English alt-monthly Cult MTL came out with a bold statement about enduring Mile End Italian café Olimpico this week — in short, writer Benedict O’Neill decared that Olimpico’s coffee is pretty average (the full spiel is here).
But it’s not an indictment of Olimpico as a whole — the crux of O’Neill’s argument is that the community vibe and ambiance of Olimpico is more of a draw than the coffee.
“While a notch above a Lavazza or Illy brew, most of Olimpico’s drinks are standard Italian fare: dark, a little earthy, maybe a little charred — in short, not half as special as the place itself.”
O’Neill doesn’t get into it, but it’s worth noting the differences between more traditional Italian espresso (served at Olimpico, Caffe Italia, and elsewhere), and third-wave coffee (think Dispatch, Café Myriade, and Café St-Henri) — the Italian style is fairly unchanging, with seven grams of coffee for a single and 14 for a double. Italian espresso is more likely to use cheaper robusta beans, and it’s relatively consistent, with a bold, brash flavour, and a hint of bitterness. In some ways, it’s a blunter hit of caffeine.
Meanwhile, third-wave coffee aims to treat coffee in a similar way to wine and beer — with different flavour profiles that vary depending on where the coffee comes from and how it’s roasted. Third-wave baristas will also adjust the volume of coffee and the grind on a daily basis according to factors like humidity, in order to extract an optimal flavour from the beans. Third-wave is a much more recent development, but given establishments like Myriade are now turning ten, it would appear that it’s not a momentary trend that will quickly die off.
In short, Olimpico is the rougher-around-the-edges classic (and community gathering point), while third-wave cafés are the shiny new options. Some of O’Neill’s detractors on Cult’s Facebook complain that third-wave cafés are signs of gentrification, but the groups of tourists (another sign of gentrification) being shepherded around Mile End en masse this summer routinely stop at Olimpico. It’s a stand-alone tourist attraction, which complicates the whole gentrification argument.
Either way, it could be that Olimpico is seen as such a classic that some locals are almost blinded to any possible shortcomings. If that’s the case, it’s might be worth checking out some outsider perspectives; people who don’t have a particular affinity for Olimpico that may have less of an emotional tie.
Looking at Yelp (which, yes, has its share of flawed opinions, but also some accurate ones), there’s plenty of prraise, but still a recurring thread is that the atmosphere is the draw, more than the coffee.