Some Things Realy Are Better In the Shadow of Mount Vesuvius (Coffee Consciousness IV)
Italians believe in food, and Neapolitans are the true believers. Naples, as it has been for centuries, is a chaotic, bustling metropolis lining the Italian coastline, climbing over the bluffs above the bay. But, even in this crazy city you can find small corners of tranquility and solace –– almost always tied to something edible or, drinkable, like coffee. Expresso, to be exact.
I normally don’t trust restaurants near a big city’s central train station. These establishments are either soulless, standardized outposts of a branded chain or the sort of place that makes you wonder if you should disinfect the flatware as it’s laid out in front of you. But, last Monday night I was tired, and when the kind, small woman at the reception of my hotel told me that the place across the street was good, I decided to trust her. The kindness of strangers may be something to be wary of in the movies, but in southern Italy it is almost always a good thing. That, and that the place ––Trattoria Ettore –– had a few tables full of railway workers happily eating and laughing told me that I had made the right choice.
The crust of the pizza at Trattoria Ettorre’s was the perfect mix of chewy and tasty that has made Naples famous since Chef Rafaelle Esposito served the first “pizza margherita” to Queen Margherita of Savoy, when she was in town, in 1889. And, the lemon cake I had for dessert was fluffy and tasty. Paper thin slices of lemon skin decorated the chantilly cream on top, ensuring a light citrus scent with each forkful.
I have low expectations for coffee served in restaurants. There’s really nothing wrong with it ––industrial improvements in commercial coffee roasting and home espresso machines have made sure that coffee will usually be satisfactory. And, it is almost impossible to find bad coffee in Italy, but truly excellent coffee is found in bars, not restaurants
Although, not, it appeared, in Naples.
The tiny cup of espresso the tired looking, grey-haired man, in his timeless Italian waiter’s uniform, served me made time stop. Or, at least, move in slow motion. It wasn’t sugared (coffee, in Naples, is often served with the sugar already in the cup). Nor, was it bitter or acidic. It was so full-flavored; you could sense the taste of it with a wider part of the tongue. And, there was a hint of macadamia nut (part of the coffee, not an added spice). How could it be? They must have been cheating. Sure enough, as I left the restaurant, I noticed a small doorway to a very worn but traditional coffee bar next door. Mystery solved.
Coffee, or rather, espresso, is part of the fabric of Neapolitan society. Antonio, a friend from my studies in Venice, and my housemate when I first moved to Milan, was very, very attentive when he filled his Moka espresso pot.
On my way out of town the next day, I decided to test my luck. Across the square from my hotel a big orange sign read “Mexico.” With a sign like that it could only be a cheesy snack bar or a traditional espresso bar. The sun was as aggressively hot as the concrete jungle around the station, and I was feeling a bit too sweaty for coffee, but as I had survived the walk across the road, there was no turning back.
When I stepped inside I knew the bar was a promising place. Young men wearing the same uniforms, haircuts and chiseled expressions that their predecessors wore when the place opened decades before, worked behind the bar. Stainless steel and glass counters (worn but as shiny as when they were new) were probably the originals. Tins and foil blocks of ground coffee and beans lined the back wall ––the labels hadn’t changed for decades.
My espresso was even better than the night before. It was made with sugar, but the sugar was resting at the bottom, and not foamy like at St. Eustacchio’s in Rome. I drank it without mixing, then scooped up the coffee-soaked sugar crystal at the bottom of the cup with the demitasse spoon placed on the saucer for that purpose.
They say that when you go to Rome, if you throw a coin over your shoulder into the Trevi Fountain, you will return some day. When you leave Naples, have a wicked cup of espresso before you get on the train or plane. You’ll soon be dreaming of coming back for another cup. If you’re lucky, you will.
The Restaurant with bar is Bar Ristorante Ettorre, Piazza Garibaldi 95, Naples
Bar Mexico Henry Coffee is also in Piazza Garibaldi, but at 72 on the other side of the square.
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