Cafe Paradiso: Come for the Coffee, Stay for the Jive

Cafe Paradiso on Art Walk night (photo by Werner Elmker)

I’m sitting outside Café Paradiso (a.k.a. Cafe P) soaking up the sun and drinking my morning cappuccino with owner Steve Giacomini, while he describes his first experience of coffee. “My mother opened a can of Yuban and the aroma was amazing, but after brewing—yuk! Even under cream and sugar.” That disappointment may have set Steve up to devote a good portion of his life to perfecting coffee that tastes as good as it smells.

Steve’s “all in” when he likes something. An astrologer once described Steve as a creative free spirit with the “chart of a crazy person.” Precisely what it takes to get an authentic coffeehouse off the ground in rural Iowa.

Steve’s passion for exceptional coffee was cemented in Berkeley with his inseparable friends, artists Bill Teeple and Lyn Durham. Over time, the three migrated from Southern California to the East Bay. According to Steve, “I tasted my first latte at Caffe Mediterraneum [a.k.a. the Med], and realized you could capture that complex coffee aroma in a cup.”  The Med thrived as a center for caffeinated conversation during the 1960s, as the meeting place for Beat Generation artists like Allen Ginsberg and Jack Kerouac, along with Black Power and Free Speech Movement activists. “Bill, Lyn, and I settled in there,” says Steve, “and the experience of hanging at the Med while so much was exploding around our conversations was one of the most important times in my life.”

A Leap of Faith

Eventually, the trio found Fairfield, where Bill and Steve each ended up with apartments in the Broadway Building and  retail space was available for rent on the ground floor. Bill approached the building manager about opening an art gallery but left disappointed when the manager said, “We want a coffee shop.” Then Bill introduced her to Steve as his “coffee guru.”

“I had no money, so I stalled committing to the space,” says Steve. The manager held it, sensing Steve’s passion. But one day she appeared with the building owner, who asked, “Are you in or out?” Steve jumped in with no idea how to do it or money to invest. “The whole culture we tried to create was about integrity, in food and in everything,” he says. “It not only had to look good, but taste good. No phony stuff.”

Barista Peter (left) with owner Steve Giacomini

Capturing that perfect coffee aroma in a cup takes attention to detail and constant focus. “But it was natural to me,” Steve says. “I was obsessed. Every day, I’d say to myself, I know I can make it even better.” And every night when Steve’s head hit the pillow, he looked forward to morning when he could “get up and try and make the best cappuccino ever.”

I asked Steve about the secret behind what CafeP’s assistant manager Heather Miller describes as “almost a mythology around our coffee.”

“It’s not the roasting, it’s not the equipment, it’s the passion,” he says. “It’s about quality and attention to detail.”

When Steve was overwhelmed with getting Paradiso set up in its original location, Meret, his wife and business partner, stepped in. “It wouldn’t have worked if it wasn’t for Meret,” Steve says. During FAIRfest 2014, Benson Ramsey and his indie-roots group the Pines gave an onstage shout-out to Meret and Steve, announcing Cafe P as his favorite place in the world to play. “We were so happy, Meret tells me. “I thought to myself, we’re creating a legend! It made me ponder why this place has been so successful. It’s because it was borne out of both passion and need—Steve’s passion for coffee and a vibrant space and this magical town feeling the need for a community hub, a soul. Voila! Cafe Paradiso was born and is now a thriving, happy 12-year-old!”

The Real Deal

While the perfect espresso is a critical component to CafeP, Steve also wanted it to be “a hub of creativity that draws people in. If you hang out here all day, writing your memoir, or if HuffPost writer Mike Ragogna is on his laptop interviewing an artist like Neil Young, I’m getting paid back. It’s fascinating to me that coffee continues as the catalyst for great conversation, inspiration, and revolutionary ideas.”

Cafe Paradiso now lives in its current location on the northeast corner of Broadway and Main Street with a sight line along Main Street to Bill Teeple’s ICON Gallery. Both serve to anchor Fairfield’s monthly 1st Fridays Art Walk. “Cafe P is Steve’s art form, and Steve is a perfectionist,” explains Bill, when I join their standing Wednesday-afternoon beer-tasting meet-up that provides an excuse to reconnect each week. “That’s what it takes if you’re trying to realize the ideal. You can get the general ambiance and coffee for the masses elsewhere, but here you experience the difference between an authentic coffeehouse and an illusion.”


Mike Dillon, Steve Giacomini, and James Singleton hang out at Cafe P, with Lyn Durham’s mural  of The Delphic Sybil in the background.

The Famous Mural

Steve credits Bill with “opening me up to modern art,” admitting he was obsessed with Renaissance art. That obsession led to the creation of the breathtaking large-scale wall mural that dominates and identifies Cafe Paradiso. Steve and artist Lyn Durham chose The Delphic Sybil by Michelangelo, which is painted in the perimeter of the Sistine chapel ceiling.

“The painting refers to the oracle of Delphi,” explains Steve. “She isn’t the oracle but the spirit or muse behind the oracle. It was the perfect choice, not too obscure and not as clichéd as God and Adam touching fingers, so Lyn went to work, painting a version, not a literal copy of it, then she came back and did it again when we relocated.”

And Then There’s The Music . . .

The mural serves as a backdrop to the Paradiso stage, a widely recognized music venue. I caught up with New Orleans musician Mike Dillon by phone a few days after he returned there from FAIRfest, Fairfield’s three-day music festival. Mike became the festival’s de facto artist in residence, not only opening and closing the event but rockin’ some after parties at Cafe Paradiso as well.

Concert night at Cafe P

“Looks like Fairfield is on the map,” he croaks with his might-have-just-woken-up voice, “I noticed Adam Shipley, a New Orleans promoter [Hep Cat Entertainment] who manages Soul Rebels, was there all weekend.”

When I ask him why he comes back repeatedly to perform in a small town in rural Iowa, he says, “Only a few small towns have a cutting-edge music scene and people who support it. Steve and Meret spearhead what can be an uphill battle to provide art that isn’t mainstream.” Mike’s FAIRfest sideman, bass player James Singleton, describes the experience as “a lot like New Orleans . . . a tight-knit community with everyone working toward something.”

Steve sees openness to different forms of music as “essential to staying young, open, and alive,” forcing himself to listen to a wide range of music. “It always pays off,” he says, and when Anaïs Mitchell showed up on his radar, Steve was blown away, calling her “the real deal.”

In turn, BBC Folk Award winner Anaïs Mitchell calls Cafe Paradiso “a miracle.” Anaïs was just starting her career when she first “came through and fell in love with the scene. The audience at Paradiso is totally unique,” she says. “They pay full attention. It’s almost disconcerting! I hear my own songs in a different way when I play at Cafe P.”

Celtic piper Tim Britton helped launch Paradiso as a venue where indie roots, jazz, and Celtic artists vie for spots each month. Tim explains Cafe P’s success: “We never book anyone who isn’t exceptional. If they perform here, they’re exceptional.” It’s a growing list that includes Anaïs, Ellis, Pieta Brown, Bo Ramsey, Marco Benevento, the Mike Dillon Band, and many more. “We’ve slowly become a place where rural Iowans feel comfortable getting a taste of something cosmopolitan in their small town.”

“I wish I had a dollar for every magical musical moment I’ve had at this place,” says Keith DeBoer, who runs CafeP’s Open Mic on Wednesday nights. Each week for the last 12 years, Open Mic has nurtured emerging talent and featured highly skilled local artists like Sharon Bousquet and the Skunk River Medicine Show.

Back to Coffee

Early shift barista Armagan Arktar tells me he’s made 200,000 cups of coffee over the last three years. Armagan is thoughtful while he makes my “mythic” double cappuccino with his signature double heart drawn across the top in milky foam.

“My job is wake up Fairfield each morning,” he says. “We’re like a family, we start the day together.” When I ask him about Oprah’s visit to Cafe P, he says, “I was working out at the gym when I got a text that she was here.” Oprah surprised everyone one afternoon when she came in and sat down at the bar to enjoy her cappuccino.

Helen Davis (mom to regular Cafe P performers David and Eric Hurlin) shows up for “not only for the best coffee I’ve ever had,” but for “friendship, fun, laughter, conversation, stories, and solace” with a widening circle of Cafe P friends, including actor-activist Peter Coyote.

Paradiso manger Ryan Hoagland, who is currently traveling in the Pacific Northwest, famous for its coffee scene, reports that it’s “a challenge to find the same level of quality and feeling of home we experience every day at Cafe Paradiso.”

Italian-born restaurateur Alessandro Scipioni and his wife Lorraine Williams serve Paradiso coffee at both Café Dodici and their adjoining coffee shop in Washington, IA. “We appreciate the consistent quality and flavor, and the fact that it’s organic and locally roasted coffee.” Liliana Rosano, a Sicilian journalist who splits her time between Italy and the U.S., appreciates how “Steve and Meret brought their love of Italy here to Iowa. When I feel homesick, I grab a cappuccino at Cafe P and savor my authentic Italian experience.”

Steve and Meret Giacomini provided a venue for musicians at Cafe P during FAIRfest. (Photo by Mel Sauerbeck)

You don’t have to travel to Italy or Fairfield to enjoy Cafe Paradiso’s unique blend of organic, shade-grown, fair-trade coffee beans, roasted onsite daily. They’re now available at Look for them soon at Iowa City and Des Moines food markets.