Nearly 56 years ago, when coffee was something dark and thick slurped from bottomless cups in all-night diners and espresso was a bitter brew found mainly in ethnic restaurants, Dominic P. Ammirati Sr. decided to begin importing commercial espresso machines from Italy. The machines, he thought, would complement his thriving house-wares business, started by his Neapolitan father near the family’s east Harlem, NY, apartment. Dominic was 54 at the time, perhaps too old to be considered a Turk or a visionary, but perhaps just the right age to anticipate a trend whose time would soon come.
Determined to bring the best espresso machine to the American market, Dominic traveled to Milan, Italy and began a relationship with La Cimbali that continues today, becoming the first person to bring the renowned manufacturer’s machines to the United States. As legend tells, Dominic carried the first machine back to America in his luggage before setting up Ammirati Imports, a family business spanning three generations, to date, which now brings more than 300 La Cimbali espresso machines from Italy into the United States for sale to cafes and restaurants nationwide annually.
But in 1964, the market for commercial espresso machines was small at best. “Little by little, it grew,” said Dominic a few years ago, describing those first years. In the early days, Dominic primarily sold the machines to restaurants and cafes in ethnic enclaves throughout Manhattan, to French, Spanish, Italian and Jewish business owners who hoped to recreate the espresso experience remembered from childhood and travel abroad.
But with diligence, perseverance and determination, Dominic and his son, Tommy Ammirati, built a business importing and selling espresso machines and coffee that eventually surpassed and swallowed up the original housewares business. In the mid-1970s, the father-son team also began roasting their own coffee and espresso called Caffè Ammi, with much success.
In the late 1980s and early 1990s, with a caffeinated surge, a coffee craze took hold of the United States. Cafes began to crop up on nearly every city street corner. “Cappuccino,” “ristretto,” and “macchiato,” became household words, as Americans learned about the delights of coffee and the culture that surrounds it.
And the Ammirati’s, with 30 years of experience already under its belt, were uniquely poised to bring the best in Italian espresso machines and coffee to an enthusiastic marketplace. Dominic Ammirati Sr., who passed away in June 2002 after a long illness, felt blessed in his success. “I’ve done almost everything I’ve ever wanted to do,” he said in an interview in 1995, adding that what he’d like most to be remembered for is “having a good family.”