Friday, November 18, 2005 | Espresso is my morning drink of choice. My introduction to coffee came during a trip to Europe just after I graduated college. Coffee was not my friend during those long nights of study … I couldn’t stand the stuff. The epiphany came in Paris, when faced with an after-lunch espresso with Parisian friends. There was the tiny cup filled with about an ounce and a half of very strong coffee and its crema (the creamy pale brown foam on top). I drank it and fell in love with the three swallows of what espresso – properly made – is all about. Less is more when it comes to this drink.

Rarely do I find a place that understands that a half a cup (sometimes more) of watery coffee is not espresso. And last week in of all places – Portales, N.M., (population 12,000) I had a perfect double espresso with crema at a tiny new place in town called Casa de Caffe. We needn’t travel to the far reaches of New Mexico for a good espresso, because San Diego does have a handful of places for that perfect shot. Here’s my short list. If you know of others, I’d love to hear from you, especially in the South Bay and North County.

Caffe Calabria in North Park is at the top of my list. They roast the beans on-site and the espresso is rich, creamy and faintly sweet on the finish. You’ll find breakfast, salads, soups, panini and sandwiches, and for non-coffee fans a wide selection of hand-blended teas. French-press coffee is served with choices in varietals, blends, decafs, organics and dark roasts. Their coffees are available retail and wholesale and also can be found at coffee carts at both Kaiser and Grossmont Sharp Hospitals. Caffe Calabria, 3933 30th St., North Park, (619) 291-1759. Open from 6 a.m. to 3 p.m. weekdays, 7 a.m. to 6 p.m. Saturdays and 7 a.m. to 3 p.m. Sundays. www.caffecalabria.com.

The tiny Mystic Mocha in University Heights at Mission Avenue and Alabama Street, also pulls a very good espresso, served in the 2-ounce cup. They serve breakfast Thursdays through Sundays with house-made pastries and other goodies. Mystic Mocha, 2105 Mission Ave., University Heights, (619) 688-0858. Open at 6 a.m.

Café Chloe in downtown’s East Village at Ninth Avenue and G Street is another place where espresso is done right, along with simple bistro food. 721 Ninth Ave., East Village, (619) 232-3242.

Should Peet’s be in your neighborhood, their espresso roast is dark and for some an acquired taste. I happen to be a fan and they steam their milk creamy, not airy and foamy. Ask for the espresso to go in the 2-ounce cup. And finally, for the Starbucks fans, ask for the espresso to be pulled ristretto (restricted) and you’ll have a pretty good shot.

Tidbits: With Thanksgiving upon us, you don’t have to make dessert … just order ahead from Extraordinary Desserts. Among the choices: pumpkin cheesecake, pecan-caramel cheesecake, chocolate apple dulce de leche and 24-karat pumpkin apple pecan torte. Extraordinary Desserts, 2929 Fifth Ave., Bankers Hill, (619) 294-2132, and 1430 Union St., Little Italy, (619) 294-7001.

Marcie Rothman loves good food – no matter where it’s cooked – at home, a hole in the wall or a white tablecloth restaurant. Known as The $5 Chef on radio, television and in her two cookbooks, Marcie travels far and near with an eye on what’s current in food. You can find her at www.5dollarchef.com.

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