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So So Cal

Bean There, Done That

April 21, 1996|Dave Gardetta

The new La Cimbali Super Automatics, the HAL 9000s of espresso machines with their tiny computer brains and $20,000 price tags, have arrived at the Pasquini showroom on Olympic near Pico/Union--pumping out a miraculous 240 cappuccinos an hour, producing from within their gleaming, blinking guts the perfect creamy foam that makes the Italian men at Pasquini smile. Still, there are bugs.

It seems the machine's temperature gauge is off, resulting in lukewarm milk and a less-than-perfect cappuccino. "It's very volatile," says Guy Pasquini, who has two elbows in a Super Automatic. Pasquini has been the exclusive California importer of the La Cimbali machine--manufactured in Milan and widely hailed as the Lamborghini of cappuccino and espresso makers--for three decades.

Pasquini, whose head has joined his elbows inside the Super Automatic, says, "In America, everyone wants lots of airy foam on top of their coffee, and lots of milk in it. You can't see or taste the coffee. In Italy, you want a creamy foam that will mix into the coffee."

"In the U.S.," says Sergio Laganiere from down in sales, "I don't think people truly like coffee."

"It's not in the American culture," says Pasquini.

"That's right," says Laganiere. "Most Americans do not even know what an espresso is. They think it's a coffee. It's not. It's a process of making coffee. When people in Italy want an espresso, they say, 'Give me a coffee.' They don't drink cappuccino, unless maybe it's breakfast. Only Italian babies and Americans put milk in their espresso. Why? I don't know. You should go ask a social scientist."

Pasquini sits down at the showroom table. A moment later, his father, Ambrose, joins the group. Ambrose started the Pasquini company in 1957, when he realized that if he wanted a good espresso in Los Angeles, he would have to build the machine himself. He says beatniks had destroyed the beverage--serving almost anything (even hot chocolate) and calling it espresso.

After immigrating to America following World War II, Ambrose built airplane parts for Hughes in a large machine shop and espresso machines--to his wife's specifications--inside his small garage. Pasquini was the first company in the United States to produce a home espresso machine. It was designed like the professional machines and built to last a lifetime. Ambrose still makes them--they now fetch $1,200.

Ambrose is a Socratic figure among the Italian men at the showroom table. "The boom of espresso bars here in America," he begins, "does not mean the quality of coffee is higher."

Everyone at the table assents to this.

"The evolution of coffee," Ambrose intones, "is yet to happen. Starbucks has created a lifestyle based on glamour, not on good coffee."

Everyone agrees with this statement, too.

"You know what they should call the coffee they sell at places like Starbucks?" Mike Lakewood, a sales rep, asks the table. "The Big Gulp!"

The Italian men laugh.

"In Italy, it's barbarism to drink coffee out of a paper cup." Ambrose waits for quiet at the table.

"Today," he declares, "espresso is at the same point wine was 25 years ago, when everyone was drinking sweet wines and mass-produced wines. When the evolution of coffee finally begins . . . the American palate will become as complex as the Italian."

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