Last updated: 05:00 AM ET, Thu January 07 2016

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  • Jason Leppert | January 7, 2016 5:00 AM ET

    Enjoying a Coffee Crawl in San Diego’s Little Italy

    Enjoying a Coffee Crawl in San Diego’s Little Italy

    Photos by Jason Leppert

    As a rare native resident of San Diego, I greatly appreciate all my wonderful city has to offer, and to this day there remain new things for me to explore. Such was the case regarding Little Italy’s coffee. Sure, I had been to the renowned uptown district before, but I had never tried its excellent brews; that is until just last week.

    Having visited the motherland of Italy several times, I know what the regional coffee tastes like, its espresso the richest I’ve ever ingested, so I was excited to take my fiancee and soon-to-be mother-in-law on a little coffee crawl to some of the hot spots to see how they compared.

    Caffe Italia

    First on our list was Caffe Italia, easy to find under the signature Little Italy sign spanning India Street. Italian was being spoken at the outside tables lining the road, so we knew we were in good company. Inside, the place was hopping with a diverse group of customers who obviously know a good thing. A neat magazine stand lines the perimeter, and food offerings include chunky coffee cake and an alluring bagel with cream cheese and pesto that I would love to soon try.

    But we were here for the coffee. I ordered a traditional Lavazza brand shot of espresso, and my companions had a mocha and vanilla latte. Passing the drinks around, the shot was definitely as I remembered it, with bitter notes that quickly woke up my senses. The mocha was just right and not too sweet, as so many others taste of added syrup, and the vanilla latte was perfectly creamy. This is definitely the place to be for the most authentic Italian coffee experience.

    Heartsleeves Coffee

    For an entirely different experience and the most friendly on the list, crafty Heartsleeves Coffee is a little hole in the wall off a back alley. A sign of “COFFEE” block letters and an arrow point the way to a pastel-colored stamped logo and barn-like door entry. Plastic tables and chairs lead to the barista who taught us about different brew methods and demonstrated a pour-over, essentially a small batch of premium grounds percolated directly over a mug for 30 seconds and then gradually finished off.

    I tried an Ethiopian blend in this manner described as fruity and lemony, influenced by the minerals in the ground. The wonderful end result was more floral in aroma, akin to a tea actually, while retaining a smooth coffee flavor. Mixing it up, my fiancee and mother-in-law enjoyed a tasty cold-brew (another method) vanilla latte and a well balanced peppermint mocha that was both light and sweet.

    James Coffee Co.

    Hipsters will definitely appreciate the James Coffee Co. housed in a warehouse that looks like it could've once been an auto shop complete with a rollup door. A collection of trendy boutiques also populates the building. From a sheer aesthetic value, the space is undeniably cool, and logo merchandise is even available. As for the coffee itself, beans are uniquely roasted in-house, but the accompanying service is a bit aloof and slow.

    Drinking their signature honey and cinnamon espresso next to a barber shop was a trip. Having nothing to do with this proximity, of course, the coffee was sweet and nutty and appropriately holiday in flavor. My fiancee’s espresso shot was very strong and a little sour, and my mother-in-law’s vanilla jasmine tea, steeped from an interesting elongated bag, was basically good but ultimately unremarkable.

    Bird Rock Coffee Roasters

    Already buzzed from caffeine, we finished up at Bird Rock Coffee Roasters, one of three locations in town, and a more modern venue with garage-style rollup windows and the fanciest brewing equipment. Just below the final flight approach to the San Diego International Airport, it's a perfect spot to sip on java and watch the planes just before landing. Be prepared to ante up some funds here, though, as our day’s selection of pour-over coffees ranged from five to eleven bucks.

    The $11 La Esmerelda Geisha Mario San Jose from Panama, prepared with reverse osmosis water filtration, had a strong aroma but more delicate tea-like flavor, but it would take a more refined palate to pick out all the fruity nuances. My companions finished off with more affordable espressos and lattes. The espresso was super strong and the vanilla latte was less sweet and delightfully creamy.

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Jason Leppert The Main Course

Jason Leppert Jason Leppert is a San Diego-based cruise expert with more than 90 sailings under his belt and a fresh, youthful perspective on the industry. He has been cruising since before he was two years old, thanks to his parents’ shared passion for traveling and their desire to experience all journeys together as a family. He is the founding editor of and producer of the successful Popular Cruising YouTube channel ( He also contributes to the Travel Channel; Cruise Travel, Porthole and Destination Vacation magazines;;; and the Cruise Radio and Weekend Travel Show audio podcasts.
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