The Bitter and the Sweet
A conversation with Carlo Di Ruocco (aka Mr. Espresso)
by Cheryl Angelina Koehler | Illustrations by Margo Rivera-Weiss
If Carlo Di Ruocco asks, “Would you like an espresso?” you say, “Yes, of course!” After all, you’re at Mr. Espresso’s roastery and showroom on Third Street in Oakland, and it’s a celebratory moment since you just managed to park out front without getting flattened by one of the semis careening in and out of the nearby port.
Then Mr. Espresso asks, “Would you like your espresso the Italian way?” and you say, “Yes, of course, and what exactly does that mean?”
It turns out it’s a smaller pull—one ounce instead of the typical one and a half. And while you learn that there’s some scientific basis for why the smaller portion tastes better, you’re more interested in the crema, that layer of golden foam sitting on the coffee’s surface deep inside the little cup.
Mr. Espresso makes a cup for himself, and you follow his lead, adding a half spoon of sugar, which sits on the crema for a moment and then craters down into the thick, brown liquid.
You drink it up: one gulp of bitter, a second of sweet. And that’s a pretty close metaphor for the life of Carlo Di Ruocco.
Bitter is when there is no sugar in Italy due to World War II–era disruptions that linger for decades. “Even fruit was taxed,” says the storyteller, who describes customs agents in 1955 looking for sugar smugglers posing as innocent young rail travelers like himself. Di Ruocco hands you the sugar bowl and says, “You wouldn’t put this out on the table back then.”
Bitter was the entrenched poverty of the Italian south, but sweet was the coffee culture that grew up within that: “Social life was centered on coffee. It was the only thing you could afford.”
Bitter is the life of a boy born in Salerno, Italy, whose father dies in 1937 when he is two years old, leaving him and six siblings with their mother who then works as a seamstress to support the family. “Sixteen hours a day the machine was going ‘chigga, chigga, chigga.’ She never smiled again,” says Di Ruocco.
Bitter is when those seven children have to go to work. A local farmer employs them, and they are paid in bread. If they are still hungry when the bread is gone, they eat a slurry of pea flour stirred into a cup of water. If the family is lucky enough to get some fresh peas, the pods are boiled in the soup pot to render out every ounce of nutrition.
Sweet was when the Allies invaded mainland Italy in 1943, landing on the beach at Salerno. “When the Americans came, we started to eat again,” says Di Ruocco.
The Americans brought K-rations, which were developed by an American named Ancel Keys, a man Di Ruocco clearly admires: “When he landed in Salerno, he saw that the people were skinny, moved fast, and lived a long time. They ate vegetables and olive oil. He got scientists to come study it.”
The Seven Countries Study that Keys and the scientists conducted in 1958 produced a concept of healthy eating now referred to as the “Mediterranean diet.” A good example is the meal of vegetables roasted in olive oil that Di Ruocco makes for himself when his wife Marie-Francoise is away. “It’s called ciambotta.”
Sweet is Marie-Francoise herself, daughter of a baker in Normandy, France. This warm, cheerful woman now runs the office at Mr. Espresso. “We met in the hotel in Nice when my family was on vacation,” she says. The young couple started their lives in Paris, where Di Ruocco worked in the elevator industry. Their children John and Laurence (accent on the second syllable—or just Laura, as they call her here in America) were born in Paris; Luigi was born in California. All three now work at Mr. Espresso with their parents.
Carlo Di Ruocco had an elder brother named Franco, who had immigrated to the Bay Area in the 1950s. As a political science student at UC Berkeley, Franco once gave a notable speech denouncing fascism. His brother can’t find his copy, but says they would have it in the Cal library. Franco was founder of Villanova, one of the first successful Italian restaurants in the East Bay. Living near his elder brother would be sweet, so Carlo moved his family here in the 1970s and took a job in San Francisco as an elevator technician.
Bitter (in a sweet sort of way) was an old friend from Salerno when he visited Di Ruocco in San Francisco and observed, “There’s no espresso here!” When this friend got back to Italy, he shipped the elevator technician some espresso machines that needed fixing. “They were simple back then and didn’t have all the electronic functions they do today,” Di Ruocco tells you. This seems rather modest, since the Mr. Espresso showroom and warehouse is full of complicated equipment that Di Ruocco repaired at one time or another.
“These days in Italy they are going back to using the old manual machines,” Mr. Espresso adds with what you read as a hint of sweet satisfaction.
Sweet was how Di Ruocco’s mechanical expertise and desire to enjoy a good Italian espresso with his friends led him to discover a huge hunger in the Bay Area for the Italian coffee experience. His moonlighting
Caffe Mediterraneum—or Caffe Med in the Berkeley vernacular—was one of the first places Di Ruocco outfitted with a machine. He tells you that the Med’s co-owner Lino Meiorin, a man from the northern Italian province of Trieste, had the credentials to operate steam machinery, and steam is what powers an espresso machine. (You learn when you look up Meiorin later that he also had the sense to add extra milk to temper the espresso experience for Americans unaccustomed to a mouthful of bitter. Thus the latte was born. Yes, it was here.)
By the late 1970s, Di Ruocco’s friends were asking why he was not doing coffee full-time. Mr. Espresso turns to you and asks, “How do you leave a $60k per year elevator job?” Remember, that was the 1970s.
Friends also thought he should do more than supply equipment—he should roast coffee! So it was sweet for everyone when in 1981 Mr. Espresso began roasting at the family home in Alameda. As a way of distinguishing his product, Di Ruocco revived the Old World technique of heating the roaster with oak wood: It burns differently than gas, producing higher moisture, which ensures even heat and a more consistent roast.
Di Ruocco says he quit the elevator job in 1982 and went into coffee. By 1990, equipment sales, rentals, and repairs had grown into a large business. That, along with roasting and bean-buying (now conducted by son John) put Di Ruocco in touch with the wider world of coffee. He went all over the globe giving espresso demos at gourmet food shows and interacting with the manufacturers of increasingly sophisticated equipment.
Bitter was Di Ruocco when he found himself working with a manufacturer who had cultivated an unpleasantly competitive and territorial sales environment. “I like to deal with honest people,” says Di Ruocco. And since he tends to make difficult decisions very carefully, Carlo Di Ruocco did what he usually does: He slept on the problem and thought about what his mother would advise him to do. When he awoke the next day he realized he should work with FAEMA, a manufacturer in Milan.
It seems excessively sweet that just as Di Ruocco is telling this story, an Italian FAEMA representative appears in the showroom. The two men are obviously close friends, but then you realize that Di Ruocco’s life is jammed full of sweet, dear friends. They kiss on both cheeks as the rep departs.
The interview hour is up, and you’re sure Mr. Espresso has plenty more stories you could scribble into your notebook. But as you pack up to go, you remember that you chose the one-ounce cup of espresso with a half-spoon of sugar, and there’s no question that you got a full measure of the bitter and the sweet.
Cheryl Angelina Koehler is the editor and publisher of Edible East Bay and author of Touring the Sierra Nevada, published by University of Nevada Press.
Oakland-based artist Margo Rivera-Weiss makes food-related art, draws daily, and teaches sketchbook classes every third Wednesday of the month at Women’s Cancer Resource Center in Oakland. Connect with them at margoriveraweiss.com, or on Facebook at Margo Rivera-Weiss – Art or East Bay Sketchers.