Per amore di caffé: Matt Gebis finds happiness in the perfect pour

Matt Gebis started Espresso a Mano in Lawreceville in 2009. Stephen Caruso / Senior Staff Photographer.

As a jangly folk melody played — one that would sound more at home in a bright Tuscan piazzale than a former electrician’s shop — Matt Gebis sipped his third espresso of the day. He looked up, incredulous, at Braden Walter, one of the baristas behind the long L-shaped bar.

“Is this the same one?” Gebis asked.

“No, it’s different,” Walter answered from behind the tall spouts of dark beans.

Surprised, Gebis shrugged and finished the free shot. This little Lawrenceville shop — more an extension of the street than hole-in-the-wall — is Espresso a Mano, and it has been Gebis’ labor of love since 2009.

A mano means by hand [in Italian],” Gebis said, referring to the shop’s name “It could also mean ‘expressed by hands,’ taken literally.”

Inside Espresso a Mano, faded exposed bricks accent a wide open garage door, and the lingering scent of steamed milk and bitter brews wafts through the air. Gebis can be found behind the counter. The 2005 Pitt grad studied Italian and history as an undergraduate and meant the shop’s title to reflect the care he puts into each latte or mocha served to caffeine-starved customers.

But as he describes the shop, its origins and his goals, you realize the literal translation may be best. Gebis can’t help but gesticulate as he talks, rolling his hands or spreading them wide for emphasis.

Combined with his ubiquitous staccato laugh, it’s easy to see why the shop — and Gebis — have attracted such a loyal following. Gebis said he and his employees know “90 percent of customers … by name” — whether that’s the result of a regular crowd or the staff’s friendly attitude is hard to tell.

While he’s spent a lot of time in the service industry before and during college — first in fast food, then as a waiter and a cook — Gebis didn’t see himself serving people food for the rest of his life.

“When I was in college I thought I wanted to be a teacher,” Gebis said — first high school history, then an Italian professor. “I never said ‘I want to own a business.’”

Lorraine Denman, Pitt’s Italian language program coordinator, met Gebis sometime in 2001. When he graduated in 2005 and started grad school at Pitt in Italian, Denman, as an adjunct professor, became his supervisor. She remembers all of Gebis’ students loving him.

“He was an awesome teacher,” she said. “He’s really laid back, but he’s serious about his work.”

Despite his success, Gebis didn’t feel any reason to stay within the confines of an academic life.

“I’m not much of a guy who’s good at sitting down and grading papers, or sitting down and writing research papers,” Gebis said of his time as a graduate student. “I’d [just] rather be on my feet and talking to people, and having my hands on things.”

If formal education wasn’t what he was looking for, Gebis found one respite. In four trips to Italy — one before school, one during his time at Pitt and two since — Gebis fell in love with the country and its coffee.

“I was like ‘Oh, this is espresso,’” Gebis said.

Gebis had gotten a job at La Prima, another Pittsburgh coffee shop in the Strip District while still an undergraduate. His natural friendliness behind the bar earned him plenty of friends, including a Pittsburgh-based graphic artist who goes by the name Wayno and Walter, who would later become his right-hand man and espresso taster.

Walter and Gebis worked at separate spots — Gebis at La Prima, Walter at Tazza D’Oro in Highland Park. After Gebis guest judged a barista competition Walter participated in, Walter was so impressed, he called Gebis a caffeine “ninja” — a “Mr. Miyagi, but for coffee.”

After one year, in 2006, 23-year-old Gebis left Pitt for good and started working at La Prima full time. His time spent at the shop gave Gebis the confidence to quit grad school and pursue something new: his own coffee shop.

“He was into the coffee culture, making a quality product,” Denman said. “I thought that [his own shop] would be an amazing idea, and I thought right away he could pull that off.”

Gebis’ job was no longer just a part-time gig, he was an apprentice, learning all the steps from backroom to countertop to make a great espresso. By 2008, he felt ready to finally “make the leap.”

Gebis found his spot — near the intersection of Butler and 37th streets — filled it out with secondhand furniture, and added the finishing touch: a brand-new silver espresso machine.

Opening day was July 16, 2009. His first customer was a familiar face: Wayno, the artist.

“I was waiting for him to open in fact,” he said.

Wayno also contributed to his friend’s endeavour by creating Espresso a Mano’s logo: a smiling stylized man hovering over his piping hot espresso cup.

“It’s how I see the people I see there on the morning, who [are] just so happy to have their espresso,” he said.

Gebis sold $100 of coffee that first day. From there, the business grew and Gebis needed extra help. Walter was ready to start, and Gebis hired him in 2011. He’s worked at Espresso a Mano ever since.

Even as he builds his reputation, Gebis can still be found behind the counter of his shop, where he takes joy from how a good cup of joe turns around someone’s day. He tries to stay away from the curmudgeonry coffee trader stereotype.

“[People] think we are a bunch of grumpy hipsters who just want to play with coffee and look at you like an idiot if you don’t know what you’re talking about,” he said. “I just want [customers] to smile.”

Unfortunately for Gebis, being the owner means having to activate “manager mode” to pay the bills and place orders, a job the coffee connoisseur doesn’t like as much as watching a customer literally give a brief ovation for some well-poured foam.

In fact, Gebis plans to clear grinds and slide saucers across Espresso a Mano’s counter until the day his hands are worn and wrinkled.

“If it was up to me, I’d be behind that bar making coffee all day,” Gebis said. “I love the idea that someday people are going to be like, ‘Oh let’s go down to Espresso a Mano, this guy has been doing it for 50 years.”

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