The space, in the lobby of the new KEXP studios at Seattle Center (472 1st Ave. N.), looks like the set of a sleek, modern sci-fi epic, a central command station surrounded by high-tech gizmos. They’re actually espresso machines, and it’s the first-ever café designed and run by Italy’s leading manufacturer of espresso equipment, La Marzocco.
The marzocco itself is a heraldic lion, the medieval symbol of Florence. It’s a gray sandstone sculpture created in 1420 by Donatello for the papal suite of the Medici palace. The “Marzocchesi” were the Florentines, in honor of their lion, even though there’s no etymology connecting them. The La Marzocco brand of espresso machines are produced at a factory in the hills northeast of Florence, in a community called Scarperia that was long known for its knives. In 1927, production of espresso machines began there as well. Bear in mind: the north of Italy, with its abundant streams of running water to power mills, grinding wheels and presses, has always been a hotbed (as it were) of precision metal-working.
Fast-forward to 1970s Seattle and, specifically, a sandwich shop in Pioneer Square called Hibble & Hyde. The co-owner was a tinker named Kent Bakke, completely captivated by the winged, copper-clad Victoria Arduino coffee-making machine in the back. Needless to say, there was no internet; there were no instruction manuals, either. Bakke was on his own, but he managed to crank it up and make it work, and on a good day he would turned out half a dozen espressos. His business partner suggested a visit to Italy, so Bakke took himself to Scarperia and met Piero Bambi, the gent whose family had founded the company; he returned with a contract as La Marzocco’s US importer. One of the first machines he sold went to a six-store chain just starting to serve espresso by the name of Starbucks.
Before long, thanks in large measure to Starbucks’ buying La Marzocco machines for all its coffee shops, Bakke’s company became La Marzocco’s largest distributor outside of Italy, with offices in the UK, Australia, Korea, and so on. Then, 20 years ago, Starbucks needed 150 machines a month for its new stores. La Marzocco’s Bambi was less than thrilled by the challenge of meeting an order of this magnitude and agreed to sell a controlling interest to Bakke and a small group of investors. They promptly opened a second factory in Ballard to meet the demand from Starbucks.
For a long time, there was at least one La Marzocco machine in every Starbucks store until, in 2004, the Mermaid switched to push-button devices from San Marco that required less skill on the part of the barista. But La Marzocco lives on. Bakke himself remains CEO of the company; his associates John Blackwell runs production, and one of his best early customers, Joe Monaghan, runs operations.
The café has a “guest roaster” program, starting with Stumptown Coffee, and a staff of experienced baristas to assure a high quality “guest experience.” Pastries, if you’re feeling peckish, from London Plane.
At the very southern boundary of Queen Anne, deep inside the work-loft complex at 119 W. Denny, there’s a new culinary space from Maxime Bilet, the enfant terrible of Seattle’s avant-garde food scene. It’s called Imagine Food. Bilet and his team will do recipe and menu development, then run the center as an event space in the off-hours. If it sounds like a lot to handle, you’d be right. He’s got a CEO, former software exec Erica Cris, to handle everything that isn’t culinary.
Replacing Tanglewood Supreme at 3216 W. Wheeler Street in Magnolia is Mura, an Asian eatery operated by Kay and Ted Kim of Bellevue. The signature dish is the Korean bibim bowl, but there are also gyozas, yakisobas, scallion pancakes, donburis, tofu stews, udons, short ribs, as well as barbecued beef and chicken dishes, accompanied by house-made kimchi. Underneath the fried egg of the bibim bowl you’ll find a protein (a spicy seafood medley, for example) as well as spinach, julienned carrots, daikon, and zucchini. And what fun! Your job is to mix everything up! An ambitious, extensive menu in a “hole in the wall” location, that block of Wheeler being an alley lined with dumpsters and garage driveways.
A final note. Maria Poma, born 89 years ago in Trapani, on the west coast of Sicily and for the past several years a familiar presence at Mondello Ristorante (2525 33rd Ave W.) in Magnolia, passed away peacefully in early May at the age of 89. She was the mother of Enza Sorrentino (“Mamma Enza”), the chef at Mondello, and the grandmother of the restaurant’s owner, Corino Bonjrada. Among her extended family she is survived by two other grandchildren and five great grandchildren in Seattle.
RONALD HOLDEN is a restaurant writer for Pacific Publishing who blogs at www.cornichon.org. His next book, “Forking Seattle: How a Modern American City Eats,” will be published this summer.