Barista Nate Hopkins in front of the powder-coated La Marzocco espresso machine at Ultimo

Walk in to the newest location of Ultimo Coffee, opened Monday at the corner of 20th and Locust, and your eye goes immediately to the espresso machine.

That’s partly because the Rittenhouse cafe is relatively tiny. Formerly home to a dry cleaner, the room is not more than 500 square feet, all told.

The small amount of space is well used. Surrounding the main order counter is seating for at least 15 people at a window bar and tables along one wall.

There’s a selection of pastries available — croissants and danishes from Four Worlds, donuts from Dottie’s, breads from Vegan Crust Bakery — to go with the regular selection of house-roasted coffee offered at Ultimo’s other two locations, in Newbold and Graduate Hospital.

Credit: Danya Henninger / Billy Penn

Though the interior is somewhat stark right now, it’s a work in progress, and plants will soon enliven the mostly monochromatic decor. A scalloped curved face of blond wood along the front of the counter, which was fabricated and designed by woodworker Zack Deluca, adds some elegant character.

But it’s the espresso machine that really stands out.

Instead of the usual shimmer of stainless steel, the the top-of-the-line La Marzocco Strada glows bright white. Cafe owner Aaron Ultimo had it custom powder-coated, like the rims or engine of a vintage car.

In fact, a car guy near the Philadelphia Airport is where Ultimo took the outer panels to get coated, after deconstructing the $14,000 machine — despite being warned not to tinker with it.

“People told me to watch out [taking it apart] because apparently everything’s connected to the legs,” he said of the Italian-made device, which is widely considered the best in the industry. But he had his mind set on getting it powder-coated, and getting it done at the factory in Florence was not only costly, it was time-prohibitive. It also wouldn’t have covered the entire machine, head to toe.

So he tinkered, pulled off the machine’s exterior, set the guts carefully on cinder blocks, selected the perfect “white,” and left the panels to get coated. A couple hundred bucks and a few screws later, voila. An espresso machine suited to his first Center City location.

Credit: Danya Henninger / Billy Penn

“Opening in Center City has always been a dream of mine,” Ultimo said. “We love our cafes in the neighborhoods, but having something in the middle of the hustling, bustling metropolitan downtown area — that’s been a longtime goal.”

Now that he’s accomplished it, he’s not ready to stop. Are more cafes on the way? “We’re already working on another project,” he said. “That’s all I’ll say for now.”

Ultimo Rittenhouse is currently open 7 a.m. to 3 p.m. daily. Regular hours of 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. start Saturday.

Danya Henninger is director and editor of Billy Penn at WHYY, where she oversees the team, all editorial decisions, and all revenue generation — including the membership program. She is a former food...