Early one morning, two women chat quietly as sunlight pours into the front room of Espresso A Mano, half filled with sleek steel chairs and tables for two. Through the wide-open garage door come the sounds of Butler Street and a steady stream of up-and-at-'em coffee lovers.
The building's inviting, open aspect is what caught the eye of proprietor Matt Gebis as he drove past, scouting the right space to carry out his vision of what a great coffee experience should be. Gebis, who lives in Dormont, says the building's Lawrenceville location was just as important as the airy layout, exposed brick and beams.
"I've always really liked the neighborhood, especially with the re-emergence of it over the last couple of years," he says. With the area's independent shops and boutiques, he says, "It's not a corporate feel, and that fits in with what I want to do -- specialty handcrafted coffees." Handcrafted, as in "a mano."
The shop opened on July 16, with Gebis firmly installed behind the funky, circular espresso bar. Prior to striking out on his own, he developed his skills and expertise at La Prima Espresso Company, where he started as a barista while an undergrad at Pitt. Studying Italian language and literature, he worked as a language instructor briefly before realizing "it wasn't really my calling."
Just as he's had to sort out his place in the world, he's had to define his niche in a neighborhood already quite caffeinated -- by Coca Café, just steps away, and Crazy Mocha, Your Inner Vagabond, Dozen Cupcakes and Perk Me Up a few blocks further along Butler.
While these other shops may specialize more in food or pastries, Gebis focuses on pleasing coffee purists with quality and simplicity: "My goal is to be the shop where you go and say, 'I want a good espresso, served by someone who's pleasant,'" he jokes -- "if you catch me on the right day."
To that end, his traditional beverages use a proprietary blend of La Prima beans he developed while working there -- "a nice full, syrupy body with some fruit and honey notes hovering about that" -- and a second choice of beans that rotates from day to day. Here, a standard cup of house coffee is made with a French press, rather than auto-drip, and eatables consist of mouthwatering pastries from the nearby Enrico Biscotti and Colangelo's Bakery.
Right now, the shop caters to the leisurely daytime sipper, rather than late-night laptop junkies (it closes at 6 p.m. on weekdays and 3 p.m. on weekends), but Gebis says he's experimenting with later Thursday nights to test the waters. In time, he hopes to also offer occasional evening music events, coffee lectures and cuppings.
But the only thing that really matters -- at A Mano, anyway -- is the coffee.
3623 Butler St., Lawrenceville. 412-918-1864