As a business, you know you’re doing something right when, on a regular basis, your customers tell you that if you ever shut your doors, they’d leave town for good. Never underestimate the power of a good cup of coffee.
Well, espresso. Cafe Paradiso in Fairfield has been making mornings more chipper and afternoons more chill with their authentic, Italian-style brews since 2002. Twenty years! It’s truly something to celebrate.
Like so many small businesses have experienced, there were some pretty tenuous moments for Cafe Paradiso co-owners Steve Giacomini and Meret Amick. “So many times this thing could have gone down,” says Meret, “and it didn’t! This place, this hub of the community, seems to have a soul of its own. And I think the desire of the community, Steve’s strong vision, and maybe my energy, especially at the beginning, rocketed this place.”
Over the years, whenever coffee visionary Steve felt he was running on empty, Meret was there to infuse the business with fresh mojo, an adaptable attitude, and nose-to-the-grindstone commitment. Once married, now dear friends and great business partners, the two are a winning combo. And the place is still humming along, because through its many trials—and even a crosstown relocation in 2009 that required Lyn Durham’s (cheerful!) repainting of the cafe’s iconic floor-to-ceiling Michaelangelo mural—the inviting environment and the quality of the coffee has never wavered.
The Nuts & Bolts of Good Espresso
To make great espresso—the brewing method of Italian origin that Steve feels is the ultimate way of bringing the most out of the coffee bean—“you have to start with a love of the coffee,” Steve says, with no trace of irony. “But the most important element is the skill of the barista. Second is the freshness of the beans, but the skill of the barista is, like, 70 percent of it.
“In the early days, I was obsessed. I used to have this thought as my head hit the pillow, ‘The morning’s coming and I get to try one more time to make the greatest cappuccino ever.’ But it was this snakey, elusive thing—and I almost wore myself out trying. . . . There came this point when we, maybe for the first time, had a line, and I poured this double cappuccino and I thought, ‘It’s not absolutely perfect.’
“But I looked at the line and thought of Spock from Star Trek: ‘Logic clearly dictates that the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few.’ I decided to serve it. The customer was a guy from the Bay Area or something, and he took a sip in front of me. He threw back his head and said, ‘That’s the best cappuccino I’ve ever had! And I’m really into coffee.’ It was an important lesson. If you’re passionate about making great coffee, even the compromise is going to be on a pretty high level. It helped me to relax a bit.”
Cafe Paradiso’s signature blend of beans is roasted fresh daily, in Fairfield. And all in good time, the grind-tamping, shot-timing, and froth-pouring skills of their meticulously trained baristas become an art form. Steve and Meret also sing the praises of local organic Radiance Dairy farmer Frances Thicke. “He’s just always, always been there for us. And that milk is some of the best you’ll find.” Paradiso even uses reverse-osmosis water that’s been finish-filtered for supreme compatibility with mmmmmmm coffee.
The well-honed elements that make each cup worth savoring have slowly but surely made loyal customers out of folks from every corner of town—from university students and faculty, to the nurses at the hospital, to local clergy and retired professionals, to the old-school hardware-store guys down the block. (It took Rock 19 years to finally try a cup, but in the end he got hooked. “Don’t mess with my coffee guy,” he was overheard saying to another customer jovially harassing Armagan, one of the cafe’s stalwart baristas.)
Armagan Aktar was in his teens when he started at the cafe. He’s a grown-ass man now—and the guy you fervently hope will be making your drink. Ryan Hoagland, cafe manager, has also been a dedicated barista “ever since the old cafe—we don’t know what we would do without him,” says Meret. And Sasha, Cameron, Koda, and James, members of the most cheerful team of all time, are going to put a smile on your face even before your first sip.
Why a Coffeehouse?
Inspired by the community and connection he found in the landmark bohemian coffee shops that were a quintessential part of Steve’s young adulthood in Berkeley, California—“so vibrant with the energy of creativity and incredible conversations that changed my life”—Steve ached to recreate this kind of “home base” in Fairfield. It didn’t hurt that among his various obsessions (audio technology, swing dancing, Irish music, the Beatles, and even the Elizabethan lute) was an intense passion for espresso. He felt a need, and with Meret by his side and a cafe space that felt like a “now or never” opportunity, he went for it.
When Steve decides to do something, it often comes with a unnatural amount of consideration. Careful research, endless deliberation. The man will not be rushed—which, ultimately, is the vibe you want from your coffeehouse—and the kind of offering you’ll find at some of the best European cafes: A comfortable place to sip. Savor. Reflect. Suck out the nectar. Connect. Create.
A smooth latte or a piping hot Americano (the cafe’s go-to when a new customer requests “just a regular coffee”) is just the beginning of what is being quietly celebrated in this 20th anniversary year. Cafe Paradiso, which has been lauded as “Fairfield’s community living room,” is still gurgling with creativity. Take its regular Wednesday open mic night, for example. Hosted by Paulina Rzepkowska and produced by Tim Britton of Fairfield Muse, the night brings a rowdy but supportive crowd and wildly diverse acts. From operatic soloists to standup, and from patriotic singalongs to original hip-hop—the Paradiso stage has seen it all.
Fairfield Muse is the nonprofit arm of the cafe responsible for hosting intimate live concerts, another cherished contribution to the town. Over the past two decades, Paradiso has ushered in an amazing array of regional greats and world-class acts. NYC folk icons the Roches; acclaimed singer-guitarist Geoff Muldaur; Tony Award-winning songwriter Anais Mitchell; Iowa favorites Bo Ramsey, Pieta Brown, and David Huckfelt; traditional Irish musician Martin Hayes (who reportedly brought down the house); and Mike Dillon’s Nawlins-infused punk/jazz iterations are just the tip of the iceberg. From coast to coast, musicians have heard or know firsthand: there’s an exceptional listening room on the town square in Fairfield, Iowa.
People play here, and they work here. “There was an international ambassador recently writing her memoirs here,” Meret says. And Steve recalls accidentally interrupting a customer at the next table who was interviewing someone on his phone. Steve says, “He took the mic away from his mouth and he goes, ‘Oh. Um. One sec … I’m talking to David Crosby.’ Well! Okay then!” he laughs.
Novels, poetry, business plans, obituaries, and screenplays have all been written on this hallowed ground. In fact, on Tuesdays at three o-clock, a posse of creative writers has begun to descend on the place with their journals and laptops.
And Sunday afternoons still bring a happy hour (or two) of lilting live Irish music led by Uilleann-pipe prodigy Tim Britton. Ever try an Irish stout with a shot of espresso? It’s the perfect remedy for a chilly afternoon. Paradiso offers wine, local hard cider, and beer on tap.
An Authentic Cup
My favorite Paradiso story—one of Steve and Meret’s most cherished, too—involves a man from Italy named Marcello, who lived in Fairfield just when Paradiso was getting on its feet. Having had “the real thing” his whole life, he flat out refused to come try the Paradiso coffee. Every time he passed by, he would tuck his chin, lower his eyes, and “scurry” past the cafe in avoidance of what he was convinced would be a disappointment, despite Steve’s gentle invitations. This went on for months.
Steve recalls the day when Marcello finally came in and approached the counter. “Okay,” he declared, “I try.” Steve promtly prepared a cappuccino (one shot of espresso with a little steamed milk). Marcello took the cup, slunk off to the corner, and turned his back to the room. He raised the cup to his lips, inhaled, and took a sip. And then another.
The man burst from his chair and launched himself across the room at Steve, who’d been observing the process from afar. Marcello grasped Steve by the shoulders, almost shaking him out of his shirt, and cried, “HOW DID YOU KNOW??” Relief, passion, joy. The ultimate stamp of approval.
Happy 20th birthday, Cafe Paradiso. We don’t know what we would do without you.