The recent closure of Berkeley’s iconic Caffè Mediterraneum is the end of its current incarnation—one that began in the late ’50s and provided a backdrop for movements that changed America. The new owners are undertaking a complete renovation for an early 2017 opening. Whether it will retain the name is unknown.
Given the uncertain changes for this landmark, I took the opportunity to sit down with my father to recall his memories of The Med:
In the late ’60s, after Carlo came to America, his Saturday mornings would often include a trek to Berkeley’s Caffè Mediterraneum (The Med) to have his espresso. In fact, Italian emigrants from all over the Bay Area were drawn there as well. After all, it was the only place to get an espresso like the ones served in Italy. And, according to Carlo, Lino always fussed over his fellow Italian countrymen.
Carlo became quick friends with co-owner Lino Meiorin who was also the first Italian-trained barista in the Bay Area. From time-to-time, Carlo would jump behind the coffee bar to help Lino when the espresso machine needed some tinkering. So when Carlo started Mr. Espresso, Lino purchased one of the first espresso machines that Carlo sold. It was an Italian-made, Aurora 6-group machine that replaced the caffè’s 4-group Aurora.
For those who don’t know, The Med has history. It opened in 1956 as El Piccolo, and was renamed Caffè Mediterraneum in ’57 when its Italian baristas took ownership. Other than the Italian emigrants, it had a storied clientele drawing from the Beat Generation (Kerouac, Ginsberg), the nearby Berkeley Campus, and key players of the political and social movements of the ’60s (Free Speech Movement, Black Panthers, Students for a Democratic Society). The Med also had its moment on the big screen when Dustin Hoffman walked in and sat at a Med window table for a scene in The Graduate.
But for many coffee aficionados, The Med has a special place in coffee history. The story began as Lino quickly learned that many of his customers found the flavor of a traditional Italian cappuccino to be too strong. When asked for more milk, Lino would call to the barista, “latte” for more milk. One day, “latte” appeared on the menu. It was Lino’s name for an espresso that would have more steamed milk and a layer of foam as opposed to a cappuccino that has more foam and less steamed milk.
The latte didn’t gain widespread popularity until sometime in the ’80s in Seattle, but our father recognized the significance of his favorite caffè . He always felt fortunate to have had his place at the (coffee) bar at The Med. So strongly Carlo felt that he asked Lino if he could purchase The Med’s smaller machine—which was used for most of the caffè’s first twenty years in business. When Lino left The Med, Carlo bought back the large 6-group machine that he had sold to the caffè in ’79. Today, our father is very proud to have both of these machines in our museum. If those machines could talk!
Note: We would like to acknowledge our friend Diane De Pisa, wife of the late Elio De Pisa (1934-2002). Elio, friend to our parents, was a longtime manager at The Med but continually pursued his passion for photography. Diane has carefully assembled his photos for the recently published Berkeley Then, A Photo Diary of the Sixties Scene. Elio’s photos used on this page are from the book. We are extremely grateful to Diane for allowing our use—and we encourage you to visit the website for more information.