Decades before a new Seattle import called Starbucks set up shop in the Beverly Connection, or Intelligentsia Silver Lake opened its doors in 2007, a sea change in Los Angeles' coffee history began in Los Feliz. Ambrose Pasquini came to the United States from Milan in 1946 when he was 17, moved to L.A. in his early 20s and within a few years settled in Highland Park. The tool and dye maker began selling espresso from a small rented storefront at Sarno's near Hollywood Boulevard. Eventually Ambrose gave up his day job in Southern California's booming aerospace industry as the demand for Italian Cimbali (pronounced “CHIM-bah-lee”) and Faema espresso machines and coffee beans grew among high-end hotel and restaurant clients.
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.?
G.P.: It was very simple until Starbucks came in and established the paper cups, the large [sizes], the different types. They brought a lot of awareness. Our business increased. It was actually good for the business.
S.I.: So it was good competition?
A.P.: It was good, yes.
G.P.: It wasn't good for quality, because you lost the sense of the product that everyone falls in love with in Italy.
A.P.: Starbucks doesn't really care about espresso. They care about the by-product of espresso. Cappuccino caffe latte, all those things. At one time we had four cafes.
G.P.: The most famous one was in St. Vincent's Court. That was the one where I worked from when I was 5 until a teenager.
A.P.: I had Via Veneto then.
S.I.: What year was this?
A.P.: '61-'62. Then Bullock's was going to begin to import Italian items, and they wanted something Italian. So they came to Via Veneto, and they asked “what can you do for us?” They gave me a place to put the machine, and I opened a little café there. Very successful. People liked it and they said we'd like to keep the café even though it was [supposed to be] for two weeks.
G.P.: It was next to a flower shop.
S.I.: How long were you there for?
A.P.: Until Bullock's store closed.
G.P.: It became [more of] the jewelry district.
A.P: Then we had 7th and Hope was a nice café, we had quite a few tables and people coming to us. The people from South Coast Plaza came to visit, and I put a café there.
G.P.: That was there until 2001.
S.I.: But what did you serve back at Sarno's?
A.P.: We had pastries, cookies that we bought from Sarno's.
S.I.: When did you start making the home machines?
A.P.: I went to Switzerland and there was a company that made small machines for the house but they were not made for the market here. Here they want a lot of steam. So I made some changes to that machine, and I started importing that machine and called it “Livietta.” We sold quite a few. Those machines were made in Switzerland.
G.P.: It was really the first high end, pump heat-exchanger machine. You could do coffee and steam at the same time, like a commercial machine.
A.P.: Then in 1990 I made the Livia 90 — that's why it's called the Livia 90. That was made in Italy and is still made in Italy.
G.P.: Livia was the name of his mother, and my grandmother. As a nickname my grandfather called her “Livietta.”
A.P.: We still make a lot of Livias.
G.P.: We have three businesses, really. We have the home machines, the coffee roasting, and the commercial machine business.
S.I.: Do you give Cimbali input into what your customers here want?
A.P.: Oh yes. So Cimbali can make changes that are good for the USA.
G.P. and A.P., simultaneously: Oh yes.
S.I.: Do you see that as friendly competition? How do you best pay attention to what they're doing?
G.P.: You have to pay attention because La Marzocco did a wonderful job convincing people that only certain machines can make a good coffee. I think they're completely off the mark. They did a wonderful job convincing the [specialty] barista that that is the state of the art. So working with Cimbali we created a better machine. However, they do what the barista wants. That businesses is a small part of the espresso world. The number is a small group that's buying those. I think we've come out with some equipment [that's] better with less parts, more energy savings. Cimbali was the first one to go green.
S.I.: So why do you think they're preferred in more hard-core barista circles?
G.P.: La Marzocco was first and they developed a whole new world they could dictate, and god bless them, they did a wonderful job in that market.
S.I.: Does anyone use the old Pavoni machines with the levers?
A.P.: No, they died out.
G.P.: They're still made for some countries that lack water pressure or electricity. They're primarily made for African countries, they can work on propane and you don't need modern facilities to use them.
S.I.: What do you think about the super-automatics?
G.P.: I like it, I think it's the future. However, the expense of the super-automatic still lends itself to not being wanted in numbers like the traditional. We are adapting so much technology from the super to the traditional that the traditional is making a real strong comeback. With smart grinders — which has always been the problem of espresso servers — they just don't learn about the grinder and only learn about tamping, and tamping is one of the least things you need to be worried about. In fact, I can make you a coffee without tamping that will be the same as one with tamping.
S.I. You don't believe in the 30 pounds of pressure?
G.P.: The machines have been built with such close tolerances that the pressure created inside is much greater than the 30 pounds. But it does help keep the puck neater.
S.I.: What about Nespresso and those “lazy person's”-type espressos?
G.P.: They are getting better and better every year. Nespresso, Illy, Lavazza… Good crema, good taste. The problem is the waste and the per-cup cost is excessive.
S.I.: That's not encroaching on your business?
G.P.: Actually it's a start for a lot of customers.
A.P.: I would say in the long run it's beneficial. Because it makes people start drinking [espresso].
G.P.: And we're working on ours for capsules. You have to have a machine that you can give an intro. Cimbali has a very good name so they trust a machine, and we're trying to make it so it's not so expensive.
S.I.: You're good at adapting with the times.
G.P.: You try to. It's always going to change.
S.I. to Ambrose, specifically: What do you think of the capsules?
A.P: [Pause.] Not good. Well, there is room for it because I have to admit the fact that if a person doesn't know how to make coffee, they are better off with a capsule. With the capsule — let's say a scale of 1 to 10 — a capsule could be 7. But if they don't know how to make it, they make a lousy espresso they might as well use the capsule. But eventually that would promote to the [proper bean] espresso.
S.I.: Do you get a lot of law students from across the street?
G.P.: All the time. During finals we cater the coffee.
A.P.: Anybody can come in here and have coffee.
Jessica Ritz also writes about eating out with kids and other family-related food news at Taster Tots L.A. Follow her @TasterTotsLA.