An espresso story

When people think of coffeehouses, they may think of plush, comfy couches, relaxing lighting, and soft music. Now imagine exactly the opposite, and you’ve got the best coffee shop in Pittsburgh. Benvenuto a La Prima Espresso.

Contrary to popular belief, La Prima Espresso actually does exist outside of Wean Hall, and it has since 1988. The original location for La Prima is 205 21st St. in the Strip District.

Standing room only

La Prima stands in stark contrast to the major coffeehouse chains. Its surprisingly modest accommodations create a sort of old-world feel, and the effect looks straight out of Italy. The inside of the café is standing room only with high tables, old carpeting, and scant decorations; plastic chairs crowd the sidewalk outside the storefront. (There’s actually more seating at La Prima in Wean than the original.) La Prima’s lack of extravagance serves as a loud reminder that it really is all about the coffee. La Prima features coffee and espresso so flavorful that even a two-sugar-and-cream coffee drinker can drink it black.

“A coffee place really provides a nice gathering place,” La Prima owner and founder Sam Patti said. “I have friends that say ‘I don’t get it; what’s the big deal about Starbucks?’ It’s actually a really nice place to relax. It’s like the coffee is there, but they sell the atmosphere.”

The coffee

But what about the coffee? Many of the things on the Starbucks menu have more “stuff” in them than actual coffee, and you would be hard pressed to find the same at La Prima. The menu boasts a maximum of 25 items, most of which come in one or two sizes, and there is no such thing as a 20-ounce anything. Best of all, the entire menu is in Italian — patrons can choose from caffe latte, cioccolata calda, espresso doppio, and more.

Great coffee has been the goal for La Prima Espresso since its inception in 1988. In fact, Patti originally had plans to use the 21st Street location to sell high-quality espresso machines. The Espresso and coffee machines that La Prima sells come from two of Italy’s finest manufacturers, but La Prima sells high quality American coffeemakers as well.

Since 1988, La Prima has evolved into a thriving business for the sale of coffee and coffeemakers, as well as a bustling café open seven days a week. The store sells wholesale coffee and does other business with many distributors, and even locally owned shops.

La Prima also has an office coffee program. Office coffee tends to be, well, horrible, but La Prima offers seminars so office workers can learn how to brew good coffee using premium beans and machines.

For real coffee-loving individuals, there is the Coffee of the Month Club, in which members can enjoy different roasts and blends delivered right to their doors, either ground or whole beans. The beans come from countries all around the world so members can taste a variety of international coffee.

Despite the obvious differences in décor, La Prima and Starbucks do have a few things in common. Both have devoted clients who love to go into the shop to relax, hang out with friends, and drink coffee.


La Prima Espresso is also a certified organic roaster, meaning the coffee is grown without the use of pesticides or herbicides. It is the only organic coffee roaster in Pittsburgh, and only one of two in the entire state of Pennsylvania. Most importantly, La Prima uses fair trade coffee. Fair trade essentially cuts out the middleman between producers and suppliers, thus allowing the farmers and coffee producers to get more of the money they deserve. “We are absolutely fair trade organically certified,” Patti said. “How we do business is dictated by the standards of fair trade practices.”

Although fair trade saves money by cutting out intermediate traders, the money does not necessarily all go to the grower or producer. Fair trade provides a floor price so that the growers and producers have sustainable income. “In the short run, it tries to guarantee that the farmer will get a fair amount for his coffee,” Patti said.

Fair-trade certification also goes hand in hand with green practices. According to TransFair USA, a third-party organization that works with suppliers and manufacturers, fair trade guarantees that the farmers registered in the International Fair Trade Register use eco-friendly practices such as composting, reforestation, and terracing when growing their products. According to Patti, becoming fair trade certified was a natural step for La Prima. Many of the employees, friends, and families strongly believed in fair trade and organics. “I think the word we use is sustainability,” he said.

Coffee on campus

Around 1994, La Prima Espresso joined the Carnegie Mellon vendor circuit with its cart in Wean Hall. Although the university branch of La Prima lacks the Italian authenticity of the original, it’s still undoubtedly popular. “It’s been wonderful for us. We’ve enjoyed working there,” Patti said. According to Patti, much of the demand was made by international students used to espresso, and sleep-deprived computer science majors.

The menu at Wean’s La Prima is slightly more Americanized, with things like Americanos and chai tea lattes, in addition to lunch options like soups and sandwiches. “I think it’s probably [that] the clientele has different needs,” Patti said about the different menus. ”I don’t think we push very hard with espresso at Carnegie Mellon because you can’t get it in a ceramic cup, and espresso in a paper cup just isn’t the same.”

Interestingly enough, La Prima was not Patti’s first experience with Carnegie Mellon. “I taught one time for a semester at Carnegie Mellon,” he said. “The Italian teacher was out for a while and they asked me to come teach Italian.”

So, if you’re looking to branch out from your tall, triple, non-fat, no-whip cinnamon dolce latte (with ice), head over to the Strip District for a more authentic experience.

“We wanted to make a place where going to the coffee shop is part of your daily routine like in Italy,” Patti said. And though Pittsburgh may never feel like Italia, you can’t get any closer than La Prima Espresso.