“Nobody wanted to come to this part of town. It was run down.” – Joelle Solimano, Merchant in Old Town Alexandria
Another cafe in Old Town?
Only this is no ordinary coffee place. Boccato Gelato and Espresso has upped the game. Co-owners Cristian Velasco and Rob Shelton have not only opened up an attractive new spot on King Street (between Patrick and Henry), they've brought the art and science of making coffee to people like myself who only thought they knew a little something about coffee.
Before we get to our review of their place (also in Clarendon), it is worth taking a brief look at the particular part of King Street where Boccato and some other new stores have arrived, and what their impact will be on that section of Alexandria’s Main Street.
If you’ve ever visited Old Town Alexandria, or got the quickie car tour, chances are you remember King Street. Brimming with small independent shops and award-winning restaurants, this dozen and a half blocks long corridor runs from the Potomac Waterfront to the King Street Metro station (thus the term, “river to rails”).
Depending on how much time you spent there, chances are the part you didn’t see or only saw briefly, is a stretch of about four blocks located near the middle and between traffic-choked Patrick Street (Route 1 North) and Peyton Street. If your starting point is Metro, you will find these blocks shortly after you pass by Brabo Restaurant and the Lorien Hotel.
This portion not only lacks the rich history found closer to the water and around Metro, it has also lived in the shadow of the “the Heart of Old Town,” those handful of blocks on the east side of Route 1. It’s no coincidence, by the way, that the border of the Historic District of Alexandria ends before it gets to this section.
Now before you fire off a nastygram, let me note this part of King Street (Fayette, Payne, West) sports some fine businesses, places like American in Paris, Images Artwear, ArtsaFire, and other handcraft stores offering one of a kind products. Some long-time merchants here will tell you about the times some called these parts “Little Paris.” There’s even a new piece of public art at the corner with Fayette, and two diagonal streets start from this part of King, a rare departure from the conformity the planners laid out over 250 years ago.
Still, one can’t ignore the two ugly old used car lots in this stretch, the way some of the older places have let themselves go (names excluded to protect my back), and there’s no museum or anchor spot to help draw folks in.
Now the good news. I’ll stop short of using the term “renaissance,” but yes, there is a revival happening along these blocks. Places like Vermilion, Gallery West, Alexandria Cupcake, La Fromagerie, Le Tastevin Fine Wines, Brown and Pink Boutique, and Zen Castle have established themselves in recent years. The King Street Trolley’s free service makes a stop at Fayette and the shops here lure in their share of the high-roller visitors staying at nearby National Harbor.
On the heels of all this, a tipping point is being reached with the addition of three new places this summer (actually two and one to come soon) and the promise that even more will come.
This brings us back to Boccato, which is poised to take off. Shelton and Velasco bring the area its first such place. The two were quoted in the Mount Vernon Gazette as saying, “The gelateria does not emulate the Italian or Argentinian styles.”
I try to stay away from words with too many vowels, so I have no clue what that means. But exploring foods is right up my alley, so I let my taste buds lead the way with a week of sampling their offerings.
The only problem was, where to start first? In addition to sorbet and gelato, which I had only tried once or twice before, Boccato offers affogato (a scoop of gelato sunk in a double espresso or hot chocolate (it ain’t winter yet?), smoothies and coffee and tea, currently at discounted prices.
On my first visit, I stuck to my tried and true, and asked for Columbian. Shelton, one of the energetic and driven young guns in the industry, told me they get their coffee from Stumptown, a company famous in Seattle and Portland, and Brooklyn. Famous there, not here.
Of course, it’s not just the coffee, it’s what you do with it. Unlike any other place I have seen, Boccato uses a dripper. The timing is precise – Three minutes and 33 seconds.
After two or three sips, I started thinking, this is coffee as it should be.
On my next visit, I let my taste buds savor an affogato. Getting a recommendation from one of the staff, I chose the stacciatella flavor. As I sipped and scooped, I knew I was entering a new realm. Maybe this wasn’t like the "face of God" that Michaelle Weissman talks about in her book, but some kind of a conversion was taking place. I thought about all the coffee places in Old Town I wrote about last year. I didn't think anyone could top Misha's, my winner and an Old Town institution. But no one is doing what's going on in this new place.
The exposed brick walls inside are nothing new in a town that cherishes such things, but the place has a hip personality driven by tunes from Pandora (Rob turned me on to The Black Keys) played on a set of speakers that also has a rich and smooth sound. A bonus is the chance to met Buddy, their friendly house dog (Red Sox fans will like him the most).
My one recommendation for this place is to go before it gets too crowded, and don’t be in a hurry. Sit at the bar if you can and watch the process. This is more than just a place to get a cup of Joe, it’s workshop for your taste buds.
Boccato is a tough act to follow, but, of course, we do not live by coffee alone. So if you're getting stale in your kitchen, try Olio Tasting Room two blocks away at 1223 King. They opened last month and are drawing in curious crowds which sample olive oils our mothers never knew, and balsamic vinegars in varieties that say, come on, try me.
The third place, Homemade Pizza (1314), has not yet opened up and looks to be a month or so away. With Pizza Paradisio and RedBrick Pizza arriving last year, some will say, what, another red pie place? Well, the concept here is different. Customers select their options and take the pizza home to cook and eat fresh. These guys opened up in nearby Del Ray two years ago, and have locations in the District.
So, yes, things are looking up on this part of King Street. A few challenges remain, notably that Le Gaulois sits empty, and those two car lots can’t be re-developed soon enough. But if you like Bocatto as much as I do, you may look up too.