Each summer, a parade of newfangled chilled coffee drinks crowds supermarket shelves—from bottled Frappuccino to coffee-colas—each promising a more refreshing, more intense caffeine kick. Thanks to its retro label and distinctive glass bottle, a shopper could easily mistake Manhattan Special Espresso Coffee Soda for one of the new guard. But if you were raised in the New York City area and have a good memory, you’ll know that this bittersweet soda is, in fact, the original bottled pick-me-up. I grew up watching my relatives sip the dark, slightly bubbly beverage at summer barbecues and Sunday suppers. Some of them would drink it straight from the bottles sold at delis; others would pour it over ice and add a touch of milk. Once I was old enough for such a grown-up drink, I’d add creamy vanilla ice cream to it to make a float when I got home from school.
I’d never known just how special Manhattan Special was, though, until I stumbled on the company’s booth at the Fancy Food Show, a food-industry convention held in New York City. Manning the booth was Aurora Passaro, the great-granddaughter of Teresa Cimino, a native of Naples, Italy, who cofounded the company in 1895. Passaro explained that the soda, which has a cult following in Italian-American communities in and around New York, takes its name not from the island of Manhattan but from Manhattan Avenue, a street in the Williamsburg section of Brooklyn, where her family settled and where they’ve been making the drink, in the same factory, ever since.
Passaro, who runs Manhattan Special with her brother Louis, doesn’t believe that the soda was inspired by any particular Italian cold coffee refreshment, such as granita. More likely, her great-grandmother’s invention is an American answer to an Italian craving. “Italian immigrants drank a lot of espresso with sugar,” Passaro told me. “During the summer they’d cool it down, but no one wanted to drink it with ice and dilute it.” Those were the days when seltzer salesmen made home deliveries and drugstore soda fountains added flavored syrups to fizzy water. So, Teresa Cimino concocted a drink, the recipe for which remains essentially unchanged, tailored to her community: she brewed heavily roasted espresso coffee, sweetened it with cane sugar to make a syrup, and added carbonated water. This summer, the company began selling the beverage through its online store (www.manhattanspecial.com), and, though it has recently introduced a line of its own, Starbucks-esque bottled coffee drinks, Passaro knows where her customers’ loyalties lie: “Once you’ve developed a taste for our soda,” she said, “it’s hard to go back.”