Latte at Jojo’s

Double Shot

In Vienna, Austria, there stands a 135-year-old coffee bar called Café Sperl. It has a charming, vaguely Baroque interior decorated with intimate plush booths and tiny round two-seaters, and boasts a long history of famous patrons like the Archduke Ferdinand.

Coffee obsessor Bill Sze has tried to recreate the feeling of the Sperl right here in New Haven, via his indie coffee shop Jojo’s. Before opening the first Jojo’s location in Hartford in 2000 (now closed), Sze spent his spare time visiting cafes, mostly throughout America but also in Europe. When he began work on a second Jojo’s, this time in New Haven, the facade of the forthcoming storefront at 1177 Chapel Street reminded him of that Viennese pearl, the Sperl, and he went about recreating that feeling here, on a budget.

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Homages to the Sperl hide in plain sight throughout the shop, from mellow, bulbous chandeliers and red-and-gold embroidered curtains to cushioned benches around the edges and dual signs flanking the front door. And like the Sperl of yore—where upper-crusters came to drink and chat side-by-side with military officers, luminaries and regular citizens alike—Jojo’s, too, attracts from different strata. There are the students on laptops, of course, and downtown professionals looking for either a jolt or a repose. But there’s also room here for those down on their luck, seeking refuge from sun, rain or snow.

A soft-spoken woman named Pat often sits at Jojo’s with a cup of something hot fogging up her glasses—one lens cracked, the frame held together with Scotch tape. When weather permits, a man named Barry makes a half-hour travail to Jojo’s on crutches. He orders iced tea, sometimes four or five times a day, and sits at a table listening to blues, jazz and classical music. Douglas, a man with zapped white hair, makes milk runs, gets change at the bank and cleans the floors and tables in exchange for coffee.

“I’ll never make money off them, but why ruin someone’s day?” Sze says. “A cup of warm coffee doesn’t cost me much.”

Unlike most coffee shops, Jojo’s can stake a claim to being a bonafide teahouse. Jojo’s signature iron tea kettles, squat and angular with stout spouts, come on well-used wooden trays. In their bellies are high-end loose-leaf teas like the smooth Darjeeling Oolong, which runs Sze a cool $100 a pound, he says.

Adapted from a Chinese cold remedy, the Honey Ginger Lemon Tea evinces the fire and zest of the named ingredients, tempered with sweetness. As for the Chai recipe, Sze says he perfected it by genially pestering his Indian customers with every new batch until they agreed he’d hit the mark: “‘Yup, this is more or less what we drink in India.’” If you’re less of a traditionalist, that most ancient herbal drink is also available at Jojos’ in a more contemporary form: bubble tea. In addition to Chai, a cross-seasonal menu of 19 sweet and savory flavors includes Vanilla, Lychee, Pumpkin, Watermelon and Toasted Almond.

But despite the strong smell of tea that sometimes permeates Jojo’s—and a food menu spanning a handful of breakfast staples and a few handfuls of lunch sandwiches—it’s still the coffee that gets Sze really excited. He worries about the foaming of the lattes and the pulling of the espresso. One customer who was there during my visit recalled how an off-hand comment about his new French press launched Sze into a thorough discussion of the device’s intricacies.

Coffee shops, according to Sze, can be sized up via two metrics: ambiance and quality. There are those that put money into the look and not the product, and others that skimp on atmosphere but invest in serious espresso machines, grinders and beans. Jojo’s goes for both, and pulls a solid double.

Jojo’s Coffee & Tea
1177 Chapel St, New Haven (map)
Open daily 8am-9pm
(203) 785-8888

Written and photographed by Daniel Shkolnik.

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