IN A WORLD of what I think is far too much hype and circumstance, it's easy for a company to lose itself trying to find an identity. Too often it seems that more thought has been put into the slogan, logo or packaging than into the product.
So, I never thought I'd be one to say this, but, branding is not such a bad marketing concept. And it
is one that Academia del Caffe sorely needs.
Owners and partners Carrie Lapp, Massimo Taurisano, Nicoletta Pavanello and Max Tuccone have given Hausbrandt and Academia del Caffe a real shot of Italian influence. The design is very sleek and stylish, the menu and coffees are also very European. Now they need to infuse a little American consistency in the operation.
For example, once I learn that a venti is bigger than a grande, I know no matter what the Starbucks location, I'll have the same drink.
At Academia del Caffe, I often found myself confused.
Let's start with the fact that the original cafe, Hausbrandt on 207 S. 15th St., has a different name from the other locations. Each store has different hours and different menu items available. Want the lasagna or manicotti? You have to get that at the Penn Square location. Need a vegetarian option? Well, at the 15th Street store on a weekend, the pickings are slim.
But, there was enough to like to keep me coming back, and hopeful that the organization will give other coffee chains a run for their beans.
My favorite beverage is the latte ($3) which is best enjoyed in-house because they serve the milk foam in a tall glass mug with your shot of espresso on the side. I enjoy the richness of the imported Hausbrandt coffee that doesn't have the bitter aftertaste of most bolder beans.
One of my tasters tried a hot chai tea ($3), but it seemed too watery and I wondered if the barista needed some tea training.
You can buy the American coffee ($8 a half-pound) to take home, however, it's nothing to write home about, especially at that price. But that makes sense, because the emphasis here is on Italian coffee. Even the cup of Joe ($1.65) is really a concession to American tastes.
My advice is to stick to the Italian fare. When made with Italian ingredients, the paninis are generally good and reasonably priced at $6.50.
The Italian-style rolls are just enough bread to have crunch, but not overwhelm the other ingredients. Here, the ratio is just right.
My favorite was the Tirolese - speck, with buffalo mozzarella, mushrooms, and a hint of garlic mayo. Speck is like a robust prosciutto, and its salty tang was perfect with the cheese. And what's not to like about garlic mayonnaise?
While it's nice to have a whole-wheat option for panini, the turkey and blue cheese on whole wheat bread was a little dry and the turkey tasteless. Maybe smoked turkey would give it more zing.
The Caprese panini ($6.50) was the only vegetarian option at the main location on a Saturday. The mozzarella and tomato, while a predictable combination, should have been a great gooey combination. But it wasn't heated in the press long enough to really melt the cheese and there was a cold spot in the center.
The lasagna ($7.45) is obviously prepared elsewhere, but the noodles are far better than most commercial pasta dishes. Right now you can only get the pasta dishes (they also offer manicotti and cannelloni) at the Penn Square location.
Good news is, that location is near public transportation, so you can grab a slice to take home for dinner.
The Italian wedding soup ($4) had the "tinny" taste of soup made from a base mix. Not much you can do about that, but it wasn't even served hot, although I saw it ladled out of the steam table. These are two prime examples of how the operation needs to up the training program.
For breakfast one morning, I tried the almond croissant ($2.25) which is a nice option if you definitely want pastry that's not too sweet.
I have to say, the freshly squeezed orange juice ($3.75) hit the spot. The oranges were plucked from a basket and hand-squeezed right in front of me. Definitely a sip of sunshine on a cold morning.
The location at One South Penn Square is the largest and has a great vibe. The staff here is very knowledgeable and the service warm and hospitable. And, even though City Hall is across the street, you do feel as though you are in an Italian cafe. And with free Wi-Fi you might find yourself lingering like a European, without American guilt. *