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Amici Espresso

Coffee originated in Ethiopia and became a worldly commodity in South America. The most expensive coffees come from Asia and the most famous from Jamaica. Yet almost all coffee lore comes from Italy. That is where Achile Gaggia invented a piston-powered machine that birthed an espresso culture across Europe and all the way to the Italian North Beach of San Francisco, where it percolated the howling voice of the Beat Generation and the Hungry Eye of American folk music. Italy is where Howard Schulz experienced espresso magic that he developed into the phenomenon of Starbucks.

So, it’s really not so odd that a Des Moines man described as “a quarter Italian by blood, but 100 percent by self-persuasion” would model a new coffee chain after the purest of Italian experiences. Amici Espresso is a rare example of a family’s confidence in personal taste over the tyranny of focus groups and number crunching. Kyle and Sharon Krause love all things Italian. Kum & Go made them rich by catering to the tastes of the masses. Now Amici is their reward and their gift to Des Moines. With three coffeehouses and four kiosks opened in the Capital City in 2006, they have entered a market at the pace of caffeine cubed.

Until recently, Des Moines was off the radar of the warring industrial giants Starbucks and Caribou. Thus, independent coffeehouses here were far more sympathetic to local economics than those carpetbaggers. Java Joe’s, Zanzibar’s and Grounds for Celebration are beloved for their support of local artists, musicians, farmers and caterers as well as for their home-roasted beans. So, like many people, I resisted the idea that any new coffee chain could add value to that culture. Shame on me.

For starters, Amici’s espresso drinks are an epiphany, tasting like the Lombard gods intended — smoother and deeper, with full bodied, sweetly flavored crema. Amici’s espresso beans come from Filicori Zecchini, a small, 80-year-old family operation in Bologna, the culinary capital of Italy. In these days of arabica-fixation, they dare to include Indian robusto beans, which depart more crema, but the key, according to barista supreme Tony Sadiq, is that “they are sun dried and not roasted.”

If the beans were all that mattered, then the Filicori Zecchini mix would make a good cup of coffee in my drip machine at home. They don’t. They are dependent on the La Marzocca FB70, the state of the art dual boiler espresso-making technology, handmade in Florence. That, plus keeping the porcelain, which is custom-made in Verona, warm — so one never needs to steam it before dispensing the elixirs.

You can get all the usual coffeehouse drinks here plus some things you can’t find elsewhere: bicerini (layered espresso, hot chocolate and foamed milk), custom estivos (artfully layered espresso, cream and foamed milk). In Milanese fashion, they have a full liquor license, hence you can sip grappa, limoncello and Campari, or hot cocktails like caffe coretto, amazza café and the “Amici Nose Warmer” (coffee, Frangelica, Tia Maria, Bailey’s and Grand Marnier). The 12-bottle, all-Italian wine list ($14 - $22) features Sicilian discoveries from Sharon Krause’s travels.

In Des Moines coffeehouse style, Amici uses local vendors for everything else. Pastries happily come from Sweet Binney’s, fresh flowers from Boesen’s, dairy from Robert’s and regular coffee is roasted from green beans on the South Side by Howard Fischer. Steve Logsdon of Lucca says he’s planning to supply sandwiches and salads, but that deal isn’t signed yet. The architect of all locations is Brian Schiffler, the photography and design is by Patty Housby and Diane Cutler. There is a drive-by window plus live local music with no cover charge, a strong, free Wi-Fi signal and hi-def satellite TV with live football. Of course, that means Serie A (Italian soccer) not NFL.

Side dishes
Former Lucca and Sage pastry chef Hannah Dodd is now with Mystic Lake Casino. … New owners of Jesse’s Embers West, Irinia Khartchenko and Dmitri Iakoviev, are remodeling the place and the menu. CV

By Jim Duncan

Past Food Dude Reviews
Chicken Coop Sports Bar & Grill (7-20-06) South Philly's (8-03-06)
Delicious Hispanic Influences (8-10-06) TNT & the New MLK (8-17-06)
Jimmy's Bar-B-Que Pit (8-24-06) Old Time Flavors (8-31-06)
Lucca (9-7-06) Krieger's Sports Grill (9-14-06)
Huynh Ky BBQ (9-21-06) El Bait Shop (9-28-06)
East Side Grill & Vineyard (10-05-06) Cafe´ Shi (10-12-06)
India Star (10-19-06) Michael’s Restaurant (10-26-06)
801 Steak & Chop House (11-02-06) When Pigs Fly (11-09-06)
Spaghetti's (11-16-06) Wong’s Chopsticks (11-30-06)
Coach's Corner (12-07-06) Namasté (12-14-06)
Food Dude’s best of 2006 (12-28-06)  

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