I’ve never worked in a bar before. Hell, until recently I’d never even pulled a pint. Not that that would have done me any good during my day at Bar Termini in Soho. A small Italian bar just oozing class, owned by Marco Arrigo, the head of quality at Illy Coffee; I had come to the West End to learn how to make the perfect espresso.
Marco is a coffee king and Bar Termini is his playpen. Drawing from his roots, being a Turin boy at heart, he has made Bar Termini a nostalgic, social hub down Old Compton Street. A blend of perfect coffee and new age cocktails, but staunchly old school Italian at heart.
With a small and cosy interior, the design of Termini is in the name. Akin to a train carriage bar from the 1950s, Marco has gone for elegant rather than everyday functional. He wants people at the bar, sipping Café Biancos and talking with his staff, taking time away from their busy schedules. Come in before 11am and you’ll find the Italian students and street cleaners together, enjoying a £1 espresso before the morning grind.
Marco was there to meet me at Bar Termini in the morning when I went along. The barman/baristas at Termini wear white shirts and black ties, so there I was, dressed to the nines and soon behind the counter ready to get to grips with the modified coffee machine.
Coffee is Marco’s world, and he certainly knows what he likes. While most coffee shops adhere to strict guidelines and tried and tested methods, Marco’s philosophies lie squarely within the creative. If something doesn’t taste quite right, he’ll experiment until he makes it perfect. For example, he insists on tampering with the filter handles on the machine, removing the drip so as to see the coffee drain through manually.
“I’ve brought in nylon and silk before to get a perfect drain,” he told me.
“If you get down below the machine, you can keep an eye on the drip. For it to be perfect, the stream should come straight through the centre of the filter. Either side and you have a surplus of caffeine, giving you unwelcome bitterness that’s ignored by the major coffee chains."
Along with his former roommate and long-time friend Tony Conigliaro (one of the UK’s foremost mixologists), Marco owns The Drinks Factory in Angel where he sends every new staff member to learn the ropes. After a few attempts on the Termini machine, Marco and I caught the bus to the lab.
Chock full of experimental machines, including a few old pieces of NHS equipment; the Drinks Factory is about as creative as they come. Here I tried a small glass of a terroir made from a mixture of flint, clay and moss.
I asked Tony and Marco about it and they said it came from a desire to create a drink that evoked memories of what rainwater tasted like when they were children. Specifically when licking it off of the windshield of a car.
Our final stop was Illy headquarters and Marco’s training room. This is where Marco holds training seminars and teaches his coffee philosophy. He had me make a cappuccino, and specifically how to prepare the milk.
After filling a pot with milk, I held the coffee machine’s nozzle just underneath the surface and sent in a jet of boiling water to create foam. Having poured a double espresso into the cup, Marco told me to pour in the milk hard. This ensured the foam reached the cup and not just the milk underneath.
He attempted to teach me to make a leaf on the top, even though he actually considered it frilly and unnecessary, but my efforts gleaned only a splodge.
Regardless, it tasted just right.