city, Piccolo Café is known for its namesake tiny restaurant spaces, and idiosyncratic, personality-filled specials menu. But the café’s roots are planted firmly – to press a metaphor – in the mulch of generations of coffee grounds.
“My grandfather was part of the coffee business in Trieste,” says Massari. “It was really the center of coffee in Italy, because it’s the port where all the beans would come into Europe. To capture the flavor and freshness, you roast them, so there are a lot of roasting companies there near the port. Piccolo Café was the original name for the coffee roasting businesses – that’s really the skill of Italian coffee. True Italian coffee is that special blend.”
One year after its founding in 1938, the family roasting business found itself in the middle of one of the Second World War’s most significant battlegrounds. The port was turned over to warships and coffee imports slowed to a trickle. Years of bombing left the infrastructure in ruins, and by the end of the war, the industry had all but vanished. “After that, my grandfather became a chef,” Massari says. Another branch of his family remained in the roasting trade, eventually re-establishing the business in Trieste.
“He was always passionate about coffee, and he loved to cook with it,” Massari says of his grandfather. “He was the person who really taught me how to cook. It was all about technique. He loved preserving, pickling, those kind of things. He learned that after the war you had to make the most out of everything you had. That carefulness really makes me appreciate great fresh ingredients now. He taught me to be passionate about food, but also to be thoughtful, to learn about how ingredients interact, and to work with precision. That combination is what I want to do here at my Piccolo Café, and I wanted to keep his spirit alive through the name. Food and Coffee. Both.”
Piccolo Café imports coffee from Filicori Zecchini, based in the Massari’s hometown, Bologna. “Italian coffee is my passion!” Massari says.
Coffee — strong, dark, simple — pops up all over the menu, from the tiramisu and affogato (could there be a better mid-afternoon pick-me-up?) to the tender, slow-braised lamb ravioli with a port raisin reduction and smoky, dark coffee-nib crumble.
Pick up a homemade breakfast biscotto (studded with almonds, chocolate, and coffee nibs), dip it in your espresso, and wake up like it’s really 8 a.m. — not 7 a.m.
This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on March 14, 2016