If you're strolling down Kelvin in Rice Village, you'll eventually encounter an upscale coffee shop that seems in line with the entire Village vibe—that is until you realize the customers inside are all speaking in Italian. And those customers aren't just one Italian family in Houston by rare accident. You'll notice group after group of well-dressed Italians, served by Italian baristas who are being ordered around by an Italian boss. This isn't a scene from Houston in the 1930s, but the newly opened coffee bar, Fellini Caffe.
Open just over a month now, this sleek coffee bar is cranking out Italian authenticity, from its cappuccinos to the pizzette (bite sized pizzas) on display. The imported Lavazza coffee is pressed through an imported Faema espresso machine, and then served up on an equally imported bar-top.
The trouble was taken to bring in this Italian bar-top to show off the pastries and sandwiches being made by Giuseppe Montoro, who made it clear to me that all of the fare was in the style of his native Palermo. Giuseppe is imported as well; he speaks no English, and his speech is more Sicilian dialect than Italian. While authentic does not necessarily mean quality, at Fellini Caffe the espresso drinks are well-balanced and the dessert drinks are nowhere near Frappuccino sweet; kudos. A note to my kindred snobby baristas: the milk was over-texturized on my cappuccino, and I liked it.
The number of greetings of "ciao" and "salve" that you receive upon entering the bar might lead you to wonder the cafe is profiting from an Italian gimmick. In reality, the place is so Italian it doesn't know how else to act. One can understand an Italian-style coffee shop opening up in Houston, but the great preponderance of Italian nationals in attendance is unexpected.
It's not that Houston has recently experienced a new wave of Italian immigrants; instead, it's the draw of Fellini Caffe's Italian-immigrant owners. From Sugar Land to the Woodlands, Italian nationals have been moving to the area to work for years, but as usual, Houston's sprawl has prevented a consolidated, centralized Italian community from developing.
Salvatore Abelice—who hails from Catania, Sicily—made a number of connections in the local Italian community, having spent the last 30 years selling and servicing espresso equipment in Houston. When he and co-owner Paolo Fronza opened the shop, they had a pool of Italian compatriots both locally and abroad to whom they could offer positions, and to whom they were eager to provide a taste of home. And like bees to sweet mascarpone, the Italian community has flocked to the hip new enclave.
Interestingly, bringing an Italian coffee ethos whole-cloth to Houston may not be as well-received these days as in the past. Current coffee culture in Houston and the U.S. at large is reaching a moment where solely mimicking the coffee styles of Italy is no longer the point. Instead, American shops like Portland-based Stumptown and Chicago-based Intelligentsia are the new model. This American Third Wave of coffee is more focused on the freshness of locally roasted beans, with lightly steamed milk for pouring delicate designs. The discovery of coffee terroir and distinct tasting notes is transforming the enjoyment of coffee into a wine-like pasttime of the American urban cool kids.
Fellini Caffe, while it does not represent Italy as a whole, is more in synch with the Italian tradition, which is to simply serve delicious coffee drinks; period. Dark roasted beans brewed thick to be mixed with milk or sugar are the norm, never unadorned and never bitter. Drinking an espresso is casual and communal, not a sign of coffee enlightenment. I do have a bias, but I'm partial to the Italian lack of pretension and focus on palatability.
So if you are looking for the perfect Italian breakfast of a pastry and cappuccino, feel like sharing snacks and drinks at "App-y Ow-er", or just finished watching La Dolce Vita and want to find your own Marcello Mastroianni, Fellini Caffe is for you. It's the closest you can get to the old boot without heading to George Bush International.
Fellini Caffe, 5211 Kelvin Dr., 281-888-6654, fellinihouston.com