There are many reasons why Caffè Reggio is the grand dame of coffee shops in New York City. One of the oldest operating coffee shops in New York City, Caffè Reggio was opened in 1927 by Domenico Parisi, an Italian immigrant. Located at 119 Macdougal Street in Greenwich Village, it was the first American cafe to serve cappuccino, heralding a new wave of coffee that would take America by storm. Today, Caffè Reggio retains much of its original feel, with tin ceilings and Italian furnishings, and remains a haven for writers as it was in the Beat Generation.
The chrome and bronze espresso machine is easily the most prized possession of Caffè Reggio, and its original founder. According to a 1954 Herald-Tribune article, Parisi worked as a barber for forty years to save the $1,000 needed to purchase the 1902 machine and have it sent over from Italy. Parisi got into coffee while he was a barber, offering espressos to guests waiting their turn for a haircut.
The cafe’s website describes the espresso machine as an “impressive marriage of engineering and design.” It’s topped by an angel and dragons are attached to its base. Parisi did not let anybody else touch or operate the machine, preferring to stay closed when he was sick instead. “You need to be an expert to run him,” Parisi says in the Herald-Tribune piece.
A 1955 article in the New Yorker reported that Parisi would never take off his hat when making a cup of espresso from the machine (for reasons unknown). The author of the article described the machine as almost a beast of unnatural nature, as “one of the biggest and most frightening urns in the Village. Frightening because, in drawing a cappuccino, he releases a valve which allows steam to whip milk into a froth and emit an appalling, ripping sound, like a barrage of rockets fired from a dive bomber.” The writer felt that the sound was so bad, it would cause “eyes start from their sockets” and “fills you with a sudden, insane desire to leap to your feet, blunder through the door and run all the way across town for a plunge in the East River.” The writer clearly had a flair for the dramatic.
According to the Greenwich Village Society for Historic Preservation, the espresso machine was a prototype and originally ran on coal. The machine would later be converted into gas in the 1970s, some 15 to 20 years after the cafe was bought by Niso and Hilda Cavallacci. Caffè Reggio is currently owned and operated by their son.
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There is a chrome plaque affixed to the machine written in Italian with an angel inside the gilded frame. Above, is a plaque for Anthony Peron, with an address in New York. Perhaps this is who worked on the espresso machine when it arrived to the states. Peron, who immigrated from Italy, has several patents connected to coffee machines and coffee consumption, and was a known manufacturer of coffee pots.
The machine is no longer in operation, but is “given pride of place” in the cafe, according to Caffè Reggio’s website. Also worthy of mention are the other artifacts in Caffè Reggio, like a bench supposedly owned by the Medicis that contains the family crest and a 16th century painting from the school of Caravaggio. The 1955 New Yorker writer seemed doubtful of their origin but one thing is for sure: the patina of years on the furniture and walls now, 65 years later is pretty real.
Join us for our new tour, a Greenwich Village Coffee Tour and Tasting where we will make a stop at Caffè Reggio: