For a taste of 'la dolce vita,' visit your local coffeehouse
I’m convinced it’s an Italian thing, embedded deep in my DNA. Venice — the birthplace of half my grandparents — was where the first European coffee house opened in 1683. One of my ancestors likely owned the place.
Truth be told, I think everyone envies Italians just a little bit. Maybe it’s the approach to life — la dolce vita — or the ability to create wonderful meals from whatever is on hand. Maybe it’s the simple, yet sophisticated fashion sense that combines style with comfort.
Whatever it is, the reason coffee shops selling lattes and macchiotos and Americanos and espressos are so popular is that everyone wants to be at least a little bit Italian, if even for a just a little while.
How else to explain the invasion of Italian peasant food into the most chi-chi of restaurants? Created from meager ingredients — corn meal, rice, and potatoes — polenta, risotto, and gnocchi were creatively elevated by Italians to the gastronomic equivalent of the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel.
Keeping us caffeinated and feeling Italian is big business. Coffee is the second most-traded commodity in the world, right behind petroleum. In the United States alone, it’s estimated that there are over 110 million coffee drinkers, and together we’re drinking over 330 million cups of coffee a day.
Coffee shops have sprung up in Livingston County almost as quickly as fast food joints. While many customers opt for creative, coffee-esque offerings, hard-core drinkers like me scoff at the syrups, whipped cream and flavorings because real Italians drink their stuff one of two ways: straight and strong, or tempered with milk.
As a little girl, my mother drank the caffe latte her father made as part of her bedtime ritual. It was mostly milk warmed in a pan on the stove with a little coffee stirred in, served to her in a small bowl — a scodelle — that she cradled in her hands.
Those caffe lattes laid the groundwork for more grown-up coffee drinking.
My parents courted over coffee. My dad would take a streetcar clear across town from the west side of Detroit to the east to see his sweetheart. When he arrived at my grandparents’ house, he and my mom would sit in the kitchen and talk over cup after cup of coffee.
The streetcars became history after my parents married, but their coffee ritual endured. I have a beautiful image in my memory of the two of them deep in conversation, drinking coffee at the kitchen table in their own house, the one in which they raised me and my siblings.
There was always a pot of coffee at the ready in my mother’s kitchen; the drinking of it was always a social affair.
These days, when I visit my mother, she always asks if I have time for a “quick cup.” When I do, we sip and chat and get caught up.
That’s the essence of coffee: its sociability, its magic; without that, a cup of coffee is nothing more than hot, brown water. Think about it: Magic transforms a cup of brown water into something over which we get to know people, talk politics, share secrets, laugh and fall in love.
That why people love coffee houses. They provide a comfortable place to sip the latte for which I don’t feel guilty paying $4; after all, I’m buying a whole lot more than a cup of coffee. There’s music for my listening pleasure, people for my chatting pleasure, wi-fi for my working pleasure. There’s the communal caffeine buzz — and the chance to live like a native Italian for a bit.
Coffee houses provide a homey atmosphere — much like my mother’s kitchen — in which to be with other people or spend quality time with my own thoughts.
And $4 for a latte over which I’ll linger for a half hour is a whole lot cheaper than a plane ticket to Italy