23 April, 2019
For the love of coffee and blues
I used to think the best coffee in Italy could only be found in Napoli. So when I first tasted Gianni Frasi’s coffee at the Alajmo brothers’ restaurant, Le Calandre, in Padova, I was blown away. I asked the brothers, Massimiliano and Raffaele, if they could hook me up with this incredible coffee producer. I wanted only the best at Il San Pietro and this was, hands down, the best coffee I had ever tasted. They called Gianni Frasi, and he agreed to give me an appointment. There was one condition. ‘You have to be there at 7:15am, waiting for me on the second step of my roasting factory. If you are not there on time, you won’t be allowed inside.’
The night before the meeting, the Alajmo brothers, myself and friends, went out on the town in Venice. It was February, cold and foggy, like in the movies, but all the same, we took a speed boat around the canals, bar hopping around the city for antipasti tastings and shots before hitting the iconic Harry’s Bar. The owner, Arrigo Cipriani, was waiting for us and popped open a large bottle of his best Krug champagne, which accompanied a dinner of all the classic Harry’s Bar dishes. From there, we moved on to the hotel Monaco where the bartender whipped up some fantastic “negroni sbagliato” cocktails, then came martinis and on the night went.
By 4:00am we were hardly in fighting form and I said to Massimiliano, ‘I think we may have to cancel this quest for coffee.’
He told me, ‘No no! Vito, if you give up this opportunity, you will never have another chance with Gianni and you’ll never get his coffee in your hotel.’
So we jumped in the car and drove from Venice to Verona. At the time there was no speed limit, we were running late, drunk and speeding down the highway with all the windows down because the car had no air conditioning. I drank water the whole way, trying to sober up. We arrived just in time. Gianni was there on the steps waiting to open the factory doors.
Looking me up and down, and guessing what mayhem had occurred the night before, he probably thought, ‘Here’s some spoiled young guy from Positano with a five star hotel who thinks he knows coffee,’ and he decided to give me a hard time. He wanted to test my commitment and how much of my time and pride I was willing to sacrifice to have his coffee.
Gianni was a great orator and once he started talking, he kept you there listening to him all day. Coffee was more than a passion for him, it was a kind of obsession. He was an alchemist, transforming one material into something else, creating the perfect espresso that no other producer could match. He explained how he goes to coffee growers in Costarica, Brazil and Haiti and gives them the seeds for the best and purest coffee trees that have not been genetically modified. The original coffee plant has 36 chromosomes, while the coffee that most of us drink has just 16. He pays these growers five times more than what the big coffee producers pay and they grow his trees separately and only for him. The bushes are strong, you could water them with gasoline and they would still grow. This is the secret behind his thick, richly scented brew.
My rite of passage went on for two days. Gianni’s ideas were eclectic, jumping from one random subject to another, from pizza to Gandhi and everything in between. He was not an easy guy on first acquaintance. He really needed people to enter his world and understand the philosophy behind his passion. Luckily, Massimiliano had already warned me ahead of time, ‘Listen, you have to follow his rules and do whatever he asks of you.’ And so I did.
He would talk while seated on a throne-like chair, and we listened below at his feet. When Gianni was not looking at either of us, Massimiliano was grinning. He knew the initiation drama that was being played out, much like joining a fraternity club at university.
At the end of the two days, Gianni came out with a tibetan singing bowl. ‘I have to feel your vibrations.’ He said. ‘To see if you’re a person who gives off a positive or a negative vibration.’ He held the bowl over my left arm, the heart side, and ran a wooden stick around the rim to make it sing. When it started humming melodically, he said, ‘Okay, you have passed the last test. You have a good vibration. Now, if you’re willing to let me come to San Pietro for three days to train all your staff, I’ll bring my Faema Ariete E61 coffee machines. Once they have been trained, you can have my coffee.’
Of course I agreed, we shook hands and I left. Gianni came to San Pietro for three days with his assistant. He trained our staff and spent some time here absorbing the beauty of Positano and the hotel. Over time we became friends and later, I asked him, ‘Gianni, I understand pretty much everything about the two days I spent with you, but I really want to know, what was the deal with that Tibetan bowl?’
‘Listen Vito,’ He told me, ‘if somebody like you who lives in Positano and takes the time to come to Verona after drinking until 4:00 am in Venice, risks his life to drive here, waits on the second step of my factory at 7:15, listens to all my bullshit as I try to get into his brain and doesn’t react to any of it, what other excuse do I have if I decide I just don’t like the guy? That’s my last opportunity to tell somebody who passes all my tests, that they can’t have my coffee. I just tell them they have bad vibrations.’
Gianni had been making coffee for over 40 years and he was not willing to just give it away to anyone. He was a purist who followed his craft with his heart. He did things for love and passion, not money, and he would not compromise this ethos for anything. This was never made clearer to me than when he came to San Pietro to participate in a charity concert we were putting on for the Santobono children’s hospital. He was a lover of blues and sang in his own band. The Israeli singer Noa flew over to perform at the fundraiser and Gianni came down with his band to play the opening act. I remember he would gargle with his own wine that he brought from home. He was very superstitious and had to have his same glass, same shirt, same bottle of wine before he performed, because it was good luck for his vocal chords.
Although he played a fantastic concert, there was one small fly in the ointment. Gianni thought there was too much publicity surrounding the event. ‘Charity should be done silently,’ he told me.
‘Yes Gianni, I understand.’ I said ‘But Noa came for free, you are coming for free, the staff are working for free, an important company who doesn’t want to be named is paying for the stage, so 100% of the money can go to the hospital. But still, we need to sell the tickets, and for sure Noa appreciates if people hear about the concert.’ Even though we disagreed on that point, I appreciated his extreme sense of integrity and genuine altruism.
So I was heartbroken when I received the news last December 6th, that Gianni Frasi had died suddenly and unexpectedly of heart failure. He was a man who always lived life to its max and who inspired others to pursue their passion. There are few producers with his ethos left in Italy, which makes his loss felt even more keenly. My one comfort is the knowledge that Gianni’s legacy will continue into the third Frasi generation of producers with his son, Simone, who he raised to love coffee as much as he did.
I remember seeing Simone on my second visit to the factory, still very young, but already working with his grandfather, toasting the coffee. Before Gianni took over the family business, his father had been the one to select and buy the coffee beans, which he roasted in giant vats. When he got too old to see the beans well, he would run them through his fingers instead. ‘I know when the beans are toasted by their weight and the sound they make.’ He explained. I understood then that this history of pride and passion for their craft and the quality of the Jamaica Coffee brand we know and enjoy, will surely carry on for many generations to come.
And that is why every day at the San Pietro, we strive to achieve the perfect espresso that our friend Gianni Frasi would have loved to drink.