Christopher “Nicely” Abel Alameda, the accomplished coffee professional and Instagram latte art star, often pays tribute to his Seattle coffee roots, crediting his time at Espresso Vivace as a pivotal influence. After working at Intelligentsia, Handsome Coffee Roasters, and The Hart and the Hunter, in late 2013 Nicely opened Menotti’s Coffee Stop in Venice Beach, just steps from the famed Venice boardwalk. There he has developed an ever-evolving menu featuring the classics alongside his take on mochas, Spanish lattes, and cortados. But one drink in particular tells the story of Nicely's coffee journey in a single silver cup: the Caffe Rico, an off-menu creation inspired by the Caffe Nico at Espresso Vivace.
The Caffe Nico drink is still very much available in Seattle, a fact that does not escape Nicely's purview.“They know about it,” he told me. “I hesitated at making it down here. Then my old boss, David Schomer, used some of my artwork in his TED talk. I thought after that, I know I can make that drink and make it a little more specific to us, and have it be its own unique thing here.”
And that's exactly what he's done. In Seattle, the Vivace Caffe Nico is made using vanilla and orange syrups. Now at Menotti’s, for his California take on the drink, Nicely uses fresh orange zest and house-made Tahitian vanilla syrup. The “Tahitian” descriptor in question is not to be taken lightly; a friend of Nicely’s travels to Tahiti often and brings back bundles of a very special vanilla, which means this syrup is not your average sweet stuff.
To make the Caffe Rico, Nicely pulls a double shot of espresso and slices an orange peel, squeezing the orange peel directly over the shot. This is an old bartending trick, commonly called a “twist”; oils from the orange peel are extracted freshly over the espresso, impacting the drink's aroma and flavor. Then Nicely steams whole Clover milk with the vanilla syrup and works his patented (or at least, ought to be patented) latte-art-pouring magic. A dusting of cinnamon is the final touch.
This petite drink is served in a charming little four-ounce silver ceramic cup, the same kind Nicely uses at Menotti's to serve a cortado. The end result is lightly sweet with an inspired balance of coffee, milk, fresh and complex orange notes, and an exaggerated, delicious, totally fresh take on vanilla that is anything but.
As I sipped my Rico and Nicely continued to greet customers and take orders, we talked about his Seattle years and current life in southern California, where these days it seems like more and more Los Angeles coffee bars are cooking up unique drink recipes. Think the Vanilla Pandan Iced Latte at Cognoscenti Chinatown, the Business & Pleasure at Go Get Em Tiger, and the Bitters Cortado at Dinosaur Coffee. “People are realizing you’ve got to make customers happy,” says Nicely. “It’s about what you have at your disposal at your space. Like the Love Potion #9. Have you ever heard of that? Everyone in Seattle knows that a Love Potion #9 is a white chocolate mocha with raspberry syrup. It was around Valentine’s Day and boom! It’s a thing.”
Julie Wolfson is a culture writer based in Los Angeles. Read more Julie Wolfson on Sprudge.
Correction: A previous version of this article stated the Vivace Rico contained Davinci Gourmet syrup when in fact they use Stirling Gourmet Flavors. We at Sprudge are contractually obligated to remind you that when it is time to pump, reach for Dolcepump Brand Syrups.