The second floor of Methodist Hospital's Scurlock Tower is a makeshift town square in the heart of the hectic Texas Medical Center. On weekdays, doctors, nurses, patients, and visitors dart like ants throughout the mezzanine, between the bank and the post office, the salon and the deli, on their way to appointments, meetings, surgeries. It's the perfect spot for a coffee shop, in particular a coffee shop that specializes in quick jolts of caffeine.
Though there are tables and cozy chairs inside Al Vetro, the newest coffee shop to open here, the customers who steadily stream through its doors mostly take their coffee to go. Some, like the surgeon I spotted in full dressing gown, cap, and mask tied loosely around his neck, take their espresso Italian style: standing up at the bar next to the gleaming copper machine—a Victoria Arduino Athena Leva 3-group brought here from Italy—drinking the creamy shot quickly, passing the petite glass back to the baristas when finished. Al Vetro means "in a glass" in Italian, which is how you'll get your coffee here—unless you get it to go.
It wasn't always this way—and were it not for the dedication of owners Daniel Bilnoski and Ben Permenter, another boring coffee chain could have easily opened up here, in the location of what was once a floundering Seattle's Best. Independent restaurants, cafes, and coffee shops are tough to come by on the Med Center's sprawling campus, whose 1,345 acres of mazes and warrens are dominated by chains like Starbucks and Au Bon Pain. Al Vetro strives to set itself apart from those fast-food coffee shops not with its prices, which are comparable, but with a focus on quality. The beans are sourced from local roaster Java Pura, the milk from famed Texas dairy Mill-King. Even the water has been carefully considered.
"Houston water is not good at all," laughed Bilnoski, an oil and gas salesman by day who, as a native Houstonian, has earned the right to call the city's water quality into question. Though coffee connoisseurs tend to focus on the beans—as does Al Vetro, which has contracted with Java Pura for its very own single-origin La Pira beans, dried in the fruit for a sweeter, richer flavor—Bilnoski offers a reminder: "Coffee is over 95 percent water," hence Al Vetro's reverse osmosis system that feeds distilled water—with minerals added back in for flavor—straight to the espresso machine.
If Bilnoski and his partner Permenter read as coffee nerds, it's because they are. Both engineers by training, the two native sons—both of whom grew up together in Pasadena before graduating from the University of Houston—learned to love coffee in Italy, then applied their engingeering ethos to perfecting the Italian experience in Houston. Permenter, a Navy Reservist who now serves as Al Vetro's operations manager since leaving a career as a helicopter pilot in the US Navy last year, talks about making coffee as though it were a process diagram.
"It’s not just the water and the beans," Permenter said. "It has to be roasted a certain way, ground a certain way, tamped a certain way, pulled a certain way."
He's learned to pull the perfect shot and trained their team of three baristas to do this same, holding the long, slim levers of the machine down for six seconds before releasing them and allowing the pistons inside to extract a long, creamy shot from the espresso grounds. "It’s a long, long chain and if any one of those things deviates," he finished, "you lose the overall quality."
Bilnoski and Permenter admit that much of their general clientele isn't after quality, however—they're after speed and familiarity. That's why you'll find two menus at Al Vetro: modern and traditional.
On the traditional side, you'll find drinks such as cortados, cappuccinos, and espressos. On the modern side, lattes and blended frappes. A bright red asterisk underneath reads: 20 oz. available (jumbo size). "A big percentage of our clientele is looking for typical American Starbucks-style coffee, so that’s what we have under 'modern,'" said Bilnoski. "When somebody wants a 20-ounce coffee, we’re not in a position to tell you no. We serve both markets."
This stance seems to have served Al Vetro well so far; in the hour or so I spent there on an otherwise quiet Monday afternoon, there wasn't a single lull. Since opening in November, the shop has already gained regular customers, too, many of whom stopped to chat with Bilnoski and Permenter. "We have a pretty good, loyal clientele," Bilnoski said. "They’ve given us lots of good feedback and suggestions to cater to this market better."
In turn, the two men and their baristas—young women they hired from the previous Seattle's Best tenant—have turned some of their Starbucks drinking customers on to Italian-style coffee. "Cappuccino is probably the best gateway drink," says Permenter. But at the end of the day, he says, it's not their job to tell people what to like or what to drink. "Our job," Permenter says, "is just to make it really, really good."
Al Vetro, 6560 Fannin St., Ste. 245, 713-795-0011, facebook.com/AlVetroCoffeeandEspressoBar