Quiet Italian chatter blankets the café as a handful of men sip espressos in mid-morning.
In a few hours, the afternoon rush will begin and those same men will be playing cards and talking loudly in their native tongue.
La Fontana Caffe has been at the corner of Boundary and Hastings for a decade, and owner Gianfranco (John) Latrofa says it’s always enjoyed a loyal base of customers from the Italian community.
“Hearing from the (regular customers) that we have here, they felt a little bit pushed out from Commercial Drive,” Latrofa says, referring to Vancouver’s traditional Italian neighbourhood. “They didn’t want to get a coffee and leave. They wanted to hang out all day and chat with the next guy coming in, so they feel at home here.”
He says the café’s regulars now order coffee just by motioning their hands. Holding the thumb and pointer finger close together means they want it corto — a short espresso — while holding the digits further apart means they want it lungo — a long espresso.
La Fontana regular Paul Meler says the beverages offered at most coffee houses in the Lower Mainland don’t resemble their Italian precursors.
“Ninety per cent (of people) don’t even have a clue what a cappuccino is,” he says, adding that the drink should only come with foam, not milk.
Meler immigrated to Canada from Italy in 1968 and worked as one of the first baristas in Vancouver before realizing “you can’t pay your rent with coffee.”
He says you can only make good coffee if the machine is constantly running, which doesn’t happen in most places.
Meler can’t stand the chain coffeehouses and only frequents authentic Burnaby establishments like La Fontana, or Café Amore at Willingdon and Dawson.
“Maybe if you go to Starbucks, they ask you stupid things like, ‘Decaf or skim milk?’ But at Italian (coffeehouses) they smile and give you what they want.”
Although Meler concedes La Fontana’s offerings are better than most, the former barista says coffee in Metro Vancouver suffers from an over-reliance on cheap beans from Vietnam.
Barrett Jones, spokesman for 49th Parallel Roasters, says their Burnaby-based company rarely imports beans from Asia. Instead, the beans they roast inside their facilities are primarily from Africa, Central America and South America.
“Everything we do is quality-focused, so whether it is buying beans or roasting them, if it’s not good we don’t sell it,” Jones says.
49th Parallel has a dedicated buyer who travels from country-to-country scouting farms, watching for sustainable practices and ensuring the beans aren’t tainted with bugs or frost damage.
Beans that pass muster are shipped back to Burnaby and roasted on site.
Jones says their business is best known outside of the Lower Mainland, but its “cult-following” of coffee lovers within Greater Vancouver is expanding.
Another establishment enjoying a loyal, cult following of its own is Café Classico, just a few blocks east of La Fontana.
The patrons there are so loyal their pictures line the walls.
Inside the tight café, Jim and Eurla Kozak sip coffee and chat with Anita Webster after finishing a workout at the gym.
The trio have been frequenting the café on Hastings and Madison Avenue for more than 10 years. Their reasons for coming here as opposed to a chain coffee house are straightforward.
“The cappuccinos are better,” explains Jim.
He says the Italian owners have been around forever, so the lack of turnover means the taste of the coffee remains consistent.
“You’re not dealing with someone else every second day.”
It’s that loyal base of customers who appreciate authentic coffee that keep Burnaby establishments like Café Classico or La Fontana Caffe afloat, according to Gianfranco Latrofa over at La Fontana.
“Our customers don’t leave,” he says. “You come here, then you’re always here.”