Everything about Espresso A Mano’s menu screams quality and care. They’ve got an amazing French press selection and their espressos are the color of dark, rich caramel. You’ll also find a mysterious lack of sugary coffee beverages.
Coffee’s like beer. You can casually enjoy both; happily skimming the surface and none the wiser. However, if it pleases you, you’re able to get incredibly involved in its conception. You can spend hundreds (or thousands) of dollars buying your own beans, roasting and grinding them and feeding them into a top-of-the-line espresso machine or into a ridiculous glass manual drip.
If you’re like me, you’re somewhere in the middle of “casual” and “hardcore” and, while you’re able to discern the differences between coffee and good coffee, and espresso and good espresso, you’d rather not go to all of the considerable trouble of making it yourself.
When I say good coffee, I’m not talking about Starbucks or—and Pittsburgher’s will know what I’m talking about—Crazy Mocha. While the Starbucks business model was integral in the introduction of coffee making as a career, it is consistently bland. Crazy Mocha, a local establishment that can be found in every Pittsburgh neighborhood, sometimes in two locations, is also guilty of this. They’re comfy and their menu is extensive but they simply do not put the right amount of effort into their coffee.
You could claim that Pittsburgh’s not a “coffee town” and most people wouldn’t disagree with you. Fortunately, while the city places no bids for Seattle’s title, Pittsburgh holds on dearly to a few coffee gems, nestling them close. So closely are they nestled that I sometimes fear they’re hidden away from the casual coffee consumers. In this series, I’ll be exposing the top three places to grab a good cup in Pittsburgh.
Where to go to get coffee in Pittsburgh?
A mile or so down the street from me is Espresso A Mano, one of Pittsburgh’s best coffee shops. Matt Gebis, the proprietor of Espresso A Mano, has roots in the Strip District’s La Prima, a coffee shop that makes an outstanding brew and even roasts and sells their own beans. Matt, thankfully for me, brought his craft to Lawrenceville. Located just down the street from sweet shop Dozen Bakery, Espresso A Mano has swiftly become the go-to spot for both coffee snobs and casual drinkers alike. I’m serious—every time I drive by the place is teeming with people.
I love the sign outside; it’s simple and clean and designed well. It looks professional without having too much of a corporate chain look.
The interior accomplishes this as well. The right wall is mostly exposed brick save for their drink menu and an interesting silk-screened, black and white portrait behind the counter. The ceiling consists of exposed, wooden beams that look to be original due to their antiquated ruggedness. On the other wall is more exposed brick with a neatly arranged row of paintings on wooden canvas. A giant, metal air conditioning duct adorns the middle of the ceiling. They pull of the urban chic look without it being a cliché. The building’s old, the coffee’s incredible; there’s nothing fake about the joint.
Seating is always an integral part of a coffee shop for me. I need two things. I like to be able to dig myself into cushioned furniture as I read a book and I also need sturdy tables with comfortable, straight chairs that allow me to bring a laptop and set it down on the tabletop. Contrary to their name, laptops are never very comfortable when you’ve got to balance them on your lap. Luckily, Espresso A Mano accommodates both. In the back are a few soft love seats and two sofas. Up front there are a bunch of tables and chairs. Situated in the corner at the front are two soft chairs to lounge in as well.
What about the coffee, you say?
There are two foolproof signifiers when judging a coffee place. Both of them involve espresso. Before I begin, let me explain the art of espresso.
Espresso is coffee and coffee is espresso; take any bean and grind it very finely and you’ve got some espresso. In order to produce a great espresso you need to tamp the grounds with just the right amount of pressure. Secondly, the water you use has to be at an exact temperature range. Paying attention to these things produces crema—basically a foamy head on the top of the espresso.
A good espresso has a deep, caramel colored crema on top. Rather than a uniform consistency, as is the norm for coffee, espresso has a thick crema that should actually be able to stain the cup. A good, substantial crema is what gives espresso its body. If you’ve ever had an espresso and were shocked by its acrid, metallic flavor, try one from Espresso A Mano—it’s a world of difference.
The second signifier reveals itself in the establishment’s café latte (espresso with milk). A good latte has a substantial amount of foam but should be of a silkier consistency than that of a cappuccino. Because of this viscosity, latte art is possible. Latte art is the practice of pouring velvety milk into the espresso in such a way that it creates an image. I usually see hearts or a leaves but I’ve found some innovative examples on the Internet. This practice is only possible when you’ve got substantial crema and a good, smooth texture to your milk. In order to accomplish both of these things, you’ve got to know what you’re doing and be willing to take the extra bit of time to do them. While the crème brule caramel color of espresso and the delicate latte art is cool to look at, they also both significantly impact flavor. Without them, your espresso or your latte will be incredibly bitter and all of the subtleties will be missing.
Everything about Espresso A Mano’s menu screams quality and care. They’ve got an amazing French press selection and their espressos are the color of dark, rich caramel. You’ll also find a mysterious lack of sugary coffee beverages (an unofficial third signifier when rating a coffee shop).
The ambiance is upbeat but surprisingly quiet for its location right on the bustling Butler Street. On a nice day, their storefront, a garage door, is lifted up, allowing everyone to enjoy the fresh air. I can’t admonish you for patronizing Starbucks or Crazy Mocha for a quick coffee fix, or out of necessity, but I challenge you to compare those types of establishments to the admittedly smaller places like Espresso A Mano. You’ll be surprised by the breadth a good cup of joe can have.
|3623 Butler St
Pittsburgh, PA 15201
Mon to Fris: 7am – 9pm
Wed to Thurs: 11:30am – 11pm
Saturday: 8am – 9pm
Sunday: 8am – 6pm