Firenze Files:The Barista Next Door

I spent some time in the Piazza Santa Croce today reading a book and drawing in the sun. I went back out after dinner as well and wound up venturing into the Finesterae, a ristorante, bar (both alcoholic and coffee), gelaterie, and pastry shop.  Originally intending to sit for a short while with a good coffee and my book in the cool, descending night, I ended up ordering a second cappuccino after the first was so beautiful and tasty and asking the barista for his recommendation of desserts to try.  I had already sampled their gelato, and I wanted to try something different and exciting.  After being walked through the selection by the barista, whose name I learned is Dorian, I decided on a pastry called mille feuille, meaning a thousand layers.  It was made of three layers of puff pastry with pastry cream sandwiched in the middle.  The perfect little slice was dusted with powdered sugar.  I don’t know how the chef made the slice so perfectly because as soon as I tried to take a bite with my forchetta, the layers mushed together, and the cream shot out the sides.  I was the only one sitting in the bar area, so I had a good conversation with the barista who spoke italiano and inglese, and I was even able to joke with him that it wasn’t possible to eat the dessert without breaking it.  He replied that as long as you get to eat it and it tastes good, it doesn’t matter how it looks.

DolcheLoving to cook so much and being so interested in the goings on behind the scenes in restaurants (hence my working at the Clifton Inn), I asked Dorian all sorts of questions about how he makes the designs in the milk on cappuccinos, how he prepared different desserts, and how he learned to be a barista.  He believes that working and getting experience is the best way to learn and was happy to hear that I worked for free in a restaurant simply for fun.  Imagine as well that much of the conversation on my part was in italiano, and he was speaking in italiano and inglese.

It’s wonderful to see how passionate people can be about the art of crafting food.  I said, “sono curiouso,” and Dorian was willing to answer any question I had.  He also helped me with my Italian.  I learned that coffee italiano is very different than it is in America.  Here, it is simply café, and that refers to strong espresso, not the weak, big mugs that Americans drink.  A café regolare is just a tiny glass of espresso, and the process of enjoying one is a whole experience.  The barista serves you at the counter, and I watched an Italian couple stand, poised on the glass display of pastries which serves as a standing counter, and savor two tiny shots of espresso in tazzine (tiny mugs).  You can also do as I did and take your café to a tavola (table) to accompany a newspaper or good book.

CappuccinoThere is also the café macchiato which comes in a medium sized tazza (mug) but is only partially filled with a shot of espresso and a bit of milk.  The cappuccino is essentially a tazza of milk with a little bit of café inside.  To really fit in with the Italians, I think I will need to start drinking stronger coffee.  Seeing how I liked the frothed milk though, Dorian told me that he has a friend who enjoys just drinking the steamed milk and made me a glass of it topped with whipped cream.  I tried to make a joke, saying in italiano that she was like a cat, or “come uno gatto, perche lei piace bere il latte.”  Dorian also brought me a tiny rub baba to try, telling me that it is a dessert that is common in the south of Italia and that you it’s only available elsewhere in Europe if you go to Italian shops.  It was a sponge cake soaked in citrus-y rum, pungent from the alcohol but sweet enough to make it devourable.

Dorian was so helpful with my italiano and so generous with his knowledge, food, and drinks, that I wasn’t quite sure how to thank him enough.  He seemed to enjoy my company though and thought it was a shame that I was only staying for six weeks.  That wasn’t enough time to really know the city, he said.  We agreed that the best way to travel is to stay in one new place and to really delve into the culture, experiencing what it’s like to live, eat, and be there.  It seems as though most tourists and students only want to see the famous sights and attractions and then to pass the rest of the time “going out” and meeting people in bars.  That’s what is expected of tourists, but I find it much more gratifying to talk to and learn from someone in their natural environment, whether that be their home or at their job in a coffee shop.  You get to really connect with people and share a bit of yourself with them.  I promised Dorian that I would have plenty of time to visit and talk to him during my brief stay because I would need to “bere molti cappuccino.”  And after a few tastes of gelato, I bid him “buona sera” and said I would see him soon.

As I’m reflecting now before bed with a belly full of café and dolce, I’m wondering whether my mission in Firenze will be to talk with as many Italian culinary people as possible, to learn and experience as much as I can, and to eat and taste as much as my stomach allows.  As long as I can find people like Dorian in Italia, I don’t know if I’ll ever want to leave.

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