Every New Yorker will agree that coffee is a main staple of the hustle and bustle City life. For a city on the move during the coldest months of the year, New Yorkers are thirsty for an artisanal delight among the parade of corporate, watered down versions of a good cup of coffee. If you’re on the go but still crave a cup of something authentic and high-quality, no worries fellow city-dwellers, I present to you a little slice of Italy called I am Coffee on 9 Saint Marks Place run by Giovanni Finotto and Caterina Musajo.
I Am Coffee is literally a little slice of Italy. The store itself is 100 square feet and built only from materials from Italy including granite cobblestone for the floor used in Italian streets. Co-owner, Giovanni Finotto, describes the unusual process of how the shop was built: “We went to an architect and he literally fell in love with the project. We built a box in the country side of Italy- the same shape and the same size as the store. And then we built the store in the box. When it was done, we cut everything in pieces and shipped them over in two boxes. In three days, we reassemble the store. So every single thing comes from Italy, even the screws.”
Despite I Am Coffee’s diminutive size, the rich atmosphere and the shop’s preference for older ways of making Italian style coffee fills customers with an appreciation for tradition. Giovanni and Caterina have an insatiable passion for their business and coffee. Their affable social demeanor and knowledge is contagious and people can’t help but to be drawn in by it. Every time I have swung by the shop, whether it be on a casual Tuesday or on a Saturday, I Am Coffee has quickly become a fan favorite of Saint Mark’s Place. Despite the popularity that the store has managed to attract, both owners have managed to stay humble and are very personable with every customer. They take pride in creating a social and interactive environment for customers by intimately discussing the process as they make the coffee. “I want them to know the project, the idea of the project…to be able to check the difference. This is why I have to talk and show them.” Says Finotto.
I Am Coffee started as I Am Wine (www.iamwine.it/en), a family business through Giovanni’s brother- Nicola Finotto and Uncle- Michele Finotto, who own an online wine store in Italy that is also artisan-focused and preserves traditional techniques. “The artisan is the key of access to the identity of the product because they work with it and they have confidence with it. They know the psychology of the products, you know?”
Giovanni speaks passionately about the 2 year journey he, Caterina, and his brothers embarked on all over Italy to learn the older techniques of coffee artisans. The journey included familiar destinations such as Milan, Naples, Bologna, Torino, and Rome. His interest in preservation of the techniques of artisans is both inspirational and grassroots at the same time: “We stop by, we work with them, study with them and no one say no because we’re not a brand of coffee. We are a project. A platform where we put together the knowledge, the culture, the products, the techniques, the skills…all the things that come from the artisanal tradition. It’s the only way to save it because if you write it down in the books, you just kill it.”
Giovanni himself is only twenty-six but is already a confident business-person with a love for his own culture that hopes impart to others as they sample the beauty of what I Am Coffee has to offer New York City. Born close to Bergamo and growing up in Crema, he is accustomed to small, old cities of about 40,000 people. “[In Italy] Most of the time you’re in a small city, you know everyone. We talk to each other. It’s a way to socialize, share a space, feel [like] you’re part of a community. It’s a real social moment.” When mentioned that perhaps it could be challenging to get some New Yorkers away from their laptops and phones, Giovanni agreed but felt it was all the more reason for him to be here.
He reminisces fondly of Crema, a foreshadow of where his traditional values have probably stemmed from. “It’s a very small place where social life is very slow but everyone dress up on Sunday, young people go to church and they hang out in the piazza. They go to bars. It’s a very old style city…and it’s still very pure. A lot of traditions are preserved.”
While New York is a large city that is far from slow and at the height of modernism, perhaps we can still learn from the traditions of the past. Perhaps some of those ways were never flawed to begin with. Every once in a while, New Yorkers could do well to slow down and chat with your local coffee store owner. As far as a message and marketing strategy that I Am coffee wishes to project to the public, Giovanni prefers to take a more organic approach and allow the story behind the store front to speak for itself