It’s a hot hot summer day. You find that even thinking takes it out of you. And then you see a stand selling granita di caffe. Coffee, frozen and crushed to a mush and with a cap of whipped cream on top. Does that count as coffee? I suppose it does for it brings you back to life.
Or later in the year, you’re in Naples and the cold winds of autumn are already blowing. Best thing to pick up your spirits is to get an espresso. You feel around in your pockets, wondering where those coins went. And then if you’re lucky you can get a caffè sospeso. Nice tradition. Someone buys a cup of coffee and pays for two. The second one is for whoever comes along afterwards but can’t afford it. You probably could afford it, but don’t have the cash on hand right now. Next time you will buy someone a caffè sospeso.
A cup of coffee. No matter whether you’re in America or Italy, “a cup of coffee”, morning, after lunch, mid-afternoon is a sign of friendship. A pause in the day. Actually in Italy it’s often not even a pause. As I learned in 1955 when I started my Italian life in Florence. How odd I thought. I was used to breakfast coffee to start the day. Or in Germany in the afternoon when you sat down at a table and had a cup of coffee and a slice of cake. A gemutlich or easy-going pause in the day.
I was in for a shock. Eight in the morning. In a coffee bar on the Arno. The espresso machines are humming away and people are coming and going, never stopping longer than required to gulp down half a demi-tasse of coffee, and never sitting down. Maybe one could call it a caffeine fix. Italian coffee, said my American father, was so powerful it grew hair on your chest.
Then there is the question of sugar. In a civilized land, according to an Italian friend, everyone is allowed to put the sugar into his own cup. But in the south they have no faith in the individual. So that if anyone wants less than a heaping teaspoon of sugar in half a demi-tasse of coffee, you have to say so before it is set down before you: “A cup of coffee, please, with little sugar” – “Un caffè con poco zucchero.” Come to think of it, in Italy it’s not a cup of coffee but just plain coffee.
You find that there are all kinds of coffee. One of my favorites is caffe corretto. Whether this means that an ordinary coffee is incorrect, I’m not sure. But in any case, a corrected coffee is a great invention. Particularly on a cold unheated winter day when the wind blows squalls of rain down each narrow street, and the rooms just remain plain cold. For a caffe corretto is an espresso with a jigger of cognac, or brandy, grappa or rum in it. Of course, latte corretto is not bad either.
A hilarious description of Italians and their coffee habits can be found on YouTube in Bruno Bozzetto’s Europe versus Italy. It’s not just coffee however for the Italians seem to live in another world with regards to parking and queuing and dealing with bureaucracy.
Then there is the cappuccino, served in an ordinary cup or in a glass. At least half milk, heated with the vapor from the espresso machine. It has always been a mystery to me why these machines don’t occasionally explode. The resulting foam on top may or may not be to your liking and you might want to sprinkle some cocoa or cinnamon on top. One thing to remember is that you are obviously a foreigner if you order a cappuccino after lunch. A horror to an Italian.
Caffe latte can on the other hand be most formidable. At least if it is like the one they gave me in Perugia. It was in a bowl with a capacity of half a liter. A lot of milk and not much coffee. And this one drinks, or rather eats with a spoon, since pieces of bread float on top, turning it into a real breakfast, since cereal seemed to be unknown. That’s also what your children get before going off to school. Although the coffee is orzo or barley. Or a caffe latte may just be a big economy-size cappuccino, less interesting since it is without foam.
A cup of coffee. No matter where you are it is a sign of friendship. I suppose in the UK it would be a cup of tea. But here it is a cup of coffee, an espresso, to be accepted with grace, an offer to be returned whenever one can.
When my husband suddenly died and left me with two small children, I had to really count my pennies until I could figure out what to do. There were friends of course and daily encounters would include stopping for an espresso at Bar Montanucci. Often someone would offer, although there were also one or two who throughout the years never ever offered. Bar Montanucci, almost a hundred years old, was synonymous with Orvieto. Rosina, the mother of the owner of the bar at the time, could be seen sitting in a corner, her eagle eye watching those who came in, addressing them by name. She often offered me not only a cappuccino, but also a brioche with whipped cream. I sometimes felt guilty about accepting and excused myself with her son. But how could one say no to Rosina? Her son had grown up with the bar and in grade school was known as “Reno of the bar” to distinguish him from another boy with the same last name.