I fell in love with coffee 15 years ago, as a naïve teen spending three weeks with an Italian family in Florence. Prior to that trip, coffee fell in the same category as beer and blue cheese--flavors that made me feel grown up but that I had absolutely no taste for. My Italian host sister, also a teen but far from naïve, chain-smoked cigarettes and swilled strong, tiny coffees brewed stove-top in a Bialetti. Eager to impress this impossibly cool chick, I joined her in sipping espressos before school, and I quickly learned that coffee didn't have to be the weak, overly sugared drip brew that my dad drank at home. Coffee could--and should--be dark, earthy, smooth, and sexy.
With wistful images of these perfect Italian espressos in mind, I visited La Toscanella, a South Lake Union bakery and café that opened just over two weeks ago. In a city full of French and Japanese bakeries, La Toscanella promises an Italian experience, complete with handmade pastas, breakfast skillets with focaccia, and a beautiful array of sweets. And despite the fact that they're still finding their footing in perhaps the fastest growing neighborhood in the city, the café is exceling where it counts: the coffee and pastries are both delightful.
You may recognize La Toscanella's pastries from cafes around the city--the owners' wholesale bakery services some 50 spots around the city. And while the panna cotta, tiramisu, true Italian cannoli, and apple fagottino are standouts on their own, they're best paired with the top-notch espresso preparations using Stumptown beans. My macchiato--an espresso marked lightly with milk foam--had a tangy, front-of-mouth bite followed by a smooth, chocolaty finish. There was just enough foam to punctuate the espresso's crema, not so much as to confuse it with a cappuccino. Since Starbucks' caramel macchiato is such a popular drink, many people confuse a true macchiato with that milky, sugary beverage; La Toscanella, thankfully, does not.
Worth noting, too, is that the language of the kitchen here is actually Italian, and you can hear the musical notes of the language wafting through the dining room because the La Marzocco espresso machine is virtually silent. (A sign of a good barista as much as of excellent machinery, the quiet is a refreshing change from a typical café, where the familiar whirr of milk foaming and shots being pulled drowns out whatever '90s rock is playing in the background.) A cool marble slab acts as communal table overlooking the stunning pastry cases. Al fresco dining is an option, too, though the traffic of Westlake and Denny is not nearly as nice as one of Florence's piazzas. For a nostalgic taste of Italy, though, La Toscanella will definitely do.