Welcome to the Italian Cafe edition of Around the World in 80 Drinks, a series that takes us on a drunken, whirlwind of adventure around our planet. Sometimes (like today) we’ll talk about delicious non-alcoholic drinks. But mostly we’ll talk about boozy goodness, like champagne, vodka, tequila, mulled Glögg wine, Belgian beer, and the holy grail of Canada, the Caesar. Please let us know what you think in the comments, or say hello on Facebook and Twitter.
It’s 7am on the Sunday before Christmas, and we’re heading to Turin, Italy for the day. We’re jet lagged — and therefore wide awake — as we walk into the tiny Italian cafe just around the corner from our hotel, and we’re on the hunt for a proper Italian coffee before jumping on Milan’s antiquated metro to the train station. There is nothing modern about this place, and it is diametrically opposite to a cafe at home: there’s nowhere to actually sit, and those who are in the cafe are standing at a tall, polished and marbled wood bar; the place is devoid of laptop hobos and newspaper-readers — this is not a place for hanging out; behind the bar, two older gentleman are gently but determinedly hurrying to prepare each customer’s order. This is not a place of smiles and customer service. It’s a brusque and to-the-point kind of place, and this is the norm in Italy; this is a typical Italian cafe. Geoff and I gawk at the selection of pastries in the glass case, and when we’re ready to order, I walk to the bar and try my hand at ordering in Italian.
“Una brioche a la café, una brioche a la cioccolato, una capuccucha, una café.”
We’ve been in the country for less than 24 hours, and I don’t know the Italian word for and, but one of the men behind the bar softens when we try to order in Italian and — success — he moves towards the pastry case to collect our order, which turn out to be like croissants on crack: oozing with coffee-flavoured and chocolate cream, they are a diabetics’ personal hell. I don’t even know what a brioche is, but I know I’m in love. The thing about Italian pastries is, there are so damn many of them, I don’t even know how to label them in English.
English is a pastry-inadequate language.
He delivers our pastries and checks our order: are we sure we want just una capuccha — one cappuccino – and una café — one espresso? What he’s really asking is whether I want a proper Italian espresso or a cappuccino, which is essentially a wimp drink in Italy. I confirm the order – thank god it’s breakfast time, or he’d no doubt give us shit for ordering even one cappuccino — and he gets to work on a gigantic espresso machine. In Italy, the espresso machines are massive and beautiful pieces of machinery; the machinery in an Italian cafe would probably make your average Starbucks barrista quiver in their uniform black boots.
An older woman walks in, draped from head to toe in thick, luxurious-looking fur. It literally looks like she has a dead animal spooning her head, and this seems to be the norm in much of Europe. PETA just hasn’t made the same in-roads here, I guess. She’s made-up and her hair — that which we can seen under her furry head companion, at least — is coloured and formed into perfect old lady curls; I guess that she has probably put more effort into her appearance on this Sunday morning than I do on an average day at home; this is fashion-focused Milan, not the fleece-draped Pacific Northwest from which we came. She walks to the bar and chats with the gentleman in a familiar way that makes me think this is part of her daily routine. She orders una café and una brioche and waits at the bar, chatting cordially as the barmen prepare her order. Within minutes of her espresso being placed atop her spot at the bar, she is finished. She waves her goodbyes, and makes chit chat in a way that makes me think she’ll probably be back at the same time tomorrow — no Nespresso for this broad.
As Geoff and I sit at the bar, people come and go – such is the way of the Italian cafe. This is no Starbucks, where the brand is paramount and the coffee is a nice way to make money. The Italian cafe is a place free from branding (except…well…the branding on the espresso machines). I’m in love with it: it feels like community and coffee are wrapped in each others’ embrace, and it is delicious.
After not too long – after all we have nowhere to sit — we pull ourselves away from the allure of this place and walk to the metro. We take the metro to the train station and the train to Turin, where we spend the day wandering from Italian cafe to monument, and back to Italian cafe, one of which ends up being San Tommaso 10, the home of Lavassa coffee. And then we jump on a train to Germany; as we head north through Austria, we both drift off to sleep. When we awake early on Christmas Eve in Munich, I can’t help but feel a tiny pang of regret when we see a Starbucks.