Cafe Review: Caffe Anello & Sogno Coffee

Sogno MenusYears ago, John Vitale grew up roasting coffee alongside his father. He learned to cook by watching and helping his mother and grandparents. “It was destiny for me to do this,” he says as we chat over coffee in the tiny dining room of Caffe Anello/Sogno Coffee, the restaurant-cum-coffee shop he owns and operates with his wife Alissa and in-laws Cheryl and Joe Napoletano in downtown Westwood, New Jersey.

It didn’t always seem that way, mind you. Even though he’d had a successful tenure as a chef during his undergrad at Elon, building a following by putting his own spin on the menu at a campus eatery, he never thought a hobby could be a business. Finding himself at loose ends after the 2008 financial collapse, he wasn’t sure what his next move should be, until his mother suggested he return to his first love.

John Vitale 2Sogno started as an online coffee retailer. On the last night of a honeymoon that took the Vitales to Paris and Tuscany, John decided it was time to open a cafe. “I had belief and integrity. Getting past the what-ifs is the hard part, because that’s self-perpetuating. And there’s the hours. You’re never done.”

It turned out that he needn’t have worried. Opened in 2012, Sogno quickly eclipsed the online coffee business. A year later, Caffe Anello opened next door, offering real Italian fare, “not Americanized crap,” Vitale laughs. It’s traditional stuff like you’d find at your mother or grandmother’s table for Sunday dinner — fettuccine carbonara, homemade meatballs, ravioli, and rigatoni Bolognese — with several of the ingredients sourced fresh from Sunset View Farm, a Tuscan-inspired farm operated by the Grinthal family in Sussex County, NJ.

Vitale PetrusoHe’s also been inspired, and spurred on, by Salvatore Petruso. More than a neighborhood butcher, Petruso cut his teeth running the Jefferson Market in Manhattan before settling in Westwood. “Having that kind of talent around the corner gives me the confidence to be creative, because there’s nothing he can’t do.” That goes some way toward explaining the coffee-rubbed steak and coffee-crusted ribeye that have both been known to appear from time to time (“The coffee brings out the richness in the fat,” Vitale notes).

John isn’t the only one experimenting. Head baker Allan Bastone takes the same eclectic and freewheeling approach to the selection of tasty desserts on offer. Some years ago, Allan was Balducci’s cheese monger, but at Anello, “I get to do whatever I want, and I love it.” That last sentence was delivered as he walked past with a pistachio cheesecake-filled chocolate cake that I would gladly have tried if my stomach wasn’t already filled to bursting with peanut butter and jelly cheesecake (the peanut butter is incorporated into the cheesecake, with a tart jam spread on top), a light and flavorful tiramisu cheesecake, and a crepe filled with rich espresso cannoli cream filling that I couldn’t finish despite a valiant effort.

RoasterAnd have we mentioned the coffee? Sogno’s coffees are sourced from Royal Coffee and roasted on the premises. Over the course of two visits, I sampled two coffees and Sogno’s espresso. My first encounter with Sogno was with the Costa Rican Fruta de Mar light roast. It delivers the scent and taste of hibiscus, a tease of bright tangerine acidity, and a clean finish. The Costa Rican Cafe Rosa was more assertive, with a more pronounced (but still restrained) bitterness that played nicely off a plummy acidity and a fuller body.

From there, I moved on to what may be the best espresso I’ve had yet. Right off the top, there are strong notes of dark chocolate, a trace of cinnamon sweetness, and the barest hint of licorice. I’m often in the habit of adding lemon peel (and nothing else) to my espresso. I didn’t have to here; there was a welcome, if slightly baffling, trace of lemon. As it turns out, this is no accident. Vitale explains, “Just like you, a lot of people ask for lemon with their espresso. So I experimented ’til I got a two-bean blend that gave me that taste naturally.”

Both the coffee and espresso were good complements to The Americano, a crepe filled with bacon, egg, and cheese that picks up where the coffee leaves off. It’s just enough of everything. The crepe is light, the filling perfectly balanced, and nothing overpowers anything else. In fact, “just enough” seemed to characterize everything here. On the one hand, I wouldn’t have minded a slightly sharper bitterness from either the Fruta de Mar or the espresso. On the other hand, once you tuck into a crepe and realize that everything harmonizes perfectly with everything else, that subtlety makes a lot more sense. The coffees here are perfectly capable of standing alone, but they’re also meant to complement the rest of the menu rather than competing with it.

Caffe AnelloThat sense of balance is a rarity. Culturally speaking, we’ve gotten into the habit of thinking that if something’s good, a lot more of that thing would be even better. The result — especially when you’re dining out — is desserts that are cloyingly sweet, appetizers that pile on the salt and spices, and main courses with completely lopsided flavor profiles. Coffee isn’t immune to this, as anyone who’s tasted a syrupy-sweet mochasomething or beans that taste like they were roasted with an acetylene torch will readily attest.

A good chef, on the other hand, is in the habit of coaxing flavors out of their ingredients, letting some elements shine while others are bit players with barely noticed supporting roles. There’s always that hint of something that pokes gently at your sensory memory, challenging you to identify it, and reminding you that for as subtle as it may be, the dish would be poorer without it. Coffee — good coffee, the stuff that’s carefully sourced, roasted, and brewed — does much the same thing. It takes care, but the payoff of that extra effort shows in flavors that you’d never expect from a humble pile of beans.

Vitale’s bristling with ideas. He’s in the process of writing a book filled with memories of Sunday dinners at his grandparents’ table, the lessons he’s learned, and the thread of food and family that ties together all that’s best in his life. There’s a private label line of olive oil and vinegar, a Food Network pilot in the offing, distribution deals in the works for coffee and locally-grown San Marzano tomatoes, and custom sauces. For all that, he’s quick to add that he still hasn’t quite arrived. “The biggest mistake business owners make is thinking they can walk away. They invest the money, but not the time.”

John VitaleHere, he pauses briefly, as if lost in thought. In a minute he’s back with a grin. “I came into this world with a reputation, and I’m leaving with it.” If his coffee, his food, and his customers — many of whom are regulars he knows on a first-name basis, trading greetings and wisecracks as they walk through the door — are any indication, it’s a reputation he can be proud of.

Postscript:

Visit Sogno and Cafe Anello on the web at http://www.caffeanello.com/

See installments from the web series The Butcher and the Chef, with John Vitale and master butcher Salvatore Petruso

What You Can Learn From Restaurant Coffee

commercial coffee makerThere are few things more disappointing than dining out and having a perfectly good meal ruined by lousy coffee. Most restaurants, cafes and diners manage to be at least remotely competent at coffee, but others mar a good dining experience by getting fundamental things wrong with their coffee. If you can learn (what not to do) from the pros, the guests at your next gathering will thank you for it.

There are a few reasons that restaurant coffee can be so hit-or-miss.

1. Inexperienced preperation: Coffee prep is equal parts art and science. Unless the place you’re visiting is serious about their coffee, your waiter or waitress may be the one preparing the coffee, and despite their best intentions, they may not be the best person for the job. The large drip machines used in many establishments are relatively foolproof, but if a cafe or restaurant is serving espresso or French press coffee, the wait staff may not have the know-how to get the best out of the beans. When the same person preparing your coffee is responsible for half a dozen other tables (each with its own requests and issues), it’s easy to get distracted and end up with coffee that’s under- or over-extracted.

2. Wrong preparation method: Beans “respond” differently depending on the brew method used. For some, a pourover takes out oils that would otherwise muddy the subtler notes the beans offer, and work best in a pourover or chemex. Others shine with the inclusion of oils and solids, making a French press or Kone a better option. The dark roast, heat, and pressure of the espresso process, on the other hand, brings out the best in some other beans. Since restaurants need consistent results, they’re typically relying on standardized beans, grinds and brewing methods. The taste that results is often underwhelming.

commercial coffee urn3. Lazy sourcing: Your average restaurant is using, well, your average beans. Bustelo, Pilon, Lavazza, Illy, and other mass-produced (and sometimes pre-ground) beans are common. Leaving aside the marketing hype, many of those commercially-sourced beans are selected with profit margins rather than taste in mind.

4. Lousy roasting: Yes, espresso is a dark roast. But let’s underscore that, shall we? Dark roast. Not charcoal. The problem with commercial beans is that very often, they mistake an overwhelming bitterness — with notes of bonfires or terrible industrial accidents — with quality.

Try our HiLine Times Square Dark Roast Nespresso Pods

Try our HiLine Times Square Dark Roast Nespresso Pods

5. Age: Diners are notorious for this. Coffee sits on the burner ’til the coffee is burnt, stale and syrupy, while the “works” of the brewer and pots aren’t always cleaned as well between brewings as they should be. What results is coffee that tastes old and stale even when it’s fresh.

What can you learn from this?

  • Buy good coffee, grind just before using, and brew it fresh
  • Experiment ahead of time to find out the best grind, water-to-coffee ratio, brew method and brew time
  • Take the time to prep and brew properly
  • Don’t let coffee sit on a burner. If you’re brewing more than you’re serving right away, use an insulated carafe to keep it hot without scorching it.

That may seem like a lot of work, but think of it from a different angle for a moment. You’ve likely spent a lot of time planning a menu, shopping for food, preparing everything, and doing all that you can to make it a meal to remember. Don’t let your coffee be the weak link.