The Italian café, from about 8 to 10 in the morning, is a thing of pure beauty. A well-oiled machine that just begs the foreigner to stand back in awe.
People crowd around the pastry case first, no well-formed line, just a general understanding of who might take their turn next. Neighbors greet each other at their friendly neighborhood café on their way to work. In the daily life of the Italian, they have a pastry and a coffee for breakfast; a large lunch and finally a demure dinner. There is no snacking in between, the only seemly execption to this rule is a quick apertivo on the way home from work. Locals might stop at the same bar on their way home. The café has been transformed into a bar. A spread of mini sandwiches, cheeses, olives, pappa al pomodoro (a tomato bread soup) are all offered for perhaps a tiny taste. To drink, a nice red wine or perhaps a shot of espresso with a shot of liquor in it.
I could talk about each individual moment of the day at an Italian café: how certain coffee drinks are had at certain times of the day, but for now, oh for now, let’s do talk about morning coffee.
I am visiting my sister. She lives in Florence these past 9 years, and while she goes to work, I walk the city streets and indulge. This trip is different from all my tourist trips I’ve taken before. This trip I speak the language. I’ve been studying for two years. I also have the luxury of time to take it all in.
Work starts about 10am here, and it’s only 9, so the place is hopping. I gather into the crowd by the pastry case and it’s good there is time for me to make a decision. The temptations are glorious.
There are pastries stuffed with Chantilly cream that divine heaven in your mouth; croissants filled with apples; brioche as far as the eye can see; and delicate, inviting fruit tarts.
An older blonde woman, with what can only be described as a modern, updated version of a Roman face, stands behind the counter, handing out “la pasta” the pastry. Today I order “tre paste per portare via.” Three pastries to take home. I can’t abide settling for one. I’ll save some for later.
With a crowd that would normally take a Starbucks staff of four and a decent amount of time to fill orders; here, one lone barista handles the lovely dance of morning orders without breaking a sweat.
In between calls of ‘ciao’ and ‘come stai’ to each other; once the locals have made their way to the front of the counter, they call out their order to the barista, “due cappuccini” “un caffe”… and without giving any acknowledgement to the one who ordered, within seconds said drink is placed before the customer.
The sound of clinking cups and saucers and spoons, become a magical morning symphony to accompany the rising sun.
“Vorrei un cappuccino”, I call, I would like a cappuccino. My own cup is placed on a saucer with spoon. I stand at the bar the way the locals do. Coffee is for a quick visit, not for lingering. I add a little sugar, give a swirl and then…then comes that fine moment when the world stands still and I drink the perfect cappuccino – perfect foam, perfect espresso, perfect size (maybe 6oz) that perfectly tempered mixture rushes down to my stomach and I sigh. Good morning Italy.
I have been spoiled by the Italian Cappuccino. When I return to my little corner of the world I call home, I will find no pomp and circumstance to surround a cappuccino of the perfect size, served in a cup with saucer and spoon. It’s all tall, grande, venti’s with additives, but that’s American. It’s who we are on our busy mornings. This however, this is not about an American morning. Right now this is about the Italian morning.
Here, on this cloudy, cool morning, I revel in this moment that I can be a part of. I finish my drink in several sips, the way the locals do, then I step away from the bar so another can take my place. I pay and make my way back into the rainy streets towards my sister’s apartment. How many more mornings will I have to repeat this ritual? Not nearly enough.