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Good espresso in Boston? [Split from L'Espalier thread]

What are the two places in Boston that have good espresso?

What makes it good, in your opinion? Apart from the coffee itself, the proper espresso must be accompanied by a lemon twist. (I still remember one time asking for a lemon twist and receiving a wedge. I have blocked the identity from memory.)

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  1. IIRC, it's actually "Espresso Roma" that comes with a lemon twist; it's generally served that way in (e.g.) France, Portugal, or Canada -- as well as most places in Seattle and San Francisco -- only if one specifically asks . . .

    Be that as it may, I am limiting my comments here to JUST the coffee itself. It was thin, over-extracted, and brewed too high a temperature -- meaning it was bitter, weak and tasted more like regular commercially brewed coffee (think BUNN) that was left on a burner.

    In fairness to L'Espalier, I have to say that none of the restaurants I ate at in the greater Boston area served a decent espresso while I was there. Now, this is by no means scientific nor is it exhaustively thorough -- but I was disappointed by every one.

    The only espresso I would call "excellent" was served to me at Simon's Cafe in Cambridge. And Peet's (Cambridge, Boston, Lexington) was its usual "very good" -- despite using a Cimbali rather than the normal* La Marzocco.


    * Normal for Peet's, at least as their California locations are concerned.

    1 Reply
    1. re: zin1953

      Ah, Jason - good to hear that you enjoyed your Simon's coffee! http://www.chowhound.com/topics/421284
      In your Boston travels, have you tried espresso in the North End?

      I did not know that about Espresso Roma, although I assume they serve it that way in Rome too! I think all the Italian places I ever went to in Baltimore did it that way, which is where I started drinking espresso. Actually Baltimore is a really good coffee town - if you ever end up visiting, make sure you try out the Daily Grind or Donna's.

    2. I'm no expert, but I always thought that the lemon twist was served alongside to cover up the taste of bad espresso, no? (Like at the italian restaurants of my childhood where dessert was always that italian classic "spumoni".) Certainly I never saw it in Italy and I'm pretty sure they would have chased me out if I had asked.

      1 Reply
      1. re: MichaelB

        >>> I always thought that the lemon twist was served alongside to cover up the taste of bad espresso . . . <<<

        If true, I wish more makers of bad espresso would know that trick! ;^)

      2. Sorry for the interruption, but please keep the discussion here focused on where to find good espresso in Boston. Discussions of why particular espressos at Boston locations are good are on topic, but to discuss what generally makes espresso good, please start a thread on the General Topics board, so that all Chowhounds who love a good cup of espresso can chime in:



        1 Reply
        1. The espresso from Diesel has really grown on me in recent years. Not sure if this is more a sign of improvement on Diesel's part or just my own changing tastes, but I've been consistently impressed of late. Personally, I'd put it roughly on par with Simon's in terms of quality, plus it's a much more comfortable place to sit, especially since the expansion.

          Although I hate to give the nod to a chain, I absolutely agree with Zin1953 that Peet's is the best in town.

          3 Replies
          1. re: finlero

            To finlero and zin, does this include the espressos in the North End? I have enjoyed the ones at Cafe Victoria. I have historically enjoyed them at Algiers and Cafe Pamplona, though not in a while.

            1. re: Bob Dobalina

              I absolutely love sitting in caffes in the North End in terms of the overall experience. Paradiso is my personal favorite (with its fairly dark espresso roast), but I have nothing against Vittoria whatsoever, nor Graffiti or Sport.

              Having said that, I've found that the espresso in the North End, while fine, just isn't of the studied, artisinal quality you'll find at a Peet's or a Simon's. It tends to be one of the big-batch Italian brands (Lavazza, Danesi) rather than anything small or unique.

              I also find that not all of the baristas in the North End are especially well-trained. Their espresso-making technique varies quite a bit, and cappuccino-making even more so (I've certainly had my share of scalded milk haphazardly dumped into a cup and served, often topped with the strangely standard-issue sweet cocoa powder).

              I think it's important to remember that even in Italy, there's plenty of average, below average, and downright bad espresso to be had, in addition to the occasional sublime find; espresso is a deceptively simple concept, with a lot of subtle nuances to master. But I can't remember ever having sat in a picture-perfect caffe in Italy thinking, "man, I'd be so happy right now if they hadn't pulled this cup so long". To me, while you can't beat the North End's Italiophilic atmosphere in this country (except perhaps for De Pasquale square in Providence), there's no truly great espresso to be found in the caffes on Hanover St.

              There are a few American-style coffee houses in the North End that are a little better in terms of espresso quality and consistency, but I have little use for them; if I want atmosphere, I'll go to Paradiso or Vittoria, and if I want superior quality, I'll go to Simon's, Peet's, or Diesel.

            2. re: finlero

              I'll have to keep Diesel in mind for my next trip East.

            3. I'm pretty sure it's an American invention to put a lemon peel alongside the espresso. Never once have I been served it that way anywhere in France or Canada. I've never seen it in any cafe/bar in Northern Italy either, and only rarely in some of the more Italian-American places in Manhattan. Lemons are native to southern Italy, so maybe it's a regional variation. There's also caffé corretto - espresso with a shot in it that my elder relatives seem to like. My aunt likes anise-flavored best, but I've seen cousins pour grappa in too.

              Locally, I like the espresso at Cafe Italia in Eastie best, but Cafe Vitoria's is good in a pinch. Diesel's ranges from great to disgusting, depending on who's manning the machine.

              1. I've never had espresso with a twist anywhere in Boston. Then again, I never had it anywhere in Italy either...

                I like the South End Buttery's espresso. The shots are poured well, the coffee quality is good, there's not much to complain about. As for restaurants, I can't recall one that really sticks out...

                1 Reply
                1. re: heWho

                  I have had the lemon twist I think at Vittorio IIRC, but you're right that few places in Boston serve it this way.

                  I have no idea about authenticity of the lemon, but I like it because it lightens the flavor a little, without the need for sugar. I never associated it with covering bad espresso, because I think the first time I had it was at a pretty high end place that had excellent coffee.

                2. 1) My place
                  2) Peet's (better than any I've had in the North End to date)

                  1 Reply
                  1. re: Alcachofa

                    >>> 1) My place <<<

                    Ay, there's the rub . . . I make much better espresso than at least 90% of the cafes and coffee houses I know (and 99.99% of the restaurants). This means -- and I readily admit it -- that my standards are high. But when I travel, I'm not taking my espresso machine(s) with me, and so I'm at the mercy of what I can find.

                    No espresso I had ***in a restaurant*** (vs. a cafe like Simon's or Peet's) on my recent trip to Boston and its environs came close to what I can regularly get in a variety of restaurants in the San Francisco Bay Area (where I reside), nor in Seattle. I kept ordering, and then kept asking myself why I was such an idiot! (I should have, for example, ordered the French press rather than espresso at Oleana.)

                    I live up the hill from the original Peet's (est. 1966), and frequently stop there. So I was pleased with the Peet's on Mt. Auburn, and even more so with the discovery of Simon's. But I've not found a restaurant in Massachusetts where I can enjoy an after-lunch or -dinner espresso following my meal . . .


                    Peet's Coffee & Tea
                    2124 Vine St, Berkeley, CA 94709

                    Peet's Coffee & Tea
                    100 Mount Auburn St, Cambridge, MA 02138

                    Simon's Coffee House
                    1736 Massachusetts Ave, Cambridge, MA 02138

                  2. The overall variety of coffee and certainly the Italian espresso served In Boston went downhill in quality, before much of an espresso culture took place.

                    I grew up drinking espresso from Caffe Roma in the North End, Paradiso in Cambridge. Cafe au lait from La Patisserie Francais on JFK street, the Coffee Connection in the Garage, and another French bistro between Central and Harvard. Plus Portuguese espressos, greek coffee which was all over the place, turkish coffee... The first time I went to San Francisco, I went straight to North Beach and was horrified that I couldn't get an acceptable espresso. (And while I was more satisfied in Palo Alto and Berkeley later on and enjoyed being exposed to Vietnamese and other Pacific rim coffees.) Today I would have the exact opposite reaction were I to come to Boston from the West Coast.

                    There have been a lot of changes in the North End, both with Italians (and some smaller places) moving out, plus for the most part the barista making your espresso isn't Italian (not that this always a bad thing, the best barista at Paradiso is Portuguese and is excellent). However, each of the caffes used to have different espresso brand and there were small import export companies that imported varoius brands. Some to this day import espresso direct several times a month from Italy (L'espresso is one example) like the importers of Buffalo Mozzarella, but for example another like Rino Gnesi were bought by Famoso Foods who has since been bought by another larger company. Some couldn't compete on price and have moved to sell espresso pods. If you are a cafe like Caffe Grafitti who I believe uses Danesi, its either buy from that larger import company (who probably keeps the beans in its warehouse for a long time) or send someone to NYC from time to time to pick it up from a fresher source. There are still smaller importers and if you go to other communities which still have a large Italian influence (Everett, Saugus, Federal Hill in Providence), there is more selection, possibly a fresher product and even more care. Someone paying North End rent, has so much to worry about and so many consumers are not that discriminating, that the espresso doesn't get as much care.

                    Almost all of the original alternative cafes in Boston (1369, Toscanni's, one in a basement in Central Square) sourced their espresso from Espresso Express in Belmont, with Someday (in particular) and Diesel breaking the mode. Simon's has upped the bar and I think caused the others to improve at the same time. I think we are freeing ourselves from the dark days of the Caffe Latte, but given rents around here and that most people are satisfied with Dunkins or Starbucks, a huge coffee culture seems to be a way off (I would place more bets on Providence in this regard).

                    I make my own espresso (home roasted beans, plus italian beans), which mostly satisfies me. I do like to go to Caffe Paradiso when Luis is there, Simon's, plus places that have different coffees (Pamplona has always been better for the experience, than the coffee). However, something special that Boston used to have was a variety that wasn't available in Seattle or Berkeley (I traveled regularly to both). Although the whole "cappuccino after 11am" thing in Italy is overblown, Italy has a wide variety of espresso drinks which I think our espresso culture has not picked up on (and were widely available here). Now even in Ethnic restaurants the coffee is brought before the dessert, where in a lot of places in Europe its drunk on its own. In part for this, I would rather have my Portuguese espresso in East Cambridge or bring back one of those Greek restaurants, than order an espresso at own of our fancy restaurants. We gained a lot from our closeness to Europe, as I am sure the West coast to the Pacific Rim, but some of those nuances have been lost in homogenization which can't only be blamed on Starbucks and Dunkins.

                    I have had the lemon rind served in Italy, but its far more common here in the US. Although some local Italian caffes did used to serve it, I was given it much more frequently in Providence for some reason. A good espresso doesn't need it, but if you like your espresso with a lemon rind, there are worse things to ask for than that.