Monday, June 25, 2007

The best cappuccino in New York?

Via Quadronno, 25 E 73rd St. at Madison Ave., (212) 650-9880
Café Grumpy, 224 W 20th St. between 7th and 8th Ave., (212) 255-5511

I know. This is a futile exercise. I cannot possibly visit every café in New York City multiple times, divining who conjures up the most decadent milky foam. Cappuccino is serious business. For this reason I feel obligated to steer you towards the best two spots I have found.

The first is my perennial favorite, Via Quadronno on the Upper East Side. Tucked into a long, narrow space on a very bourgeois tree-lined block around the corner from the Frick Collection, this “restaurant” is basically a glorified coffee-and-panini outpost. Skip the sandwiches- granted, they are excellent, but far too expensive. We’re focusing on the coffee here- specifically, the cappuccino. Low, oversized straight-sided cups filled to the brim with sweet foam almost as thick as whipped cream. Soft coffee flavor and a drink so balanced you don’t need sugar. Nobody will ask you if you want low-fat milk: you don’t. As you perch on one of the tiny stools in the front area, sipping your perfect $4.50 drink and watching plasticized socialites squeezing their way past to eat salads in the back room with their friends, you will be glad you came. Take a moment to appreciate the almost-completely-authentic Italian café ambiance by the front door. The only thing that throws off the scene is the apparent staffing caste-system, where the waiters are for some reason all Asian. The service is surprisingly friendly given the neighborhood, and the coffee… well, you know how I feel about the coffee.

The second spot is Café Grumpy, in Chelsea, which comes in a close second. The cappuccino here is less expensive- $3. Again on a tree-lined street, this bright, simply-decorated space is dominated by the shiny chromed espresso machine, whence the magic originates. The cups are smaller here, more the size of a traditional cappuccino, and the foam is nearly as good. “Foam art” also features here, and on several visits I never saw the same pattern more than once. The quality of the coffee and the appealing simplicity of the surroundings are matched by warm, friendly service. The low counter makes watching the action possible. The barista works with speedy perfection, tamping and pulling shots, tossing those deemed unsatisfactory. I am inspired. I go home feeling confident I can do what I saw him do.

My cappuccino is not half as good.


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