.The Caffè

Mr. Espresso opens its first cafe

In 1978, Luigi Di Ruocco’s father, Carlo, opened Mr. Espresso, a coffee-roasting company and wholesale distributor based in Oakland. Forty-five years later Luigi and his siblings, John and Laura, have opened The Caffè, Mr. Espresso’s first cafe.

For a half-century, Mr. Espresso has held a unique place in the Bay Area’s coffee ecosystem. The Di Ruoccos use oak wood to roast their beans, rather than gas. The company also imports and distributes Faema espresso machines.

Luigi Di Ruocco said that opening a brick-and-mortar cafe is long overdue. “In an ideal world, we would have already opened one by now,” he said. As their wholesale business continued to grow under his father’s guidance, the timing was never quite right to open a cafe.

The right opportunity finally arrived in 2019 when downtown Oakland was thriving. Di Ruocco and his brother checked out an available space on Broadway. “It was exciting because Oakland was having its day,” he said. It seemed like the right time at the right place—only a few blocks away from the Mr. Espresso office and showroom on Third Street.

The Caffè, on Broadway and 11th, isn’t your average American coffee shop. The Di Ruocco clan decided to model it after an Italian “bar,” which Di Ruocco told me means something different to Italians. “A bar is a place where you can get stuff throughout the day,” he said. In the morning a bar offers coffee and pastries, at lunchtime it offers a quick bite to eat and in the evening it has a happy hour. “It’s a place to refuel or a rest spot,” he said.

The payment system also differs in Italy. “Normally you pay a cashier by the door. They’ll give you a receipt and you walk over to the bar where you order an espresso,” Di Ruocco said. But he didn’t believe that approach would translate here. At The Caffè, customers go directly to the central bar to place an order. Once served, they stand at the bar rather than settling in for an hour at a table.

The downtown location of the cafe was designed pre-pandemic, with an office-going population in mind. “Customers usually come in and go fairly quickly in downtown areas,” Di Ruocco said. But a month after opening its doors, people are ambling by and adjusting to standing and ordering at the bar. “We have one or two employees who are helping people as they walk in,” he said. They encourage customers to approach the bar rather than stand in a line.

The Caffè offers traditional Italian coffee and beverages but also aims to represent some of the coffee drinks served in a contemporary American coffee house. “We have a foot in both worlds,” Di Ruocco said. Before we spoke, he’d ordered a golden milk spice latte on his routine morning stop at the cafe.

When the steamed milk hits a blend of spices—most commonly turmeric and ginger—the drink turns a bright golden-yellow color. The Di Ruocco family buys its spices from the Oaktown Spice Shop, incorporating their blends into espresso drinks. The Caffè’s golden latte contains an ounce and a half of the spice mix and honey.

“Then we take that mixture, combine it with a double shot of espresso and steamed milk to make a 12-oz. drink,” Di Ruocco said. He likes the spicy-and-sweet flavor profile of the golden latte. “It’s probably the drink I consume the most,” he said. “I also like its anti-inflammatory properties.” But now that The Caffè is open, he regularly tries various drinks on the menu to ensure they’re being made in a way that’s consistent with the original concept.

Carlo Di Ruocco, who founded Mr. Espresso through hard work and dedication, infused it with his Italian roots and heritage. But the company’s culture has also been shaped by the Bay Area and its location in Northern California. “All the values and ethos come from operating within this market,” Luigi Di Ruocco said. His main role is marketing and sales. His sister, Laura, is in charge of customer service and operations. And their brother, John, procures green coffee and also oversees the roasting. Luigi added, “We’re still a family business, so everyone wears multiple hats.”

The Caffè by Mr. Espresso, open Mon–Fri 7am to 4pm and Sat 9am to 3pm. 1120 Broadway, Oakland. [email protected]. thecaffeoak.com.

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