Coffee is an obsession in Croatia, and in its capital, Zagreb, the coffee culture is as strong and prevalent as the locally prepared žižule grappa. And the coffee itself? It would knock the non-fat foam off a Starbucks latte any day.
But it’s not just about the flavor. Here, having coffee is as much of a social ritual as an essential kick-start to the day, and hours and hours are spent over a cup and saucer. It’s not surprising that locals have eschewed the “to-go” cardboard coffee cup and sleeve trend, opting instead to revere coffee as a destination in itself.
To understand this, you need only spend Saturday morning at the intersection of Bogoviceva and Gajeva Streets, near Zagreb’s Flower Square. The outdoor cafés stack up on these pedestrian-only passageways, and the well- and high-heeled patrons sit elbow to diamond earring and watch the world, and each other, catwalk by. The most coveted spot is a perch at Charlie (Gajeva, 4), once owned by the late footballer Mirku Bruan, who used his nickname as the bar’s moniker. Celebrities, models, actors, singers and femme fatales descend on this area of central Zagreb to see and be seen, and presumably drink coffee, in a phenomenon known locally as Spica. I’ve heard many translations for this word – pinnacle, point, and striker (the soccer/football position) among them — but ask a Zagreber and you’ll be told that Spica means only one thing: Saturday morning coffee.
In search of something a little more down to earth, and with lower heels, for my own Spica, I strolled along Ilica Street, Zagreb’s main thoroughfare. A few cafés appeared but none appealed to me — too smoky; too over-lit; too many laptops. Dodging an endless hustle of bikers and walkers, I stopped to lick the windows (as my French friends say) of pastry shops like the family-run Vincek, whose cakes and cookies looked too perfect to eat. Then one of the always-stuffed blue trams of Zagreb whirred down Ilica Street and startled me, and as I was recovering I noticed a crowd gathered beneath an awning printed with the words “simply luxury coffee.”
From the moment I entered the minuscule Eli’s Caffé, I knew this was not going to be an ordinary coffee experience, and that owner Nik Orosi was not going to be an ordinary barista.
The room is jammed, wool coats diminishing the scant space between bodies, and the guttural din of Croatian is my soundtrack as I do the shimmy, duck and pardon-me dance toward the only empty stool. For a few minutes I just watch Orosi. His hands pound and twist and wipe and push out coffee, orders for which dart through the heated air like fruit flies. Each time the door opens, about every 30 seconds, Orosi looks up to greet a new wave of caffeinerati, many of whom he knows by name. I can’t help but think of “Cheers.” Eventually Orosi asks me where I’m from. When I tell him San Francisco, he asks me if I know Blue Bottle Coffee. Of course I do. It’s good coffee, I say.
“They do make very good coffee, but their baristas are too stuffy,” Orosi responds. He faults most baristas for using big words, similar to wine experts and sommeliers. “Why would they do this? People don’t understand. It’s elitist and scares people away.”
Orosi knows a thing or two about barista-ing. He was the Croatian national champion three times, in 2006, 2007, and 2008, and has several other titles that include the word “best” in them. But Orosi doesn’t brag. He opened Eli’s, named after his son, in 2005 because of a dream he had had — and “to bring coffee closer to people.”
I order a strong coffee with milk and Orosi’s hands and arms know what to do without consulting his mouth or eyes. The barista king effortlessly toggles between English and his native tongue, and simultaneously manages to collect money, make coffee, chitchat, and wipe down his spotless La Marzocco coffee machine that he dotes on like a prized Ferrari. Before he serves the fresh brew, Orosi puts his nose in the cup and takes a sniff, swirls it, then sucks a small amount in his mouth. “No. Too watery,” he says, dumping it. He starts over.
Like everything in the café, Orosi’s set up behind the bar is uncluttered. No CDs for sale. No mug-lined shelves or cookies or breath mints. Just stacks of white coffee cups and saucers, the espresso machine, a sink, and the white on white relief of his café name and again the words “simply luxury coffee.”
Orosi sets down a thick-rimmed white saucer on the bar and turns it a few centimeters clockwise. He then places a small silver spoon on the saucer, followed by the cup, which he turns so the handle faces right to expose his logo, which is really an anti-logo. He pours in the coffee, and then pours in the hot, slightly aerated milk. With a flick of the wrist, he conjures a heart pattern in the foam, then slides the concoction toward me.
I ask him about the writing on the cup that reads “No logo/ just taste.”
“I just want to make good coffee,” he says. “I don’t want people to think it’s good because it’s a certain brand.”
Orosi tells me that he also removed the menu that once hung behind the bar so that people would talk to him directly about his product. He also says the walls of the room used to be charcoal grey — the antithesis of the café’s current unpigmented interior.
“I don’t want people to come in and order #5. I want it to feel open, and for people to focus on coffee and learn something about coffee,” he says. “Just because you drink it every day doesn’t mean you know about it. I eat every day but I’m not going to call myself a chef.”
As if on cue, two women walk in, wave, and yell out something in Croatian. “See, that’s what I’m talking about,” smiles Orosi. I ask him what they said.
“They just asked for two of my best coffees,” he smiles, and wipes down his coffee machine again.
I take a sip and the coffee’s taste is full-bodied, not at all acrid like a lot of the coffee I have tried on my Croatian trip so far. It also contains just the right amount of heated milk. I close my eyes.
“Look at this,” Orosi says. He opens his hands to reveal a palm full of coffee beans: dry, brown, aromatic. Eli’s Caffé, for now, is the only establishment in Zagreb that roasts its own beans. Orosi takes a whiff and identifies the beans as Tanzanian and the ones he is using today. In the few moments we’ve been talking seven other orders have landed on his ears, and he grows silent to catch up.
“I love being busy but it keeps me from talking to people,” he says, not looking up.
I sip, watch and listen. Every now and again Orosi sings a few bars of the national anthem, the American national anthem, which I assume is for my benefit. I ask him if I can take his picture and he smiles sheepishly, lowering his eyes. His list of awards and accolades is long, and I know I’m not the first to ask for a photo, but he keeps moving, avoiding the lens and my request. I drain my last drop and begin to leave, but Orosi insists I stay for a second cup.
“After two glasses of Champagne, you’ll do something wrong. After two cups of coffee, it’s all right.”
For another 20 minutes, I am content to remain in Orosi’s caffeinated world, a world I serendipitously fell into and one I tell him I’ll return to in a week.
“Come on Monday,” he yells as I open the door to leave. “The Ethiopian beans will be perfect by then.”
When I return the coffee is indeed perfect, again. And Orosi still won’t look directly at the camera. Next time.
Ilica 63, Zagreb
+385 (0)91 4555 608
Kimberley Lovato is a freelance writer based in San Francisco. See her full bio at www.kimberleylovato.com.
[image by Kimberley Lovato]