Since the 80s, the original pushers of espresso consumption in L.A. have been based in an ordinary brick building on Olympic and Valencia, just west of the 110 freeway and directly across the street from Loyola Law School. You'd never know this is where five-figure Italian-manufactured machines are sold and repaired, and where beans are roasted in a massive 60-kilo roaster if it weren't for the roof sign with the baroque script Pasquini logo.
Now 83 years old, with many thousands of machines bought, sold and fixed, and five Southern California cafes opened and closed, Ambrose Pasquini still runs the day-to-day operations of the company with his two sons. And yet this isn't exactly an ideal environment for third wave purists. Turn the page for our conversation with Ambrose Pasquini and his son Guy to learn about how they've seen the espresso world change, what they think of the new kids on the proverbial barista block, and the pros and cons of capsule espresso.
Squid Ink: So how did the business get started?
Guy Pasquini: The culture of Italy is to go have espresso and go to work and he [Ambrose] was missing that, so he created one of the first sidewalk cafes on the west coast. He built the first espresso bar here in L.A. And then shortly after that a couple of restaurateurs asked him where to get the machine, and he started importing machines out of his garage when I was a kid in Highland Park. That's how it all got started.
Ambrose Pasquini: Moka D'Oro was the first café on Vermont, right by Sarno's property. I rented from him.
S.I.: It was in the actual Sarno's building? [Note: The building now houses Vermont Restaurant.]
A.P.: It was in the building. He had his whole business and a store next to it, so I took that store.
S.I.: Who were your customers then?
A.P.: We were invaded almost immediately by people from Hungary. Those people were espresso drinkers. They always ordered one "prezzo" -- they called it "prezzo" instead of espresso -- and soda water. Dewey [his friend who worked there] said, "They want soda water, why? Let me charge something." As soon as he charged a dime for it, they said, "Want prezzo, no soda water."
S.I.: What kind of coffee was available in the area then?
A.P.: The coffee at that time we'd buy coffee from people who made espresso.
S.I.: So where would you find it?
A.P.: There was Gaviña. Or I would get it from San Francisco. There was a place there that was also the first espresso café in San Francisco in North Beach, and this guy came from Italy and he started roasting coffee in a small roaster, and I used to get the coffee from him. Then this Italian lady was doing business and she met this guy and they went into businesses together. They went to San Francisco and they opened this place. It was called Portofino and they came with the roasting machine and with the coffee machine. They started roasting in North Beach. They imported everything from Italy and things they thought they couldn't buy here.
S.I.: When you started doing it in L.A., when did espresso start catching on?
A.P.: It caught on right away, it so happened that we had people coming from Hungary and there were other people. They began to know us as a place they could get espresso.
G.P.: To be honest, the espresso never really caught on, it's cappuccino that they want.
S.I. So more espresso-based drinks?
A.P.: It was always 2-3%. The rest was cappuccino or caffe latte.
S.I.: Who were your first customers for the machines?
A.P.: First came way later than that. Some restaurateurs came to us to have coffee, and started saying, "Where can I get a machine like this?" I said "well, just call somebody in Italy and get it." And then they could not repair the machines, so I went out and started fixing their machines and decided to import them.
I started with Faema. The reason I went to Cimbali was Faema went bankrupt due to various situations. The people from Cimabli were after me, and we've been with this Cimbali ever since. [Note: La Cimbali now owns Faema.]
S.I.: You had another job at the same time?
A.P.: I'm a tool-maker by trade.
S.I.: Where were you working?
A.P.: I was working for Hughes Aircraft.
S.I.: What were the first restaurants who carried the espresso machines?
A.P.: All these restaurants in Beverly Hills. La Scala. Harry's Bar. Ambassador Hotel, Beverly Hills Hotel.
G.P.: I remember as a child going with him on some of the repairs. And UCLA Kerckhoff Coffeehouse.
A.P.: Then after that I opened a place on the Sunset Strip where Le Dome [currently BLT Steak] was. It was called Via Veneto. We were there quite a few years. We were the first people to put the tables outside and at that time the health department would not allow you to put tables outside.
S.I.: They probably didn't know how to permit it?
A.P.: "What is this? Suppose a fly passes by?" "You go like this!" [Waves hand in swatting gesture.] So we put tables outside and then they would send the police or somebody. That went on for a month. Finally they gave up and we kept the tables outside.
S.I.: Have you followed how coffee culture has changed in L.A.?