La Dolce Vita at San Diego’s Caffé Vergnano
San Diego loves Italian food. Who can blame us? Unfortunately "Ital- ian" encompasses quite a large trough of choices, ranging broadly from the delectable masterpieces that dear, sweet Nonna presents to her grandchildren with pride...to the latest mayonnaise-slathered atroc- ity unleashed at The Olive Garden.
But it would seem that Hillcrest has captured the grace of Padre nostro up there, since 5th Avenue flaunts some of San Diego's finest pane e vino. Most recently, our neighborhood welcomed driven newcomer Hector Rabellino and his labor of love, Caffé Vergnano 1882. (That's vehr-NYAH-no)!
Fresh from having tirelessly worked the Argetinian hotel scene, coffee beans and panini are his game today-as is the pursuit of quality without compromise. Empty promises of this noble principle may be peddled on the wall of EVERY small business from here to the Gaslamp. But Rabellino happily demonstrates his drive during each daily 6 a.m. to midnight shift. This husband, father and survivor of two strokes is not only raring to earn our patronage, he's just gotten started.
"People always ask me, 'How are you today?' I say, 'I'm great. I'm always great.' Being 'great' is not a state, it's an action," asserted Rabellino. "It's not what's around you that makes you happy or not. It's you. In Buenos Aires, I was working 17-hour days. I always took care of my body, but I never took care of my brain. And when you're in the hospital, you're like a rock. You stay there for days. The only thing that moves around is your head.
The second stroke unfortunately happened at night when I was sleeping, so I didn't want to sleep. I didn't want it to happen again. The only words that came to my head were, 'It's not worth it.' I always say that whoever makes their pas- sion their job is the happiest person in the world. I've been here for about 35 days, from 6:00 a.m. to 1 in the morning. Then I go home, sleep for four hours, wake up and then come back here...but I'm happy!"
The company that enjoys Rabellino's allegiance is a family-owned organization founded in 1882-hence the name. And since "1882" is easier to remember and spell than "Vergnano," 1882 has stuck as the company nickname. With almost 130 years of coffee roasting history backing the business'first venture into the U.S. market, Hector chose Hillcrest.
"I've always wanted to have an Italian coffee shop in the U.S. I told my cousin who lives in Manhattan, 'Listen, I'm going up there to open a coffee shop.' And he said, 'You're nuts! You just had a stroke and now you want to come to Manhattan?You need to relax.'So I took a plane to L.A.-which was too big...La Jolla-which was expensive...Gaslamp-which was good, but not my kind of customer...so I came up here."
Bearing a striking similarity to a Caffé Vergnano affiliate in Chieri, Italy, the location on our own 5th Avenue immediately caught Hector's attention- as did the neighborhood itself.
"I knew about the community of Hillcrest. I knew that this was the right place to open the first one. In terms of eating and drinking, Americans want to know about things. They're very curious. The nice thing about my job is that I'm selling something that people want to hear about. We have dishes here that are family recipes. The pesto that we make IS pesto. I can assure you that there's no place in all of San Diego that has my pesto. People who come here to try it, they try to make it at home and they can't! It has five main ingredients...but the basil needs to be good basil. And pine nuts! Not al- monds or something cheaper. It must be pine nuts. And parmesan cheese. It has to be either Grana Padano or Parmigiano Reggiano.
Nothing is wrong with other brands, but they don't have a quality for the right taste you need. Then you need good salt and extra virgin olive oil. The problem I had in the beginning was the basil. In Genoa, everyone has basil on the vine. And the salt of the sea and everything else really makes the basil. Believe me, one day you will eat pasta with pesto here and you will see the difference. We have a small kitchen, so we cannot have a big back stock. We need to cook fresh every day."
So clearly the food is worth a visit, but what about the coffee? Hector as- sured us that we'd only find beans from Italy at Caffé Vergnano.
"People are accustomed to what Starbucks used to build its empire. To the company, I tip my hat. But the product...it's not comparable. People come here and they order a 'Chai Latte Mocha Piccolo-ccino' or something...so we try to make something close to what they want. Then we try to acclimate the customers by saying,'Okay, you want this and this.'"
One of the signature guarantees of freshness is the "grinder-on-demand" system. As many coffee connoisseurs know, air diminishes the flavor of coffee beans very quickly. Caffé Vergnano is one of the few establishments that keeps each portion of espresso beans packed air-tight until the very instant it is needed for grinding and brewing.
"It's not tough. I'm doing something that I really love. My benchmark is: Italian restaurant owners come here to drink coffee and then go to work. The Italian com- munity is really starting to gather here every morning. When they first began coming here, they'd try it and say,'Wow. Finally, an espresso.'That was my goal."
Patrons aren't the only people who Hector wants to keep happy. His employees are every bit as essential to this perfect formula.
"We pay employees more than minimum wage. But one of the first things we ask them is,'Do you have pas- sion? If you come here just to hand over a coffee to the other side of the counter, it's not good...not just for the company, but it's not good for you. You're not go-
ing to enjoy it.'There are things they can learn from us. That's something that we offer that other coffee shops don't. Caffé Vergnano has an 'Academia de Caffé' mas- ter barista who travels just to train people. So before we opened, the master barista trained our employees in the way WE do coffee. I didn't want high-turnover. The good thing is that they drink coffee, sleep coffee and wake up thinking about coffee. They want to learn more. On their days off, they come to spend the day here, sitting outside drinking coffee! I say, 'What are you doing here? You're not working today.' They say, 'I'm just enjoying the day.'I really love that."
It's rare that we find a relaxing haunt that suits us so well. Especially one with an espresso machine modeled after the first coffee machine made at the turn of the 20th century. But don't take my word for it. Pay a visit for yourself and see how a century of experience tastes.
CAffé VErgnAno 1882 is located on 3850 fifth Avenue between University and robinson Avenue. Visit caffeverg- nano.com for the latest news in the quality coffee realm.