Taking a trip to Italy via Portland’s Spella Caffe

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When visiting Milan many years ago, we did as the Milanese do, and started each day with a small espresso and a light, incredibly delicious brioche. Our typical breakfast spot was a tiny walk-in coffee shop with chipped tile floors and only enough room for a handful of people to order and then stand and eat their brioche while dipping it in a small brown cup of espresso or cappuccino.

I haven’t been back until this past week, when I walked into Spella Caffe (note the Italian spelling) in downtown Portland and was transported back to what felt and looked like one of those little closet-sized cafes on a street corner in Italy (I’ve heard that Spella claims to have Roman, rather than Milanese, influences, but oh well). Only Spella is sandwiched, literally, between two high-rise buildings on the bus mall in Portland.

Notes on Spella Caffe…

Location: Spella Caffe started out in a coffee cart a few years back, but is now located at 520 SW 5th in a long, narrow space with sunny yellow walls, a small counter and a wood-and-glass display case full of tempting baked goods. The café is only large enough to order or stand to drink your coffee, but on nicer days than the one on which I visited, Spella offers a few Italian-style café tables and chairs placed outside on the wide sidewalk.

Coffee: I first experienced Spella’s Italian roasted coffee at Alma Chocolate, one of the dozen or so retailers that carry the local hand-crafted coffee, and loved it – a variety of complementary flavors resulting in an amazing drink, hot or cold. Owner Andrea Spella roasts beans once a week in small batches and sells one-pound bags in the café for around $10, unheard of at most Portland indie roasters.

Cool stuff: It’s small, it’s intimate and it really feels like an escape to another world, complete with tile floors, retro logo and homemade gelato from an artisan maker in Eugene (which I haven’t yet tried). Plus, Spella Caffe-roasted coffee is very tasty.

Not so cool: Once you leave Spella Caffe, alas, you’re not in Milan but back on the bus mall in downtown Portland.

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Best iced-coffee of summer: Alma Chocolate’s cold-press-brewed Spella Coffee

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If summer ever arrives in Portland, there’s one iced coffee drink you cannot miss: the cold-press Spella coffee served over ice at Alma Chocolate. I dropped by the tiny chocolate shop at 140 NE 28th Ave. last weekend to pick up some treats and see some cool photos from a photographer I know well (and am married to…that’s the shameless promotion part), and the woman at the counter enticed me with the iced drink, brewed and steeped 24 hours with Spella Roast Coffee, which I had not yet tried. I am hooked, both on the method and Spella’s amazingly smooth coffee.

I followed up with Alma proprietor Sarah Hart to find out more about this wondrous refreshment. Check out the interview below — and definitely stop by for an iced coffee at Alma this summer or follow Sarah’s at-home instructions.

Q: I’ve heard of cold-press olive oil, but never coffee. Is it a new method and where did you hear about it?

A: I don’t think it is very new. Andrea Spella, who roasts our coffee, suggested we do it for summer drinks and so we did. It is really easy and so flavorful there is no good reason not to, other than the fact that we drink it up ourselves! It is at all the good coffee shops. I think Stumptown is even bottling a cold brew.

Q: Maybe you could give a nuts-and-bolts description of cold-press coffee — what equipment do you need, what kind of coffee, how much time, can you do it at home?

A: We use a cold-press coffee system made by a company called “Toddy” and essentially you just layer ground up coffee with cold water and let it sit for 10 + hours and then strain it. The toddy makes it easy because it comes with filters but you can easily do it at home with mason jars, a sieve and cheese cloth. Here are directions from the smitten kitchen:
http://smittenkitchen.com/2008/08/cold-brewed-iced-coffee/

Q: Is it best served cold over ice? I loved it that way, but was curious if anyone would ever heat it back up?

A: It is great either way. It is a concentrate so you can add super hot water to it for a hot cup. I do that a lot actually.

Q: How has the response been? Do you serve it year-round?

A: We really just do it in the summer. For an iced coffee alternative.

Q: Do you sneak any chocolate into the coffee? (It was so smooth and rich.)

A: No chocolate snuck in there (though it is good with a little dark chocolate on the side…).

Q: Anything else to share?

A: Nope, except that if you usually like your iced coffee sweet (I do, though I like hot coffee with just cream), I urge you to taste it unsweetened first. Because it doesn’t have the acids, it is so smooth and good on its own you don’t need sugar so much!

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