From their signature espressos to an invitingly floral lavender mint café latte, illy Caffè in Williamsburg’s Merchants Square has taken the local caffeine fix up an octave. If you’ve ever finished off a meal of classic French comfort food at the beloved Blue Talon Bistro—just around the corner—with a fresh-brewed cup of coffee, you’ve had the illy experience, whether you know it or not.
That’s because owner Adam Steely and his partner Chef David Everett have been serving the Italian gourmet coffee brand—a staple in Italy and well known to many American restaurateurs, European travelers and discerning coffee drinkers—at Blue Talon since it opened in 2004, just as they did at the celebrated Ford’s Colony dining room before it.
“I have had a lifelong love affair with illy coffee,” says Steely. So, when word got out that a certain coffee shop chain was being considered for a prime location on Duke of Gloucester Street, an idea started brewing. “I just thought we should look at something more bespoke, more unique, not quite as ubiquitous as Starbucks.”
Cut to the end of 2019 when illy Caffè, serving not only illy’s signature coffee but pastries, sandwiches, charcuterie plates, gelato, wine, cocktails and more, opened in a cozy sliver of space adjacent to Brick & Vine in the old Binn’s of Williamsburg location. Turned out a coffee shop wasn’t the least auspicious choice to open months before a pandemic. While all restaurants struggled in the two years that followed, including this one, the grab-and-go setup suited the times.
Illy Caffè Williamsburg found a niche with local clientele and has since captured the attention of the throngs of visitors who have returned in force to the world’s largest living history museum. It’s a welcome addition along the popular pedestrian thoroughfare, where sit-down restaurants were readily found but snagging a quick bite and a beverage on the go proved a bit more challenging.
The ambience is European café with touches of contemporary and Colonial Williamsburg in equal measure. Think patterned Portuguese tile floors, a long brick wall with arched windows (once the outer wall of the adjoining building), warm mood lighting, trendy art, pops of illy’s signature crimson red and not one, but two of the company’s spiral shaped coffee cup chandeliers, a feature of their café locations, which number between 20 and 30 in the U.S.—the closest to our region situated in Northern Virginia.
But it’s what’s inside the cups and behind the business that have won the heart of Steely and other illy devotees. A family-owned Italian company going back generations, illy is known for its highly pressurized packaging system, which uses nitrogen instead of oxygen to lock in the freshness of the beans. Each time you pop open the can, “it fills the whole room with this coffee perfume,” Steely notes.
Illy founder Francesco Illy is credited with inventing the precursor of the modern espresso machine in the 1930s, and his family has carried on a tradition of scientific innovation and exacting quality standards as evidenced in their ultra-high-tech plant in Trieste, Italy. The company’s longstanding commitment to sustainability and social equity in the communities where its beans are grown have also earned its industry reputation for being ahead of the curve on the fair-trade movement.
“What illy does by paying these higher prices and working with same these communities year after year,” says Steely, “is they are able to get the first dibs on the very best arabica beans that come from all these places. And they source from nine different countries they believe contribute, each one, a separate flavor profile that they then blend what they call their house style.”
The result is a mild roast distinctly unlike the signature bitter bite of Starbucks brew and one that illy customers are willing to pay more to experience. Illy coffee costs about twice as much as most coffees on the market.
“Their aesthetic is about richness and flavor and they try to not roast the beans any more than is necessary to that full extraction,” Steely explains. “But all of it is in pursuit of finding a great product, respecting that product and bringing that product to the market as honestly as possible, as pure as possible. And that really resonates with a food person because that is the aesthetic that you live with all the time.”
Speaking of food, while you’re at illy Caffè Williamsburg, you can keep the hangry at bay with savory bites like a smoked salmon bagel, turkey and sausage frittata, spinach and feta pastry, or caprese sandwich. Sweeten things up with a chocolate croissant, blueberry cream Danish, or vanilla cream bombolone. Gelato, tiramisu, cannoli and affogato (a scoop of gelato in a cup of espresso) are also on offer.
And it’s always afternoon somewhere, so wind down at illy with an Aperol spritz, a negroni or a glass of vino from their accessible list of Proseccos, pinots, chardonnays, malbecs and more—“We try to get wines that are enjoyable and fresh and fun and hopefully true to type,” Steely notes—along with wine-friendly cheese plates, hummus, bruschetta and caponata. And this spring, they plan to add a viognier and a petit manseng from nearby Williamsburg Winery.
Be sure to take advantage of the 150 outdoors seats and umbrella tables that were added to Merchants Square post pandemic and have been a game-changer in allowing patrons and visitors to enjoy the scenery and the seasons while grabbing a much-needed refreshment.