In Pursuit of Espresso

The first order of business after settling in at the Florence apartment where we would play house for a week was to find a "bar" that would serve up my daily espresso. The apartment was in sprawling Piazza del Carmine in the Oltrarno, the non-touristy side of the Arno River. Pre-Renaissance-era chapel? Check. Authentic Tuscan trattorias? Check. Sandstone- and blush-colored buildings? Check.

On my first neighborhood stroll, I found the bus stop, the fruit vendor, and Bar Le Nuvole (the clouds). The small café had the goods -- espresso, pastries, panini. In the afternoon, cocktails with complimentary brushetta and mini sandwiches were on offer. I did indulge in a few Spritz -- the quintessential Venetian drink of Prosecco and Aperol. For my ten-year-old son Kai, there was spremuta -- a foamy glass of fresh-squeezed orange juice. 

As a coffee afficionado, I drink the magic elixir in all its variants, black, black with cream, Americanos, mochas, cortados on a trip to Spain, and of course, coffee-flavored gelato. All caffeine-delivery mechanisms please me. Or so I thought. On this trip, I discovered one that my taste buds rejected. More on that later.  

But when in Italy, I drink macchiatos - espresso with foamed milk. Each morning while my husband, Kurt, slept in and Kai played video games, I dashed over to Bar Le Nuvole and ordered a doppio macchiato and a cornetto. This ritual was the trailer for the Italian fantasy life I had been imagining for myself.    

Barista Lara whipped up my order while chatting with the other customers sipping their espresso from tiny cups. Everyone indulged in a cornetto too. These Italian pastries are shaped like croissants, but less buttery and with heavenly fillings. On Day 1, I ate the chocolate cream. Day 2, pastry cream. Then on Day 3, I discovered my true cornetto love - mora or blackberry marmalade. From that morning on, my day began with the tart-sweet taste of blackberries embraced by flaky pastry.  

The one cornetto I absolutely shunned was the one made from whole wheat flour. Italy is about indulgence, after all. At other bars, I even noticed gluten-free pastries and soy milkHealthy fads have no place in Italia. 

But back to coffee. As a sign of just how seriously the Italians take coffee, the high speed train we took from Venice to Florence had a café car with a sparkling espresso machine. For two euros, I had myself a flavorful macchiato in a paper cup while watching the corn fields in the afternoon light. What a civilized country! 

At the hotels where we stayed in the Veneto, there was no carafe of coffee at the breakfast buffet. Hell no, the wait staff arrived at my table and took my espresso order, making my doppio macchiato or cappuccino to order. It was served with a tiny spoon and sugar packet. 

My blissful fling with Le Nuvole came to an abrupt halt when I sauntered over on a Sunday morning and found it closed. I had to hoof it over to the next piazza -- dangerously close to the tourist-plagued neighborhood near the Ponte Vecchio -- to find an open bar. But finally, at Piazza Pescara, my Sunday morning was saved with a sublime mora cornetto and macchiato. In this particular café, I encountered one of those funky bathrooms with no toilets that first perplexed me a dozen years ago in San Gimignano. There was just a hole in the ground and grooved floor over which to squat. It was no easy feat to keep from peeing on my shoes, but at least I had found caffeine.  

The deprivation I felt on the fifteen-minute search for an open bar was akin to the frenzy I slipped into as we were about to land in Venice After a seven-hour flight, the stewardesses on Air Canada were unwilling to serve hot drinks due to some turbulence. Are you kidding me? I hadn't slept in nearly 24 hours. A few of us went begging to the back of the plane and were gingerly served mediocre coffee. The only consolation was that Venice was just minutes away.    

Back at Le Nuvole the next day, I asked a silly question. I noticed that they served caffe corretto, espresso with liqueur. Coffee that's been corrected, per the Italians. Being a coffee lover, I figured I should sample this drink too. So, I smiled and asked barista Lara in Italian when the beverage was typically drunk. A robust chuckle from a fellow patron who must have figured me for a lush.  

"In the afternoon -- definitely dopo pranzo (after lunch)," Lara said. "Unless it's a very chilly morning." 

So I would wait til later in the day. That afternoon, we were in the walled city of Lucca, resting after a stroll on the 40-foot high wall that protected the residents from the Florentines in the 15th century. Caffe corretto was on the menu. Aha, here's my chance. The waitress asked if I preferred it with grappa or sambuca. A moment of indecision. I went with the grappa - a liqueur made by fermenting grape skins.  

The espresso spiked with grappa arrived in a tiny clear glass, and let me tell you that no amount of sugar could make that concoction drinkable, not to me and not to Kurt. I caught the waitresses' attention and ordered a cappuccino instead. Mistake corrected! 

So, I found where to draw the line with my coffee obsession -- foam, milk, sugar, chocolate: you all are welcomed in my cup. Alcohol, stay far away.