The coffee flows early and often in Pittsburgh

| Monday, Oct. 18, 2010

Pittsburgh has long had a reputation as a shot-and-a-beer kind of town.

Believe it or not, Pittsburgh is also a shot-of-espresso and coffee town.

Everywhere you go, it seems, there's a coffee shop -- and not just a Starbucks. Besides doling out caffeine, each one has its own distinctive atmosphere and set of functions, ranging from study hall to concert venue to neighborhood living room. Each is in some way a reflection of its neighborhood.

For a new way to see the city, try finding as many of Pittsburgh's independent coffee shops as possible.

Some neighborhoods are clearly more caffeinated than others. Squirrel Hill alone has at least seven coffee shops. So, this little tour is selected for geographical diversity, focusing on the hidden gems in more out-of-the-way places.

There are actually too many good coffee shops in town to feature them all. To keep this manageable, we'll limit this to the city of Pittsburgh -- which excludes a few of the best, like Aldo Coffee in Mt. Lebanon -- and avoid some of the best-known places, like Enrico's Tazza D'oro and La Prima.

Now, you can have a coffee at each, though you may not sleep for a long, long time. Luckily, many of these shops have specialties other than coffee, so overdosing on caffeine is completely optional.

7 a.m.

I enjoy drinking coffee, but I don't pretend to be an expert. Luckily, there's Voluto Coffee in Garfield.

Voluto gives serious coffee aficionados what they crave: respect. Coffee is a lot like wine, apparently -- you can get pretty deep into the subtleties of aroma and flavor, terroir and origin. I tried a cup of single-origin Costa Rican Finca San Gabriel. While not cheap, it was indeed really good. By the napkins, there's a bottle of "homemade pure cane sugar" to sweeten the pot, so to speak.

Voluto's stylish retro-modern interior fits perfectly into this weird stretch of Penn Avenue, an odd interzone that somehow includes architecturally striking senior citizen housing, boarded-up 19th-century rowhouses, luxury loft condominiums, a creative new chef-driven restaurant, and a Kentucky Fried Chicken.

Voluto Coffee, 5467 Penn Ave. Hours: 7 a.m. to 6 p.m. Mondays to Fridays; 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays. Details: 412-661-3000 or here .

9:30 a.m.

21st Street Coffee and Tea in the Strip is another haven for serious coffee lovers. The shop is run by two engineers with a startling clarity of purpose -- top-of-the-line Intelligentsia coffee, brewed on state-of-the-art machines, by expertly-trained baristas.

A lot of coffee shops offer "Fair Trade" coffee, which attempts to give coffee's Third World producers a fair deal. Intelligentsia terms their beans "Direct Trade," which cuts out all the middlemen and sets strong labor and environmental standards.

21st Street Coffee and Tea, 50 21st St. Hours: 7 a.m. to 4 p.m. Mondays to Fridays; 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. Saturdays; 8 a.m. to 3 p.m. Sundays. Details: 412-281-0809 or here .

11 a.m.

Despite being one of the city's largest neighborhoods, Brookline feels somehow isolated, and far away. It isn't, really.

You can combine a trip to Brookline's great specialty grocers -- the Mexican carniceria Las Palmas and the Middle Eastern specialty shop Pitaland -- with a stop at Cannon Coffee.

Cannon is a quite big, yet cozy space with big, old comfy chairs and solid wooden tables, giving the impression of a place that's built to last. If they keep serving espresso this good, that shouldn't be a problem. The Cortado -- equal parts espresso and steamed milk -- is especially nice, served with an intricate leaf-shaped pattern on the surface. Latte art, apparently, is no joke -- baristas have competitions for this sort of thing.

Cannon Coffee, 802 Brookline Blvd. 7 a.m. to 8 p.m. Mon.-Fri.; 9 a.m. to 8 p.m. Sat.; 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Sun. 412-563-0202.

2 p.m.

Polish Hill has very little retail. In fact, most of it is crowded into one building, way off the main roads.

On the top floor is Copacetic Comics, one of the best independent comic book shops in America. On the second floor is Mind Cure Records, an all-vinyl record store which belies its tiny size by somehow only stocking really good stuff, across all genres. On the ground floor is Lili Coffee Shop.

Clearly, it took an incredible amount of toil to turn this space into the cozy, charming, adorable space that it is, complete with Victorian tin ceiling and exposed-brick walls. You'll need a coffee to go with your snack, but good luck choosing between pumpkin pie, scones, biscotti, granola, cheese and spinach quiche, homemade soup, buckeyes (a chocolate and peanut butter treat), white chocolate & raspberry muffins, and more.

Lili Coffee Shop, 3138 Dobson St. Hours: 7 a.m. to 8 p.m. Mondays to Fridays; 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. Saturdays; 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Sundays. Details: 412-682-3600.

5 p.m.

The Morning Glory Coffeehouse, tucked away in the often-forgotten residential enclave of Morningside, shows what a coffee shop can be, with a little imagination. In addition to coffee, it's a vegan/vegetarian restaurant with a great Sunday brunch, as well as art exhibits, movie screenings and live music.

For a very small room, way off the beaten path in Pittsburgh, Morning Glory has hosted some impressive performances, like experimental guitar genius Eugene Chadbourne and legendary indie rock enigma Daniel Higgs.

Then there's the gnomes. Morningside is apparently home to lots of gnomes. Yes, the jolly, pointy-hatted, garden-dwellers -- look for the Morningside mural to see how they got here. You too can experience the inexhaustible energy of the gnomes by consuming the Hungry Gnome Wrap, which has curried lentils, chickpeas, onions, garlic, basmati rice and lots of other healthy stuff. Pair it with the house specialty, the Iced Rhode Island Coffeemilk latte.

Morning Glory Coffeehouse, 1806 Chislett St. Hours: 7 a.m. to 6 p.m. Mondays to Wednesdays; 7 a.m. to 9 p.m. Thursdays and Fridays; 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. Saturdays; 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. Sundays. Details: 412-450-1050 or here .

8 p.m.

Tango Cafe is a tiny, quiet coffeeshop in Squirrel Hill run by a family from Argentina. Some nights, there's a small group of people practicing their Spanish. On other very lucky nights, some of the regulars pull out guitars and drums and play a few high-spirited songs from the old country.

Tango's coffee is good, but they also serve mate , a strong, slightly bitter herbal drink as common as coffee in Buenos Aires.

The best thing about this place is the food, especially the homemade empanadas and sandwiches, served warm on a very soft, thin, flaky bread. The desserts usually include Turron -- a flat bar of oats and dark chocolate, pressed flat between several layers of very soft, flaky crackers -- and the Canoncito, a crunchy, conical "little cannon" filled with dulce de leche and topped with chocolate, which is worth it even if it only lasts two bites.

Tango Cafe, 5806 Forward Ave. 10 a.m. to 10 p.m. Tuesdays to Thursdays; 10 a.m. to 11 p.m. Fridays; 10:30 a.m. to 11 p.m. Saturdays; 10:30 a.m. to 9 p.m. Sundays. Details: 412-421-1390 or here .


OK, face it -- with the amount of caffeine you've ingested today, you're not going to sleep anytime soon.

Top it off with a strong cup of whatever from the Beehive. It could be argued that this coffee shop made the South Side what it is today -- a nightlife hub, not a rundown mile of empty storefronts. This loud, garish South Side institution may draw the laptop crowd at some times during the day, but at night it's a decades-long parade of students, local weirdos and teenagers trying to act cool way into the small hours. Plus, they have pinball.

Beehive Coffeehouse, 1327 E. Carson St. 8 a.m. to 1 a.m. Mondays to Thursdays; 8 a.m. to 2 a.m. Fridays and Saturdays. 412-488-4483 or here .

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