Way back, late in August between my freshman and sophomore college years, I felt devastated. I’d come home after spending most of the summer in Sicily with my extended family. And there were no bars where I lived in New York. Okay sure, there were lots of places where you could get drunk and maybe, get lucky. But no bars in the Italian sense, and that made me feel lonely. I could joke about how most of my life since then has been a way to get back to the local bar.
But maybe it’s not a joke. So allow me to offer a tribute to the Italian bar. For those who haven’t been here, or haven’t paid much attention, a bar here isn’t like the American kind. Maybe in spirit like a British pub? Whatever. It’s sort of like a café, except that that word doesn’t quite capture the bar’s essence. Maybe, in the American context, it’s like the old small-town diners or cafés, where locals would gather, hang out, get anything from coffee to a meal, and share local gossip.
Bars are everywhere in Italy, from the big cities to small hamlets like Casacastalda, a 20-minute drive from Casa Sconita up a twisty country road. That bar has an amazing location overlooking northern Umbria’s hill-mountains. But they can be on a residential street, on a piazza, or even in the parking lot of a gas station. The toll roads through Italy, the autostrade, have amazing bars, some of them inside buildings that look like retro ’60s spaceships straddling the highway. The thing is, if it’s Italy, there’s a bar nearby.
Basically, the bar serves most of your needs throughout the day. In the morning it’s the place for a cappuccino and a cornetto, or mid-morning, for office workers to have a booster shot of coffee (espresso mostly) before tackling some more emails. One of our friends here never makes coffee at home—he gets dressed and heads out to his favorite bar for breakfast, which here is usually coffee and a pastry. (His is the place in the gas station parking lot.) If you aren’t into sweet, there are little panini—my favorite is tuna and artichoke. Later in the day people stop for another pick me up, and around 6, an aperitif or cocktail, always served with a little snack, because here in the land of La Bella Figura, being obviously drunk in public is a faux pas.
It doesn’t take much to be a local. If you’re renting an apartment in Italy, even for a few days on vacation, one of the first things you should do is visit the local bar. Go two or three days in a row and you’re a regular. One barista in Perugia remembered us from getting coffee with our daughters in the morning. When we returned a few months later, he asked us why the girls weren’t with us.
We live in a small town here, yet I can think of at least five bars within a 20 minute drive. Three of them are down the hill from us. They all have their own style. The bar on our local piazza looks like it’s from the 1980s, but the real deal is to sit outside in the morning or late afternoon and soak up the sun and the murmur of the fountain combining with the sound of the local accent. And they serve addictive fried sage leaves with your Aperol spritz in the afternoon. Another, housed in a local shopping strip along with the main pharmacy and town supermarket, is Italian sleek modern. Even the spoons look like no spoons you’ve ever seen, and it takes a few seconds to figure out how to use them. Still, if I’ve been away, on my first visit we have to catch up with the barista and show pictures of the grandchild.
Come to think of it, we assign these watering holes to different occasions and frequent them with different sets of friends. Yesterday, for example, I met my friend Vian, a transplanted Canadian who moved to Umbria with his wife so that they could be near their daughter and grandchildren. He lives outside a town called Gualdo Tadino, a place with eccentric architecture that snuggles up against the Apennine Mountains. Vian and I like to meet for a mid-morning coffee and pastry, and we do it midway between our houses—that bar in the hamlet of Casacastalda. The place has a great view, and Vian, a sociable guy whose Italian improves every time I see him, is besties with the owner and always has conversations going with some old guy who hangs out there.
My Uncle Ignazio probably frequented his local bar every morning until he was taken to the hospital for the final call (he was in his nineties). A few blocks from his apartment, the bar was the focus for the pensioners, people on their way to work, parents taking their kids to school, and even groups of motorcyclists headed to western Sicily—his place was on the ring road around Palermo. A visit with him almost invariably involved a stop at the bar. He smoked (if outside) argued politics with his cronies, argued politics with his cronies, and did I mention that he argued politics?
I could go into coffee etiquette, what to order, when to pay and when to wait (Ok, big cities and the road stops are pay first, go to counter and get your stuff; here in the sticks, it’s whenever you feel like it.). But that’s for another morning. Right now, it’s about 23:00—11 p.m. in US-speak—and I’m thinking about this little bar in Perugia that whips its own cream and fills pastries with it for breakfast. Sweet dreams….
[Update: I went to that little bar.]
Credit for Autogrill photo: qwesy qwesy, CC BY 3.0 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0, via Wikimedia Commons