Saturday, March 31, 2018

La Prima Colazione – Have it Your Way

La Prima Colazione – Have it Your Way

“I’ll have two sunny side, hash brown potatoes, bacon, a short stack, and a side of corn beef hash with wheat toast please.”  Thus it begins, a typical farmer’s breakfast, American style.  And there can be more, to include creamy grits, muffins, sausage, steak, quiche, waffles, ham, cereals,
beans, creamed beef, fruit, jams, jelly and syrup and let us not forget butter, heaps of it, along with omelets galore packed with just about anything you might fancy plus cheese, just to name a few.  In fact, breakfast has become an industry in itself with what we refer to as diners or greasy spoon eateries just about everywhere.
They specialize in the morning fare for the morning crowd, their advertised delights spread across glossy laminated multi-page menus.  For the home crowd, supermarket shelves feed the morning frenzy with row after row of breakfast items both of the fresh and frozen variety.
Maybe this breakfast mania can be explained by the fact that Americans typically eat supper much earlier in the day, usually in the vicinity of 5 to 6 pm.  By morning, twelve or more hours have passed and a substantial refueling is warranted.  Contrast this with a European lifestyle where it is fashionable not to even consider having the evening meal before 8 or 9 pm, even later in the summer.  They not only eat out later, but with the ritual of multiple courses, it also continues much longer, only to conclude hours later.  In Italy our experience has been that the evening meal at home is more modest than that at lunch.  Yes, it is lunch in Calitri that dominates, making it hard to understand why with so modest an evening meal, breakfast follows suit and is also negligible.
Wherever breakfast is served, coffee plays an essential role.  In Italy of course, it is referred to as “espresso”.  It’s a sublime name derived from the act of forcing or “expressing” a small amount of
nearly boiling water, under enough pressure to quickly squeeze the flavor from finely powdered coffee beans.  The term implies speed, speed in its hissing steamy creation and in the end result made “expressly” for you … so much so that some refer to it as “expresso”.  The technique results in a highly concentrated fluid, generally thicker than coffee brewed by other methods.  As the black fluid gradually spread across and down the Italian peninsula from its imported point of origin, Venice, it took on many forms.  There is Caffè Latte with its steamed milk emphasis, and Caffe Macchiato, milk with layered marks sometimes served in a tall glass to appreciate the gradations.  Finally, Caffè Americano features a one-to-one espresso hot water ratio (water replacing the milk).  For us, however, none compare to the satisfaction of an American style cup of coffee.  The closest to an American cup of joe might be what is called Caffè Lungo, an espresso diluted with about twice the normal amount of hot water making it slightly longer lasting (lungo), though weaker tasting and lasting only a shot longer by volume.

Some patrons will have their espresso “spiked” with grappa, sambuca, or brandy for an added jet-assisted energy boost.  It is called caffè corretto.  It can be ordered as “un caffè corretto alla grappa”, “alla sambuca”, or “al cognac” depending on your taste.  Apparently, the idea is to “correct” the coffee.  Depending on where you are, some bartenders will pass you the bottle
so you can “correct” your coffee to your heart’s content, limited only be the size of the demitasse in which the espresso is served.  To help sooth your stomach, it is usually accompanied by a “chaser” of water, although some patrons have a side of water with straight, unmodified espresso.  Adding water is a good idea, but I’d much rather have the water added hot to my coffee, more consistent with the volume of an American cup of coffee.  God forbid, I’m not trying to change things like doing away with espresso machines and replacing them with percolators or drip type American coffee makers.  We don’t like all those American type coffees either.  Take Starbucks for instance, which to us has a burnt flavor (sorry all you Starbucks drinkers). 
But everyone has their particular taste.  Mine (ours) happens to be mugs of coffee, in a real mug have you.  While you can find demitasse cups galore suitable for an espresso, try shopping for an American style mug in Calitri!  Will a beer stein from Double Jacks Pub do the trick?  As you might expect, a mug full of steaming coffee lasts much longer than the time it takes to knock your head back to inject a shot of espresso before walking out the door.  It seems that  once the espresso is gone, so are they.  For such
social people, the social side of dawdling over a cup of coffee is missing.  To us at least, it must last longer.  If socializing lasts too long, however, the coffee begins to get cold, but I don’t care.  Just warm it up with more of the warm stuff.  Then again, ice coffee is popular too and I’ve had plenty grow cold on me at my desk or when I flew, just to keep awake on long missions.  In fact, as I tap these keys, I’m sipping a cooled cup of java. 
While I can safely say that Italians are passionate about coffee, try as we might, we still can’t get Italian visitors to our home adventurous enough to try a cup of our drip coffee when they drop by Casa della Feritoia, our Italian address.  Is it taboo for them to violate their coffee culture traditions? 
Does the filled twelve cup decanter somehow look intimidating?  Might they think they’d have to drink it all?  Perhaps it has something to do with a mug’s volume, where by Italian norms such an amount, pretty much all at once, might be considered harmful.  I may be on to something here for this just might help explain why Italians make the rounds to so many baristas in a day, drinking tiny amounts at each stop.  In any case, we’ve never had an adventurous type willing to take the plunge, with or without the water chaser, “corrected” or not.

Speaking of traditions, I once stumbled upon an old Neapolitan coffee custom totally by accident and totally unrelated to some special nature of Italian coffee.  Neither was I in Naples at the time.  It is referred to as “caffè sospeso”, meaning suspended coffee or what the world may know as “paying it forward”.  It’s the practice of paying for two coffees but only consuming one, leaving the other for a stranger to enjoy gratis.  It occurred during an especially important American election.  I was in Mario’s Caffè, coincidentally around breakfast time, when news arrived of the election result.  Following my rather boisterous announcement of the outcome to all those present, I gave a surprised Mario a 20 Euro note with instruction to use it to pay for patron’s coffees until it ran out.  It was on the level of an American Western where some cowboy in a saloon shouts “drinks are on the house”.  This may have been a first in Calitri, it certainly was for me even shy of a ten-gallon hat and hip-slung gun belt. 
As a momentary aside and entirely unrelated to coffee or breakfast rituals, I credit Maria Elena for introducing the idea of a gift card to the Calitri marketplace back in 2014 when she wanted to
thank a good Samaritan for his help in “shooting-up” her husband.  Let me explain.  I’d pulled my back and was confined to bed, not on a doctor’s direction, but because, as if I were playing an Italian version of “dead bug”, I couldn’t get out of bed if I’d wanted to.  He wouldn’t accept anything as an expression of our gratitude for giving me a daily hypodermic shot.  Maria Elena had the idea of getting a gift card for him and his family at a pastry shop.  When she tried to purchase one, she was greeted with a blank stare.  The owner explained that you got “cards” at the cartolina (card) shop a few doors away.  Shopkeepers apparently operated only in cash, even a running tab was foreign, and you could forget about “what you call gift card”.  After explaining the concept, the owner agreed to the idea and created a sort of gift card in the form of a receipt for 25 Euros worth of pasticcino (pastry) and gelato to be purchased over time.  Oh, the evils of capitalism when confronting the Italian Guardia di Finanza (Finance Police) insistence on a receipt!

Morning breakfast drinks aside, and never having touched on the ubiquitous Cappuccino (a named derived from the brown capes of Cappucin Friars visible with a swirl just beneath the froth) at all, which custom ordains should never be ordered after 10 am for some mysterious reason (that is
unless you have the dispensation of being a tourist), there is next the matter of where to have breakfast in Calitri and what it might consist of.  If you are an American looking for the familiar, you can forget about the customary storefront crowded with ten or so tables and a counter with round swivel seats to one side and a skillet heaped with hash brown potatoes on the other, decorated or not decorated in a chicken motif.  You will not find one of these, and I doubt if one ever opened it could survive.  Oh, you certainly might find something approaching this in a large hotel found in bigger cities like Naples or Rome.  Such places cater to visitors from across the world, passing through to see the sights but unwilling to abandon the comforts of a home style breakfast.  Here the Germans will find their sausage links, the British their Oxford Enervating Marmalade, the French their crepes, the Americans their scrambled eggs and bacon.  So, lacking a major hotel in Calitri, the closest we can come to a breakfast meal is in a pasticceria (pastry shop), heaping full of delicate decadence.
We have a few including Jolly Bar, Idee Golose, and Zabbatas, the largest being Zabbatas.  Inside Zabattas, to the left, there is a long glass display case running the length of the room overflowing with everything from soon to be rum
soaked babas, ricotta-filled clam shaped sfogliatelle, cream-filled tubes of cannoli, and everything else sugary under the sun.  Straight ahead is a counter, absent any seats to stand by, behind which an ever-hissing espresso machine is continually being attended to by the Zabbata sons, momma Zabbata, and occasionally papa Gerardo when he isn’t busy at the bakery laboratorio.  With people coming and going so frequently, there is no suggestion to stay a while which might be simplied by some form of seating, for true to form, the coffee downed, they are off.  Along the final wall are a couple of small, round, patio-style tables and chairs usually covered not
with a caddie corralling salt, pepper, sugar, and catchup, but with the sport and daily newspapers for the day.  You’re lucky if you are timely enough to get one of the few available seats.  Some of the sweets are consumed on the premises, but most go out the door on trays, nicely wrapped, ready for Sunday dinner at mom’s and customarily as anytime gifts and daily treats at home.  But what might the fare be for breakfast along with that shot of espresso while standing at the counter?  The usual choice is a cornetta, a sort of croissant injected with chocolate, cream, marmalade or simply plain.  Depending on where you are, you might find them kept in a heated glass-sided box, where with a slick, napkin-like sheet of paper, you can select your own, once you know the layout in the box as to which cornetta has your choice of filling.  So if you were to stop by, looking for breakfast, you’d have to essentially be satisfied with an espresso or cappuccino and a
 cornetta, on the equivalent with toast and coffee. 
In Italy a month or so, we sometime fantasize on enjoying an American “farmer’s breakfast”, like the one I described earlier.  For our British friends in Calitri, I’m just as sure that at times they entertain fond thoughts of a full-blown English breakfast of bacon, sausage, eggs, mushrooms, tomatoes, black pudding, hash browns, baked beans, and toast followed by more toast, these with marmalade along with a good old cup of English “Rosie Lee”.  Tongue-in-cheek, I think it might mean certain death if an Italian tried to consume such a large breakfast at La Prima Colazione!  The plating alone would more than overfill the mini-tables at Zabattas.  While Jewish dietary tradition calls for milk and meat dishes to be treated differently to the
point that the plates not be mixed when used or washed, the art of Italian eating hinges on a one type of food at a time mentality, where tradition dictates sequentially savoring a single item like pasta, meat, and vegetables at a time.  This has translated to one item being plated at a time.  Use of a partitioned plate, one divided into sections, would help-out and also serve to keep food from touching, but at the same time it would be heresy and dash every food taboo Italian mothers have taught their children.  While the Brits might not mind their mashed potatoes colliding with runaway peas (in fact I think they encourage it and call them mushy-peas), a true Italian would be appalled.  In fact, I’d even go so far as be willing to bet that these divided plates were not invented by an Italian. 

We have never been invited to an Italian home for breakfast.  Even for Italians, this may be a rare event.  If we had, we might realize that some of these impressions were factually wrong.  Nevertheless, it is apparent that while breakfast is the prima (first) meal, it certainly is not the most important meal to Italians.  Until that day, we have our share of cornetti and at times brew our coffee in a macchinetta, our Italian stove-top percolator.  When a back-home style breakfast urge strikes, we do our best to sometimes scratch that itch with a run to Naples for a supply of maple syrup, American style ground coffee, cans of corned beef hash, or sliced bacon.  We have our sources.  At other times, Maria Elena will whip up a batch of hash brown potatoes, enough to insure leftovers, or a skillet of eggs-in-a-nest.
Our mix of traditions, that encompass generations, continues.  Where exactly they originated is clouded in the murky fog of time.  From the ancient Romans, we know that for breakfast (jentaculum), bread was dipped in wine and eaten with a mix of cheese, olives, wheat pancakes, and for their sweets, honey and dates.  American breakfast traditions derive from the bounty of the American farm as influenced by the colonial English breakfast, the two being so similar.  Today, it seems they differ in the degree of importance each culture assigns breakfast as the beginning meal of the day and in their composition.  
It was in a painting where Norman Rockwell once immortalized the diner experience, sanctuary of the American breakfast.  Given its lower priority in Italian culture and beyond the image of an espresso machine, symbol of a vibrant beginning to an Italian day, I cannot think of its counterpart

in the repertoire of Italian iconography.  Regardless, whichever way you have it, “eggs over easy” or “un cornetta con marmellata” (a croissant with marmalade), it always comes with a bill.  Well I’m off … time to warm-up my cooled coffee. 

From that Rogue Tourist