It’s a busy Monday morning in Prado Café, West Hastings Street, Vancouver. I’m here to meet Sammy Piccolo, four-time Canadian barista champion, three-time finalist at the World Barista Championship, reputed fighter, and owner of Prado's three locations—he’s a larger-than-life figure. As soon as we sit down at a table in the back of the cafe, I find myself asking whether Sammy Piccolo is his real name, or whether, like Marilyn Monroe, he'd just chosen the coolest name he could think of. He gives me a funny look. “It’s not my real name. Well, my dad’s name is Salvatore, my son’s name is Salvatore ‘cause I named him after my dad, but my name’s Salvatore too…so everyone just calls me Sammy.”
As for his reputation as a boxer, Piccolo explains it’s been slightly overblown: “I had a few fights, but I’m not a violent guy. I decided at a young age that I would try to work for a living. So I wouldn’t consider myself a fighter, but I am a lifetime martial artist.” For Piccolo, working for a living has almost always meant working in coffee.
Caffè Artigiano is still the first place that comes to many people’s minds when you mention the Vancouver coffee scene, despite the plethora of popular cafes—from Waves Coffee House to Timbertrain Coffee Roasters—that have opened in recent years. When Piccolo’s brothers, Vince and Mike, opened up the first Caffè Artigiano in 1999, 21-year-old Piccolo quit his job as a waiter and became a partner and barista at Artigiano. “I feel like we were a few years ahead of the time, even in Seattle, or anywhere,” he says. “Before that, you saw some nice latte art, but nothing like what we were doing.” Though his brothers sold the chain after opening five locations, Piccolo says he’s proud of his early contribution.
In 2004, Piccolo’s brothers founded 49th Parallel Coffee Roasters, a roastery in suburban Burnaby. Piccolo continued to work with Artigiano, as well as as an occasional representative for 49th Parallel, but tells me he’s always been “more of a front of house barista.” He doesn’t mention that in the years between 2004 and 2009, he was also a major contender on the national and international barista competition scene, coming second place to the world title on more than one occasion. He shrugs. “I like working with people and I like training people and I like teaching people.” And when Piccolo first walked into a coffee shop called Prado Cafe on Vancouver's Commercial Drive, he knew he wanted to own it some day. “It was one of 49th’s first accounts,” he explains. “It’s a 120-year-old building that used to be a hotel—the Queen of England stayed there.” He took over Prado in 2012.
Despite Piccolo’s competition record and obvious expertise, he retrained the employees already on staff, avoiding blazing in and starting everything from scratch. “I made a lot of changes there, especially with the coffee program, but I mean, I made one change every three to four months, so nobody noticed.” Unsurprisingly, Piccolo continues to serve 49th Parallel coffee in all three of his cafes, both batch-brewed and pulled from La Marzocco machines (unlike many Vancouver cafes, Prado focuses on espresso and does not offer pour-over coffees). Prado’s second and third locations both opened within the past year—Fraser Street in November 2015 and Hastings Street in March 2016.
Sitting in this newest location on Hastings Street, I’m struck by the baristas’ calm efficiency, the play of light from the big windows on 49th Parallel’s mint-green cups and saucers, the remarkable clean sweetness of the FETCO-brewed Kenyan coffee I’m drinking. Though Piccolo’s emphasis remains on preparing outstanding coffee, he hasn’t done any competition coaching with his staff. He says he trains some barista competitors from Japan, but he thinks that competition has gone out of style, at least for Vancouver baristas.
The cafe around us is full of students, older couples, businesspeople—many of them here for an early lunch or late morning snack along with their coffee. “I think the Fourth Wave of coffee is really good food,” Piccolo says, then asks if I’ve eaten, and, ignoring my protests, brings me two thick slices of whole grain toast with smashed avocado and pea shoots. The toast is delicious—nutty and tangy, and a refreshing change from the sweet things that usually accompany a cup of coffee.
The Fraser Street cafe is the real hub of Piccolo’s venture into food, offering a significant all-day brunch menu in addition to pastries like an oat raspberry bar, bird’s nest cookie, and a gargantuan “cookie with no name.” Piccolo plans to start doing weekend brunch at Hastings and Commercial Drive as well, but for now, he says, “If you want to have, you know, poached eggs on toast, or poached eggs, arugula, prosciutto, and ricotta cheese on toast, you would go to Fraser.”
When I do—go to Fraser, that is—barista Layla Osberg comes up to ask about my meal and to tell me that Piccolo is fun to work with. On managing a team, Piccolo says, “You know what? I’ve learned more from my staff than they learn from me. Who am I not to listen to them, or not give them opportunity. I think a lot of that is ego or something. I try to take care of them, best as I can.”