The first patented espresso machine originated in Italy in 1901 from Luigi Bezzera, where it became a staple in the region. Decades later, Carlo Di Ruocco apprenticed with coffee-roasting masters in his hometown of Salerno, Italy. He would learn to speak the language of espresso and the art of roasting by oakwood fire.
In the 1970s, Carlo immigrated to San Francisco and noticed the lack of authenticity. He founded Mr. Espresso in 1978 with the hopes of bringing the tradition of wood-fired coffee roasting into the U.S.
He started importing espresso machines and building a clientele among cafes in California. It was not long before he began roasting coffee and wholesaling to those same clients.
“He was the first coffee roaster in the U.S. to use wood commercially,” says Luigi Di Ruocco, son of Carlo and vice president of Mr. Espresso. “We established our DNA as a company early on, which was to be a wholesaler and service the hospitality industry.”
With smoky blends such as the medium-dark Chiaroscuro and the sweeter butterscotch-marked Organic Golden Gate House Blend, Mr. Espresso became a favorite of Californian chefs like Alice Waters and Paul Bertolli.
Moreover, Mr. Espresso coffees have been finalists in competitions, including the 2022 Roaster of the Year Awards and the Good Food Awards.
Because of its success, Luigi always knew it would be advantageous to have a retail location, but he felt as though the timing was never quite right.
Things changed in 2019 when the company acquired a promising location in downtown Oakland. Luigi describes this as the moment when they decided to finally “take the plunge” on a storefront.
The onset of COVID-19 slowed things for the concept, called “The Caffè.” Construction did not start until 2022, and the doors did not open until this May.
While the pandemic brought its own onslaught of issues, including stretched construction times and supply chain shortages, Luigi was most concerned about executing the concept correctly.
Previously, he opened Coffee Bar in San Francisco with multiple locations and partners, but those did not compare to the pressure he felt with The Caffè. He wanted it to be perfect.
“The uniquely challenging part of [opening The Caffè] is that it is Mr. Espresso’s first café,” Luigi says. “We wanted to make sure we got all of the details just right and not rush through any decisions out of convenience.”
The Caffè’s layout is inspired by a typical Italian coffee shop—when guests walk in, they are greeted by a 17-foot square bar fashioned from oak slabs. There is no line for customers to wait in. Instead, they are encouraged to walk up to the bar.
Orders are taken faster and at higher volumes versus typical coffee shops.
“The intention was to be Italian-inspired in that regard,” Luigi comments. “We do feel like people are familiar and understand how to order at a bar, and that’s the most unique aspect of our design.”
Additionally, every countertop in the space is made of copper, and hundreds of pieces of wood adorn the ceiling, creating a distinctive appearance.
The Caffè’s menu represents the delicate fusion between the Di Ruocco’s Italian heritage and contemporary American flair. In Italy, it is customary for guests to stand at the bar and enjoy their espresso with a glass of water. This tradition is replicated in The Caffè, where water is served on the side of a single or double espresso. Luigi, however, makes it known that even though the company is rooted in its European heritage, it is still a Northern Californian brand.
The beverage menu extends to American favorites—cold brews and drinks like the seasonal butterscotch and golden latte with turmeric and ginger spice. Matcha is also offered in partnership with local company Asha Tea House.
“We have a rounded menu to offer people a wide variety of drinks, depending on their walk of life or what experience they’re looking for,” Luigi says.
Light lunch fare is served, as well as grab-and-go breakfast items. Pastries are provided in consociation with The French Spot, another regional brand. The food program was designed with the help of Jon Smulewitz, owner of Pollara Pizzeria.
Soups, sandwiches, and other menu offerings all have an Italian edge to them, such as the prosciutto cotto with stracchino cheese on pizza bianco Acme bread. Most menu items, in fact, are made by the shop itself. Ricotta, butterscotch, and horchata syrups are crafted in The Caffè’s kitchen.
After 45 years in the business, the Di Ruocco family wanted to be sure their first dive into a retail storefront went smoothly. Since The Caffè unveiled itself this past spring, feedback has been pleasing, according to Luigi.
“Customers are enthusiastic about [The Caffè],” Luigi says. “They are noticing when they walk into this beautiful space. We are trying not to feel pretentious, but rather friendly and welcoming.”
The flagship of the beloved old-school coffee roastery is starting on a high note, but Luigi is careful not to outpace himself.
He has already been approached with development deals, but he says it’s too early to look at additional locations. There is no timeline for the expansion of The Caffè; Luigi is in pursuit of improving what is already on the ground.
“We want to get this first place dialed in and successful first before going on to the next one,” Luigi says. “We are going to allow opportunities to present themselves to us, but for now, we will just see how [the concept] cooks.”