Starbucking

Terrefazione perks up the cafe set but skimps on sustenance

Torrefazione Italia, located just in front of the pricey kitchen-accessory haunt Sur La Table, is a merchandise mart for the swanky caffeinated set. Café trinkets are everywhere -- packaged, priced, and primped for purchase. Gift sets clutter the café's counter surfaces and nooks. Coffee-sampling kits clog the checkout counter.

A key merchandising component at Torrefazione is Deruta Italian ceramic, attractive hand-painted pieces that are bright, thick, and large. Big cups. Expansive saucers. A Deruta floor planter near the door is actually a hand-painted column capped with an urn.

And the stuff isn't cheap. A cappuccino kit with two cups and saucers and a pound of coffee is 70 bucks. A pound of coffee and a bean canister rings in at $50. There's also a caffe shakerato kit, a boxed set with a metal martini shaker, two martini glasses, and a pound of coffee. With this kit you can create a chilly coffee cocktail by shaking two shots of espresso with ice in the shaker and then dumping the brown, chunky fluid in a glass. That's $40.

But the centerpiece of this little café is the coffee. Pound and half-pound bags of it are clustered everywhere, custom blends that range from the light-roasted Milano to the heavy, thick Palermo.

That's how Torrefazione Italia got its start -- as a café that blended its own coffee. Owner Umberto Bizzarri started the café back in 1986 in Seattle's Pioneer Square, and today, the spots are cropping up in Portland, Chicago, San Francisco, and Vancouver.

And the coffee is good. Lattes and cappuccinos are rich, deep, and clean. Plain brewed coffee is robust, but without harsh acidity or palate-slapping bitterness.

Torrefazione Italia also has pastries, scones, biscotti, and panini sandwiches displayed in a glass case plugged into a curving wood, marble-topped service counter. One-pound bags of coffee are perched over the counter surface with little Deruta bowls of the corresponding bean blends in front of them.

The sandwiches are good for the most part. Panino TI -- Mortadella sausage, salami, provolone, and roasted bell peppers on a thick, chewy roll -- was the best of the bunch: simultaneously hearty and lively. Cristoforo Columbo -- a sandwich with tuna meat darkened with balsamic vinegar and scattered with artichoke, capers, olives, and baby spinach -- was also good.

But a lot of the sandwiches suffered from skimpiness. Parma, a simple thing with prosciutto, brie, and arugula, had just a single stingy slice of this Italian salt-cured ham. Cornetto dei Barista, a sandwich prepared with Black Forest ham, Swiss cheese, Roma tomatoes, and greens on a croissant, was slim on ham and had just one skinny slice of tomato.

The sandwiches are grilled in a hot press, which gives them a hearty warmth, but it also flattens them. The croissant looked as if it had been run over by a dump truck, the grill singe giving the top distinct tread marks.

Other offerings slipped further. At $5.50, the skimpy fresh mozzarella salad with Roma tomatoes and red onion was a bit of a gouge. An apple turnover was dry and listless. Spinach and feta quiche was pasty, and the crust was seething with shortening. Better was the tomato-basil quiche: light and flavorful with a delicate egg custard.

Torrefazione is a brisk, bright space with blond wood chairs and tables, along with a cozy area with fat leather couches and chairs. Which makes it a good spot to shake the grog from your constitution.

 
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