Caffe Greco, just around the corner from Chinatown, is a North Beach institution operating since 1988. It’s a classic Italian coffee shop, offering both the warm service and the quality, simplistic espresso drinks I expect from such spots. Brass rails, cherry wood chairs, and fake marble tables appeal to me in a way that only Italian cafes in US metropolitan areas can. The wall decorations could be more imaginative than vintage Italian food advertisements, but I suppose that’s part of what makes it classic.
Order at the counter, and make sure you have cash. If it’s a nice day, make use of their sidewalk patio while you enjoy your food and/or drink. All Caffe Greco’s espresso is made with Illy Caffe coffee. I opted for a house specialty, the café freddo Sambuca. I must give props to one of Caffe Greco’s long-term employees for making sure I knew what the drink was before he made it as Sambuca can be overwhelming if you don’t know what you’re getting into.
It’s an iced espresso with Sambuca and a dose of foamed milk. The glass might seem small, but the licorice brio of the Sambuca encourages lingering over equally small sips. For an iced coffee, the foam impressed–it can be a challenge to do well in chilled drinks.
The barista followed us outside to chat with my friend and reminisce about the days they used to provide Italian newspapers to their customers before the store that sold them closed. While they talked, my friend sipped her café greco, a cappuccino made closer to the American style with plenty of milk.
It was a working afternoon, so a second round of espresso and a shared slice of cake were inevitable.
Most of the cakes are similar in that the bottom layer is soaked in some sort of alcohol. The brasiliano was no exception, using espresso liqueur. Its cake texture gave lady fingers a run for their money in lightness. I’m usually a fan of darker chocolate, but I appreciated its mild chocolate flavor for a change. Both the espresso and mocha were good, with the mocha having the grainy texture of powdered cocoa that I occasionally crave.
Caffe Greco also serves eggs and waffles for breakfast and paninis and salads for lunch, but trying them will have to wait for another afternoon when I need a break from San Francisco sightseeing. I look forward to it!
423 Columbus Ave
North Beach, San Francisco
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