June 29, 2010

A Café without Wireless, Laptops or Plugs.

Usho Bottega: A Glimpse into a Florentine Café.

On a rainy day in May,
I stepped into Cibreo Café
after eating at the Teatro
with friends from Santa Fe.

There was nothing more for me to eat and nothing more that I could drink. But I could not pass by Cibreo without un salutino. The café is a world of its own, a vortex that draws me like a favorite chair.

I come home to myself just by stepping in the door.

The barman and waiter are standing in the doorway discussing politics, something close to religion here. They greet me kindly to come in.

“Un caffe? Un te? Cosa voi?” Isidoro asks.
“Niente. Grazie,” I say.

I’m too full to consume anything. I just want to stand here for a minute, soaking up its familiarity. I often visit in the afternoon, when there are hardly any customers, to sit and write, read or talk to a friend. But today I am simply passing.

Isidoro says, “Questo posto e un usho-bottega.” Usho-Bottega, a Florentine expression for “home away from home.” E come casa: like home, but also a place of business. He says cafés were originally conceived as places where people could relax, read the paper, drink a coffee and have a taste of something. They were made to be places of belonging outside of the house, in community, where passing a few hours, conversations about politics, children, the weather, was the norm.

“Now,” he says, “people hardly have time to stop. They are in a rush. No time to stop and talk, much less savor a taste.” Dreadful, I think. Surely it’s our (fast-paced American) fault.

Do we all want such a place to go? Or just certain types of people?

Cibreo’s interior is lined with dark wooden wainscot half-way up its walls, with butter yellow paint to the ceiling, which is unusually carved with dark wood protuberances and flecks of gold. The floor is chestnut and looks like it’s been there for centuries. It creaks just so, when you walk on it. All found and recycled, the doors, windows and wood slabs came from churches and villas from the surrounding countryside. The café looks and feels like it’s been there 100 years, but really only 30.

Small round tables are covered in cream-colored cloths. Fresh yellow daisies grace a vase on each. Red velvet theater chairs, whose seats go up and down, offer an inviting touch of elegance. I sink into a chair and become a hedonistic phlegmatic—not wanting to move but to sit and sip and chew, complacent and happy as a cow, steady as a trunk, drunk on the ecstasy of that moment. From where I sit, each arriving hour and customer begs study, whether morning, noon, afternoon or night.

The cappuccini and caffé latté contain the perfect balance between milk and coffee. Coffee is tapped just so in the bowl, pressed with the right amount of force for the right amount of seconds, then hooked into the machine. The crema comes out perfetta, milk steamed just so for the consistency of foam. These things are not as simple as they sound.

For years I didn’t drink coffee. I love it, but it’s hard for my body to digest. During those years, I didn’t miss the drink, but I missed Isidoro’s modo di fare. His way of making it.

I’ve been coming to this door for 18 years. I remember old entrances, old kitchens, old personnel. And Franca, the female rock of Cibreo.

Franca had a funny way of welcoming, but welcome she did. “Oh Peggy! where have you been? In Portugal dancing with the King?” She was a chiacherone—someone who talked constantly, greeting everyone who came through the door, often with nicknames. Regulars, at least, like “Chamomila,” the short, round, bald man, chicly dressed with a sweater thrown just-so around his neck, who stopped by for a martini every day at 10 am. Franca reminded me of the timeless barmaids of yore. Tightly dressed, hair coiffed, with perfect makeup.

From her pulpit bar, Franca spouted Florentine philosophy in her Fiorentino accent, orchestrated caffé, cappuccini, martinis, bicchiere di vini, panini, biscottini, all the while joking with everyone and keeping the barman on his toes. We loved her for it. In a way, she was un punto di referimento, a point of reference, not only for the people of the neighborhood, but for the family who worked at Cibreo.

Her sudden passing at 63 was shocking. Franca was not well, but we didn’t realize how unwell. She orchestrated even her own demise. We lost her to the Arno River. Her comedy in the end; a tragedy.

Josef, the handsome Marochino, dresses always in a suit, pumped to perfection. A bright and cheerful fellow, he can relate to anyone and make them feel comfortable. Girls and women
of all ages swoon, a hug and kiss follows (at times right up to the bathroom door).

Umi, the slight Japanese woman with the wide smile. Abrazac, the Moroccan pasticierra (pastry chef), whose consistency in holding the note for the beloved dolce is still alive and well.

Alfonso, who’s charming Pugliese curls and mysterious demeanor has graced the grounds for half his life. He knows what you need before you do, having a 6th sense for most things, especially reading people. He once put a tiny sliver of flourless chocolate cake in front me before the thought fully escaped my mind.

The café is a place for the amuse buche, Something to amuse the palate. Throughout different times of the day, there are delectable things to choose from, like, the doughnut called Frate, first made by monks and perfected by Abrazac. Their cake-like consistency holds up
beautifully to be “dipped” not “dunked” into the consummate cappuccino. The panini, some so small they look the size of an egg, cut in half with butter and anchovies. Schiacciata so thin
you can’t imagine how anyone cut it to lay a slice of mortadella in between.

One stands to enjoy these “bites” at the bar with a glass of prosecco, or vino, a little small talk, then via. Sensible fast food: not taken away, but enjoyed on the spot.

Read more about Cibreo Café and Peggy Markel’s Florence on her blog.

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