I never used to drink coffee. In fact, when I was younger I couldn’t even stand the smell of it. Especially when some liquid residue of brewed coffee sat for hours or days on a burner in a workplace break room. But I bought the family an espresso machine for Christmas a couple of years ago and now I am as addicted to the holy bean as anyone.
When traveling, I don’t desperately need a cup of joe as soon as I get up. I can eat a leisurely breakfast and then seek out a café for my espresso and latté caffeine fix. In a pinch, I will go to Starbucks, but I think when overseas it is much better and nicer to find a friendly local place frequented by the natives.
I recently spent some time touring around the northwest corner of Sicily, just west of Palermo. I stayed in a villa out in the beautiful Sicilian countryside. The fields were full of olive trees and vineyards in one direction, and I had a delightful view of the Mediterranean Sea in the other direction. I ate breakfast every morning on the pool deck outside the house, but since there was no espresso machine (and I refuse to drink brewed coffee), I had to venture out by car to get a latté.
I found a small town called Scopello a few kilometers up the road. Scopello was built in the 16th century on the site of an older Moorish settlement. The rocky coastline near Scopello is phenomenal with its crystal clear turquoise sea, beautiful bays, and jagged cliffs. Scopello is located near a nature reserve called Zingaro, which is one of the finest and unspoiled areas of the Mediterranean. Near the town on the Mediterranean coast is an old tuna factory, where tuna was processed up until the 1980s. This region is certainly one of the most beautiful areas in Italy.
There was a small café in the main square of the town. I wandered in to practice my feeble Italian language skills.
“Un café con leche por favor,” I said to the grandmotherly woman behind the high counter. The old woman was clothed in traditional Sicilian country garb. She was timeless. What year is this? Being in this town, in this café, with her behind the counter it could be 1850, 1950, or yesterday.
She stared at me with a blank look on her face. Shoot! That’s Spanish. I’m not in Spain. What am I thinking? I have to try again to not look like a dumb American tourist.
“Un café au lait, s’il vous plaît,” I said.
The blank look had not changed on Grandmama. D’oh! That’s French, brain. Wrong language, wrong country again. What is my problem mixing up what few words I know in Spanish, French and Italian? I loudly cleared my throat and started over.
“Un latte per favore,” I said. I tried to clearly enunciate this phrase so she would understand my request.
Grandmama nodded her head and replied in English: “Yes, sir. A latte for you. Would you like any pastries with that?”
“Uhhhh, yes, please. I would like a chocolate filled croissant.” (They are my favorite).
I went into the café in Scopello each of the next few days. Each day I asked Grandmama for un latte e un cornetto al cioccolato. She would smile and rattle off a monologue of Italian back at me. I would not understand anything she said. I would simply nod my head like an idiot and smile back.
One day Grandmama was missing. Maybe it was her day off (I hope she hadn’t died during the night). A burly guy in his mid-30s was behind the counter. He had a New York Yankees baseball cap on his head.
“Un latte e un cornetto al cioccolato per favore,” I said to the man. He looked at me intently and then smiled.
“Sure, man. Coming right up,” said the guy in a strong New York accent.
We got to chatting. Of course, he was from New York City; the Bronx in fact. He was born in Sicily but spent many years in the Big Apple. He was probably related to Grandmama somehow and came back to the ancestral home to help out in the café. He was a big Yankees fan so we talked about baseball and why Alex Rodriguez is such a jerk.
Michael Corleone III