If you know coffee, you already know about St Ali. If you don’t know your Java, then you should get to South Melbourne immediately and learn. Named for the patron saint of the exhilarating fruit, this is where devout addicts come to raise their cups in thanks.
Owner Salvatore Malatesta doesn’t seek out business from the white-with-one masses. There’s no need. His café is hidden in a dark alley and marked by a barely perceptible sign. Justifiably confident in the product, Malatesta knows that hopelessly infatuated connoisseurs will always find the café.
The industrial warehouse is perennially packed with enthusiasts who, with much sniffing and swirling, come to duke it out over the purity of a ristretto versus a long black. If you have some time to kill, it’s the best $3.50 show in town.
The tattoo-clad baristas have an encyclopaedic knowledge of the merits, history and serving suggestion of every bean on the menu. More impressive still, each of the eight or so beans is treated uniquely with the roast, grind and method of extraction tailored to bring out the best in each variety.
The food is expensive for café fare ($16 and up), but that’s kind of the idea – you don’t come to this joint for a toastie and a skinny latte. This is the coffee equivalent of fine dining, and you get what you pay for. There’s even a ‘cos I’m worth it’ section on the menu, including a whole lobster tail and truffled mayonnaise sandwich for $45.
If you’re not inclined to pimp your lunch to quite this extent, try the less extravagant salad of gem lettuce, warm asparagus, soft blue cheese, fragrant orange pangrattato (fancy flavoured breadcrumbs) and dates for $16.50.
St Ali may sometimes be criticised for coffee snobbery, but when the product is so consistently good, surely a little snobbery is allowed.