Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Hanging Out in the Local Bar

The Morning Crew
            There’s nothing quite like an Italian bar. It’s a community center: a place to eat or drink, to meet friends, to read the paper, to sit and dream, even to write a blog post. Only a small portion of the profits come from alcohol!
            I have a new favorite, Caffe Paradisio, around the corner from where I live. They have free wi-fi, and I have been dropping by with my little computer a couple of times a day since I returned to Rome. In the morning I’m there to check email, Facebook and Twitter from the U.S. while I enjoy a cup of cappuccino. The cappuccino costs ninety euro cents. If I don’t order a pastry, they bring me a small plate with a few cookies. And it’s perfectly okay to order just a glass of water.
            It’s ten a.m., and I’ve been sitting here for about an hour. A constant stream of people flows through. A man with his dog sat at the table near me, reading the newspaper the bar keeps for customers.  Several couples have been here, taking a quick coffee and pastry standing at the bar before going to work. A woman who works at a nearby pizzeria came in to pick up espresso and cappuccino to take back to the restaurant. The barista prepared the drinks—in real cups—and sent her off with a tray, each cup covered with foil to keep the coffee hot. She’ll bring back the dirties later. My hairdresser, whose shop is next door, came in waving at me, and a woman’s studying English sat near me doing her homework.
         Espresso and cappuccino generally cost a dollar more or less, so it's usual for one in a party to treat the others. I just overheard a man asking his two companions what they wanted. Each said espresso, but he tried to offer additional things. Caffe machiato is espresso with a splash of steamed milk, for example. Or a highly sweetened whipped cream might be added to the cappuccino or the espresso. He also offered pastry, but they declined. People don't linger over their coffee either. The threesome I mentioned have already gone, and the waiter has collected their cups. They had an animated conversation, and the host paid about three dollars for the session. It's this rapid turnover that makes a bar profitable, so they can indulge someone like me who parks.
            Many bars offer complete lunch. This one doesn’t, but on a nearby corner there is another one where you can get a choice of pasta dishes, meat and fish, several vegetables, and dessert. All the food is wedged on platters behind a glass case. You make your selection, pay the cashier, and the food is brought to your table. I recommend bar lunches to travelers because they are fast, usually cooked from scratch, and always good.
            In the afternoon, I’ll be back here again. I may order a Campari soda or a nonalcoholic drink called “bitter.”  These drinks, whether alcoholic or not, cost the same—€2.50. With my drink, the staff will bring snacks at no extra charge.  These will include some form of chips, a small plate of tiny sandwiches, a little bowl of nuts, and perhaps a savory pastry or cheese.  If I’ve ordered iced tea instead, the snacks will be fewer, but will include some cookies. These little snacks accompanying drinks are commonplace in Italy. A few-not-so-friendly places may offer only a small bowl of chips, but the tradition calls for ample snacks.
            The bars offer other services as well. You can get lottery tickets, top up your cell phone credit, buy bus tickets or a candy bar. And it’s a quick place to buy a bottle of milk when you run out. Need directions to a local sightseeing point? Stop by a bar. Want to have a quick business meeting. Take your client for an espresso. Looking for a place to wait before cinema tickets go on sale? You’ll find other moviegoers at the local bar having a Coke.
            The staff takes pride in knowing the customers’ preferences. After only a couple of visits they remember that I prefer a slice of orange instead of lemon in my Campari and that I want brown sugar with my cappuccino. And because I linger, they always take away my used crockery or glasses and bring me a large glass of water—with ice and lemon.
            Caffe Paradisio has flat screens mounted high on the walls where music videos usually play, but at soccer time they are tuned in to the game, and it’s standing room only for Rome’s rabid fans. A small room to the back houses some slot machines. The sound of coins dropping when a player wins can drown out the music.
            Children are an integral part of Italy’s bar scene. A mother with a baby in a stroller comes in for her caffeine fix each morning. All the patrons speak to the baby, bending to greet her. In the afternoon, the barista and the cashier have their young daughter ensconced at a corner table, drawing pictures or playing with toys. Customers know her by name and stop to have a conversation. And frequently, the afternoon waiter has his toddler sleeping in the back room. On Saturdays, I see grandparents with grandchildren in tow for a weekend outing. At some point they’ll stop by a bar for ice cream, juice or the ubiquitous Coke.
            One of the real luxury services offered by bars is delivery. Businesses often call the local bar with a drink order (espresso, cappuccino, juice, etc.) In a short time, a delivery arrives, in real cups and glasses. The cashier will have prepared the bill; then the waiter will scurry off with the order and return with the money. Later he (or she) will amble back to pick up the empties. I fantasize about having a cup of cappuccino delivered to my home every morning while I’m still in my jammies, but then I’d miss the show.
The Afternoon Crew


MaxWriter said...

What a wonderful life! I love that part of living elsewhere in the world. Right down to the real cups, the welcoming of children, all of it. I'm already planning my trip to Rome...


Patricia Winton said...

It's the real cups that get me. I simply cannot drink coffee from a paper cup. They exist here, but they're so rare. You always get your espresso and cappuccino in real cups unless you ask for the other kind.

Supriya Savkoor said...

I would love to hate you, but I may need directions when I come visit. Have a cup on me, okay?

Patricia Winton said...

Oh please don't hate me. I'll have a cup with your name on it tomorrow. I've discovered a new concoction that I haven't tried yet. I'll have one for you. It's made with Nutella, espresso and I'm not sure what else. I'll let you know.

Ellis Vidler said...

We miss so much here. I wish we could do more of the friendly local bars and cafes, but most of the bars are too dark to do much watching of anything, much less working on a computer. And they're too loud to have a conversation. Even at the places like Starbucks we seem to isolated from each other. I live in a mid-sized city in the South, so maybe it's not the same in other places. But your Cafe Paradisio sounds delightful. Wish I could join you.

Patricia Winton said...

I'm not a fan of Starbucks. For one thing, they're too expensive. For another, their portions are too big. Not to mention the paper cups. These neighborhood bars remind me of the little diner in my Tennessee home town where my father dropped by every morning to chew the fat with his cronies. I would feel perfectly comfortable asking the people at the bar to hold something for a friend to pick up, a book, for example or anything else. It's a new bar, and there's another on a few doors down the street, but the neighborhood has warmed to it. I'm pleased to see the same people come in every day. Though now that my internet service at home is fixed, I won't be there so often!

Anonymous said...

Okay, second attempt at posting a comment!

I love the insight you give to us of how the real people live over there.

But I can't figure out how they're making any money!


Patricia Winton said...

Bill, it's the turnover, I think. While somebody like me, or the woman doing her English homework, can sit for an hour, most people are in and out very quickly. At many bars, in fact, you pay more if you sit down, and people often just have a quick cup of espresso standing at the bar. At neighborhood places like this one, the price is the same, but even when many people sit, they don't linger. Most people actually go into a bar two or three times a day, for coffee or other drinks.