By Claudie Benjamin

“A little bit of Europe on the Upper West Side” is the way Vinz Z. and Aida, his wife, think of Charlotte, their cafe that’s located at 95th Street & Broadway. The couple has two sons, and their baby daughter will be born soon. Between the demands of family and managing two cafes, they are pretty busy.

Originally from Tirana, the capital of Albania, the owners’ concept is infused with Italian inspiration. And, in fact, their croissants are actually made in Italy, frozen, and transported by air to NYC. Here at Charlotte’s, small batches are popped into the oven every half hour or so, ensuring that customers walking into Charlotte’s are certain to experience the entrancing scent of freshly baked croissants. So what else? There’s coffee from Filicori Zecchini, a coffee roasting firm that first opened in Bologna in 1919. This cafe at 2541 Broadway was originally named for the coffee brand (Filicori Zecchini since 2014) where they have served first as baristas and then as owners. Charlotte Cafe was founded in 2018. Vinz explains the enthusiasm for the name, which has French origins and means “free men,” a term corresponding to the sense of comfort and well-being Vinz generally wants to celebrate. This coffee continues to be served. Celebrations often call for cake. Here too, Charlotte’s is ready with delicious options.

Numerous photos on Charlotte’s website illustrate not only cappuccinos with warm, foamed milk shaped into hearts but also present customers with a challenging variety of cakes and other sweets to be enjoyed by the slice.

Take, for example, the hard-to-come by gluten-free Red Velvet Cake created in two layers of sponge cake with whipped cream in the middle and topping the confection. Gluten flour results in a cake that’s dryer than the typical Red Velvet Cake. However, providing for dietary preferences is, of course, an important consideration for a successful cafe owner.

Is the Red Velvet Cake from Europe? Actually, there are many claims about its origins that may go back to the Victorian period. A much later controversy comes up in regard to the cake’s red coloring. “The Adams company was able to make a lot of money selling red food coloring to make red velvet cake” according to a history of the cake provided by the Sunflour Baking Company.

The cake has special associations and incorporation into some Juneteenth celebrations that mark the emancipation of enslaved African Americans in the U.S. (observed this year, on June 19th). For Juneteenth celebrations, “the color red represents the struggle and bloodshed of the enslaved as well as the ultimate resilience of the people.”

Charlotte’s all-time best seller is a chocolate hazelnut cake that needs no explaining apart to note it is made from fine ingredients – just one bite leads to many more.

Torta Della Nonna (Italian Grandmother’s cake) – a delicious Italian custard tart made with a sweet crust, is also a big favorite.

It’s hard to remember the pre-1960s when cafes were scarce in New York and were regarded as highlights when traveling to Paris, Rome, or other European cities. But, once cafes arrived, they truly became part of the New York scene. In Italy, you may still see cafe patrons reading a newspaper attached to a wooden rack they hold in one hand as they sip an espresso for an hour or two. Not so much here in New York. But, as Vinz joyfully explains, “They come here to meet a friend, work or study. Our staff is very friendly and welcoming. We have many regulars.”


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