Thursday, August 17, 2006


Good News for Los Angeles: Caffe Luxxe in Santa Monica

I have an Italian friend named Alessandro. He’s a physicist at the University of L’Aquila, and he’s the kind of person who likes to speak in terms of numbers and probabilities. As in, “the probability that I’ll make it to dinner on time is 0.8.” Ale came here to Los Angeles for the first time last fall to do some research at Caltech, so one Saturday I picked him up in Pasadena and got to spend the day driving around L.A. with him, listening to his many observations about American culture. (First among them was that we Americans eat A LOT of chicken. Chicken for every meal. Chicken at every restaurant. Thai chicken, Chinese chicken, Zankou chicken. Chicken, chicken, chicken. Why do Americans eat so much chicken, he wanted to know. I don’t have an answer for that one.)

On our day tour of L.A. we went up to Griffith Observatory, and as we sat there looking down on the L.A. basin, Ale revealed to me that prior to coming to Los Angeles, he had done some research on basic facts and figures, and he had discovered that Los Angeles is approximately the same size as the Italian region of Umbria.*

How can I express what a strange sensation this knowledge brought? It was as if someone had told me that Los Angeles and New Jersey are exactly the same size. Los Angeles and Umbria had existed on very different scales in my head. L.A. is a city. Umbria is the equivalent of a state. How could they be the same size? Then Ale told me that L.A. has ten times the population of Umbria. It’s not just a city; it’s a gigantic region unto itself – a conglomeration of many small cities butted up against each other. We joked as we drove from Griffith Park to Santa Monica that we were essentially making the trip from Orvieto to Assisi. (Italophiles, do you see what I mean? Different scales! Nobody in Italy would make a daily commute from Orvieto to Assisi, but Los Feliz to Santa Monica is no big deal by L.A. standards.)

And inevitably the thought occurred to me: you’d think that in a city the size of Umbria, a city of 10 million people, you’d be able to find a good cappuccino. But the sad truth is that Los Angeles is a cappuccino wasteland. It pains me to say this, because I love Los Angeles with my whole heart. I think it is an amazing place, a city of very few rules and no overriding aesthetic, a city where you are free to be yourself, a city where you can literally find everything. Everything, that is, except a good cappuccino. (Perhaps not coincidentally, Los Angeles is also the city that gave birth to the frappuccino – a knockoff of Coffee Bean’s Ice Blended.)

There are a few places in L.A. that serve a decent cappuccino – Urth Caffe has been my standby for many years - but I can count them on one hand. By contrast, every time I’ve ever been to Umbria, they’re everywhere. Sigh.

So it is with extreme pleasure and great excitement that I report the arrival of a new café that makes a very fine cappuccino: Caffe Luxxe in Santa Monica. It’s located at 925 Montana Aveune, and if you can dodge the nouveau riche mommies who are likely to run you off the sidewalk with strollers that cost more than my Subaru, it’s well worth a visit. Honestly, this place is nothing short of miraculous. What can I say? It’s the real deal. The cappuccino I had was not too big, not too hot, and served in a pre-heated porcelain cup. Smooth, pourable crema del latte? Check. I thought I had died and gone to heaven. Or at least to Orvieto.

I’ve been to Caffe Luxxe a few times now, and the thing I keep noticing about their cappuccino is the way the flavor really mellows as it cools. It starts out with a very sharp aftertaste that I don’t much care for; I keep having a very strong urge to sugar this cappuccino after the first sip. But I keep resisting, and I never regret it, because by the time I get to the bottom of the cup, there is a pretty overwhelming chocolate flavor to it. So this is not a cappuccino that brings me pure joy from top to bottom, but so far I have found its evolution very interesting. And it is vastly superior to 99.9% of what’s available in the rest of Los Angeles, so there is true cause for rejoicing. (It’s worth pointing out here that café culture in Los Angeles has long been utterly dominated by corporate coffee. In fact, on Montana Avenue, Caffe Luxxe sits just blocks away from a Coffee Bean & Tea Leaf, a Peet’s, a Diedrich’s and three Starbucks.)

Caffe Luxxe has only been open for six weeks, but I am definitely not the only one who’s excited about it. You can read what people are saying about it on the LA chowhound message board, for instance. Or on the coffeegeek forum. And in the couple hours I spent there last Sunday chatting with my friend Keshni, a steady stream of people came in, chatted with the owner, Mark Wain, and basically did what I did: threw themselves at his feet and thanked him for bringing another source of good espresso to Los Angeles. Mark reports that he’s currently serving coffee roasted by a mysterious “friend” in Seattle, but he hopes to have his own roasting operation up and running within a year.

Next time: I keep hearing about some really good espresso joints waaaaaaay on the other side of town (like, all the way across Umbria). I hope to make the pilgrimage soon.

*I have since learned that Los Angeles County is actually 2,000 square-kilometers bigger than Umbria, while the city of Los Angeles is considerably SMALLER than Umbria. So I’m not sure where Ale got his numbers, but I think this just underlines what any L.A. resident knows: it’s not exactly clear where L.A. starts and where it stops, so when you refer to "Los Angeles," nobody's really sure what you're talking about.


okay, you rock. that's all i can say. great writing. great observations. much more articulate than i am at the end of a long day. and coffee tips at that!! keep up the good work, m'dear!
Wait...are you saying that a frappuccino isn't an authentic Italian drink?
OMG...your friend is so right on with the poultry observation! I mean , I know that we're supposed to be discussing capps here but why do we consume so much friggin' chicken?

Have you ever tried Literati on Wilshire...I think I remember having a particularly pleasing cappucino there...or was it a latte? I am not worthy...
I love your realization about varying perspectives on distance. When I lived in London many years ago, I remember being surprised to hear my flatemate say that she hadn't seen close friends from university because they live "so far away" from each other, a distance which was about four hour driving distance. Coming from Texas where we routinely four and five hour trips between cities once a month, the fact that this distance would be an obstacle to seeing loved ones really shifted my perspective.

I can't wait to discover Cafe Luxxe myself. Thanks for sharing your discovery!
OK, I've never tried Literati, so I will get on that...

And as a PS to the chicken thing, a friend of mine who lives in North Carolina just emailed me to insist that chicken is not an American thing, it's a California thing. Maybe so...

But isn't California the most important part of America anyway? HAHAHAHAHA!
I'm a big fan of Caffe Luxxe... have you tried their straight espresso? If you think that you only like coffee with milk in it, you might change your mind after tasting espresso as it is supposed to taste!

Ma chi Chattalandro?!
Beh, dobbiamo ammettere che è proprio un tipo NORMALE...!!! Cammina per la facoltà dicendo cose strane, come "How many records.....", "I don't give a fuckin' shit", "smashing the monsters" e, dulcis in fundo, "C'è Gianni?", "Ce l'hai?", "C'è?" "Hai una strana curvatura!"...
ALE, grazie per le tue "perle di saggezza" e...per i caffè e le tazze!!!
Ti vogliamo bene
I've been there. Place is a 9/10. Slightly expensive for the quality. Funky setting and (very) limited seating. If you're in the area it's worth checking out.
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