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Danny Meyer's Maialino Revamps Coffee Offerings Amid Customer Complaints

By Mary Johnson | June 1, 2012 8:07am

GRAMERCY — Coffee service at Maialino, the critically acclaimed Danny Meyer-owned Italian restaurant across the street from Gramercy Park, has been elevated to a level of reverence more commonly reserved for wine.

After being barraged with complaints from customers who sent back their cups of joe, saying it was too acidic, the 2 1/2-year-old restaurant has completely revamped what they now proudly refer to as their "coffee program" — bringing a new blend and level of seriousness to the process of grabbing a morning cup.

The biggest change was to the coffee itself, as the restaurant ditched its San Francisco blend — which Maialino's head barista, Natalie Czech, described as lightly roasted and very acidic — in favor of a more agreebale East Coast blend.

The West Coast coffee "was very, very, very specialized," Czech explained. “It was so unexpected.”

In January, the restaurant next door to the Gramercy Park Hotel started sampling other companies’ coffee and settled on Counter Culture, which has a training facility just a few blocks from the the Flatiron District eatery.

“It just felt right,” Czech explained. "It's still a specialty coffee, and it's delicious, and it's got really interesting flavors."

As part of the coffee overhaul, the restaurant abandoned the initial concept of its coffee bar, which was originally intended to mimic the quick-hit styles typically seen in Rome, a city where coffee shops typically don't have seating, said the restaurant's general manager, Andrea Czachor.

"It's such a different coffee experience in Rome," Czachor said. "You go in, you shoot your coffee, and you leave."

But that didn’t sit well with customers longing to sip and savor rather than shoot and bolt. So the stools were brought back into the design.

"We went through some growing pains," Czachor added. "It became a choice of what's best for the restaurant."

The restaurant’s baristas, who function more like sommeliers, shepherd each perfectly brewed drink right to a customer’s table or barstool, she added. And Maialino is gearing up to turn a corner of the restaurant into a take-away coffee station in the coming months.

“People are starting to be a little more concerned with how their coffee tastes,” said Czech, who speaks scientifically as she discusses pulling shots of espresso.  “It’s definitely a good climate to start focusing on coffee.”

Czech said she and her staff of five baristas have participated in multiple classes and "cuppings" to gain experience and expertise brewing their new brand of coffee.

Each person now starts a shift completing a 15-minute process of adjusting the settings on the coffee equipment and brewing multiple shots of espresso, tasting each until the flavors are just right, Czech said.

And turning foamed milk into works of art atop cappuccinos or lattes is encouraged.

“For a whole shift, we are watching the coffee and making sure it’s right,” she explained.

Special cups with thick lips were also selected to complement the new java brand. Battenkill, a creamery in upstate New York, now supplies all the restaurant’s milk.

“It’s delicious,” Czachor said. “Even the skim milk has the best texture.”

The next step in Maialino’s coffee transformation will be to add a takeout coffee bar in the center of the restaurant meant to resemble a traditional Roman trattoria, with a casual, Italian style, she explained.

The restaurant already offers take-away coffee, but the dedicated bar area will add to the experience. Patrons will be able to stop in for a cup on their way to work and interact with the baristas, who will function like “coffee ambassadors,” educating customers who want to know more about the blend and the brewing process.

A specific date has not been set, but Czachor said she is hoping it will open in the next few months.