Winning over Italy

A "heel to toe" look at Italy by C.C. Winning


Cameron’s Coffee House

In his book McCarthy’s Bar Pete McCarthy tells how the Irish have the most practical and sociable of sayings, if your name’s above the bar you should enter and buy yourself a drink.  As most bars in the Republic carry the name of the proprietor or past proprietor there’s always the possibility that you may even be related so it would be rude to pass by one of the family without saying hello.  If the same philosophy held true in England then the Royal Family would have one hell of a pub crawl, especially the Prince of Wales and The Duke of York.   Though one doubts they’d meet any relatives, no matter how distant.   I was a little more than surprised therefore when, a few months ago, I came across a bar called Cameron’s Coffee House down here in the toe of Italy.  Being a loyal clansman (the second ‘C’ represents my credentials on my mother’s side) I couldn’t possibly pass without dropping in.  Not that I expected to bump into any highland cousins you understand but I did get to meet the owners, the Cogliandro family, and over the months it has become a place of choice to sketch out some of my ideas.  I can sit and have a coffee or beer and make my notes while watching the world whizz by or see it slow down to come in and watch the Juventus game .  You see, the odd thing is that Cameron’s is actually a petrol station.

Remember the days when you’re dad pulled in to fill up the car and you were greeted by a smart attendant in a uniform?  When you didn’t actually get out the vehicle and the  whole process including payment took less than 5 minutes?  No waiting in a queue to serve yourself followed by a longer wait  while the ten people in front of you at the cash desk stocked up on their weekend shopping.  “I just want to pay for my unleaded and be on my way.” You scream to yourself.  “Why in heaven’s name is there no petrol-only cash desk?” You complain.  Cameron’s is fairly typical of most Italian gas stations, privately owned and run like a personal business…pumps and attendants for fuel and a bar for refreshments, meeting up with friends or watching the footie.   They have individual character and the best of both worlds exists in that you can have the car refuelled, topped up with water and have the oil and tyres checked while you enjoy a gin and tonic and a smoke at a table on the forecourt, not more than 2.5 metres from the nearest pump.- the neat row of terracotta planters, cascading with flowering shrubs, provide a clear and effective flame barrier.  Local history and the office of statistics declare that, as yet, there hasn’t been a single episode of a petrol station exploding in a fireball that wasn’t entirely deliberate.   You might bring about someone’s untimely death by smoking inside, but not outside.

But Cameron’s is much more than that;  it’s where the fishermen meet up for a coffee and brandy at 5.00am before they  go to catch lunch and where they return on their way back to celebrate their luck;  it’s where the local football team gather before making their way to training or a Thursday evening game and where the kids meet up on their Vespas**  (or their non-descript Japanese versions) around midnight before they head off to Reggio for the disco at that night’s beach club; it’s where the independent trucker pulls in to eat Panini and drink red wine before settling down for a night in the cab.   Cameron’s is a petrol station with landscaped grounds that are carefully maintained with tall white lilies, orange and red flowers, small palms  and clipped shrubs that seem to flower all year round and, like all bars in Italy, it’s spotless.  Activity comes in erratic surges, a trickle of business most of the day is interrupted by sudden bursts of demand and supply which drown out the sound of the crickets in the sunburnt fields beyond the perimeter and sometimes, just sometimes, something exciting happens.

A couple of days ago I was sitting outside in the late evening watching the sun go down with Nino, one of the two sons who run the business  (Pippo was down checking on the lido they have in the summer).  We were commenting on the fact that, at that moment, we could see almost every conceivable mode of transport in front of us.  The busy road carrying trucks, buses and cars at alarming speed in the foreground, the single carriage diesel train chugging north towards Pellaro along the shoreline, the white sails of yachts on the Med weaving in and out of the cruise liner and the container  ship, the bright colours of the kite and wind surfers and, from above the peaks of Sicily, the afternoon plane from Rome was turning into its final approach.   Just then the polizia pulled into the small run-off just north of the entrance.  This is not particularly unusual as either they or the carabinieri will often park there to perform spot checks on passing vehicles, especially at this time when the road is packed with cars returning from the southern beaches to the city.  It’s a happy hunting ground for them and a happy time for Nino.  The smart drivers who spot the polizia in time, as they speed down the long straight, heave on the brakes and slow down as they pass the garage while the less observant who are racing three abreast across the whole road, are waved in for the inevitable penalty.  What makes Nino happy is the extraordinary number of drivers who  pull into the forecourt, succumbing to a sudden urge for caffeine…either that or a more immediate need to avoid the document-checking uniforms.  This is funny to watch.  The drivers get out of their vehicles with feigned nonchalance and make their way to the bar as if this had always been their intention, pointedly avoiding a glance at the polizia in case eye contact is made and their number noted.  Within five  minutes of the constabulary’s arrival, the car park was forty-full and the bar was doing a roaring trade.  The longer the polizia stay, the more fine forms they fill out the more money fills the cash register.  Yet, somehow, the forecourt always escapes scrutiny. 

As I say, this is not particularly unusual, just the source of some amusement.  It was when the polizia decided that they’d met their quota and drove off that things got interesting.  A few minutes after the light blue 159 had left and the mass exodus of customers had started running, Le Mans-style, for their line of cars there was a loud screech of brakes at the southern entrance.  Everyone turned to look as a small Alfa suddenly turned in to block a Fiat on its inside path.  As the Fiat seemed to try and reverse, the four beach-clad occupants of the Alfa jumped out, doors left wide open,  and ran towards the blocked hatchback.  At first it looked like a very rare case of road rage but as they surrounded the Fiat and began screaming and pointing some frightening looking armoury at the occupants, everyone in the forecourt suddenly skidded to a halt.  For a fraction of a second you could see the possible consequences flashing across all our minds.  Do we head back indoors and duck?  Do we all make for the toilets and deny witness?  “Honestly officer, I was in the toilet at the time.”  What! All forty of you… in two cubicles?”   In the speed of things there  was no way of knowing what this was all about, just that it could get messy.  How were the men in the Fiat going to react, who had they upset?   With one hand still pointing his firearm at the driver, one of the aggressors fished in his back pocket and produced an open badge wallet with the other.  The four men in the Fiat were dragged out of the car, stumbling as they tried to keep balance with their hands behind their heads.  “Don’t shoot, don’t shoot!” they cried, literally, as they were forced on the run to the nearest wall, which they met with their faces.  Ouch! They were not about to remove their hands from behind their heads to absorb hard-brick impact with primed steel pressing at their necks.  There they remained with no movement, except possibly for their bowels and trembling knees.  The bar heaved a collective sigh of relief as the immediate danger was expediently brought under some control.  The whole episode probably took less than two minutes and it was certainly only another minute after I’d raised my head above the back of the bar stool when uniform wailed into the car park.  The “subjects” were cuffed and packed into the back of the two police cars and, just as quickly as they’d been stopped, they were dispatched to more secure premises. 

The bar was back to normal as if nothing had ever happened as the last siren drifted off into the night.   As I tried to manage my heart back into place from its temporary relocation in my mouth, I caught Nino  looking at me, a small smile playing on the corner of his mouth as he continued to read the pink sports paper.  He hadn’t flinched from his article during the whole affair.  Perhaps he’s seen it all before or perhaps he thinks football really is more important.  Either way, I smiled weakly back and shuffled off to my own car.  Think I had all the ideas I needed for the next post.

** Read Peter Moore’s ‘Vroom’ books for the true cultural significance of the Vespa…..see links on this blog.

With thanks to the staff at Cameron’s Coffee House.

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All Meat and Drink at Remo’s

Franco gets ready, Maria walks in.

I’ve been to some novel locations for drinks parties over the years; Martinis on a carousel on Santa Monica Pier (stirred, not shaken), spirited onto a Russian tanker in Banjul Harbour for vodkas with the captain and crew (before perestroika) and a midnight trek to a pocheen tasting in a hidden bothy in the Islay hills.  The latter was hosted by a blind artist who was still painting some stunning local scenes for the Island’s pubs and hotels, entirely from memory. 

“Tell me Lachlan, do you think the pocheen has had anything to do with your affliction?”

“Och no, not a’tall,  but it does clean the brushes up a treat.”

The great thing about these kind of parties is that there’s always something to talk about, even if you don’t know anybody….no tip-toeing round the social man-traps of politics or religion in an effort to keep the conversation going.  So, when  Maria informed me that Cristina had told her about a weekly aperitivo evening we should go to, I naturally asked where.

“You know that butcher’s you like, the one on the street up from the museum.”

“Oh, it’s near there is it?”

“No, it is there.”

“ You mean actually in the butcher’s?”

“Yes, why, something wrong?”

“No, not at all.”  This is going to be interesting, I thought, I’d better start looking up the Italian for different cuts of meat so we can take a butcher’s at the butcher’s.  I knew the shop she meant as I’d looked in the window once and commented on the vast and well presented display of fresh produce, much more sophisticated looking than most of the purveyors that I’d seen before.  “Must go in there one day.” I’d said at the time.  

Giovanni Remo’s Enoteca Gastronomia is indeed located just up and around the corner from Reggio’s famous museum, in Via Demetrio Tripepi, and when we walked down the street about 9.00 in the evening we could see that the party was already in full swing.  The shop had put out high tables and stools under umbrellas half way across the street so that it looked more like a well-appointed wine bar than a butcher’s shop.  At Remo’s that evening it seemed as if all the great and good of the city had turned out with the women particularly managing to look effortlessly elegant in their usual stylish but casual manner.  We managed to squeeze through the throng and into the shop itself where Cristina and some of her friends had formed a circle round one of the tables at the far end of the shop.  Maria greeted the group, most of whom she knew, so introduced Daisy (my daughter) and me in rapid-fire Italian, making it virtually impossible to pick up people’s names and occupations without having to spend the rest of the evening apologising and asking once again who they were.  I was instructed to go and get the drinks while Maria caught up on the gossip.  As I queued at the ad hoc bar, really just the top of the glass meat display cabinets, I looked round to take in my surroundings and began to appreciate the reason why the evening was all so logical.  “Why haven’t I seen this before?” I thought.   “All those people who’re told  to “think outside the box” and find a unique selling point probably just think too hard.”

Remo’s is the marriage of two passions, an alliance of two quality products together in the same shop.  O.K it might not be the first combination to jump into your head, but it makes perfect sense.  A purveyor of quality meat and fine wines, the very best of both I may add.   “ Could the sommelier suggest an appropriate wine to go with this fillet steak I’ve just bought?” or “An excellent choice of Chianti sir, perhaps the master butcher here can suggest a good cut that would bring out the subtle flavours best.”   It is important to remember that, in Italy, food and wine are interdependent and that the object is to savour the sensory pleasures and not merely to consume.   

“Buona Sera (good evening) I’m Franco, What would you like to drink?  Red or white?” enquired the busy but gregarious man behind the counter.  “Um, I’ll try the white, three glasses please.” I replied, thinking that it would be nice to have a change from  the more common choice of red in Calabria and at home.  “Help yourself to aperitivi, they’re all out own produce.” He offered, “The pork pieces are slightly piquant and will go well with the wine.”  Armed with plastic plates of food and juggling three wine glasses I returned to the table and was relieved of my burden by the girls who promptly handed the drinks round the company.  “I’ll just go and some more drinks for us then.” Giving Maria an old fashioned look.  Back at the counter I gazed at the array of  beef, chicken and pork while I waited until masses had been refilled.  The display was enticing.  All forms of meat, at least half already prepared in some fashion; stuffed rolls of thinly-sliced steak, skewers of pork loin and peppers soaked in oil and lemon, Milanese coated in fine breadcrumbs and parsley, all manner of sausages, chicken breast stuffed with ham and mozzarella and  rows of joints ready for slicing into carpaccio.  I was beginning to feel very hungry and imagining how difficult it would be to make a choice when I came for the weekly shopping.  I know a little about meat from my catering days and you get to tell very quickly when a product is good, when the butcher knows what he’s doing.   This was most definitely good..the colouring, the marble, the texture of the fat, they were all top grade.  Franco returned, “More wine?  Already?”  You’re not Italian!”  It was definitely a statement and not a question.  I thought whatever excuse I gave (honest, I gave it to the others)  it was going to be treated with suspicion.  I was wrong, he was delighted, even enthusiastic.

“What did you think of the white then?  It’s a new one I’m trying, a good price for something before dinner.”

“Great!” I lied.  “Very light with a good after-taste…when it comes.  The others would like to try some now.”  Maria came over with Mimmo (who I found out later runs a famous designer’s boutique in Reggio) to find out what was keeping me. 

“Hey Maria!” exclaimed Franco.  “Glad you could come at last.  You know each other, yes?”

“This is my husband, always taking too long. So yes, I know him.”

“Wonderful!  This man knows his wine, I’ll come over and join you in a minute and talk some more with him.  Maybe I can educate him about Italian wines.”  Franco winked and handed me three more glasses before he returned to the other party-goers who were, by now, beginning to gently tap the bar with their empties.

The warm evening, the warmer company and the buzz of the atmosphere were as intoxicating as the flowing wine and superb food, so much so that it took me a little while to realise that this was going to have to be paid for at some point.  Daisy and I had taken a little break from the efforts of translation to look round the shop and register the wine stock on the shelves.  This was no ordinary selection, this was for a discerning palate and an unconcerned pocket. 

“Er Maria,”

“Si Amo?”

“Maybe we should go a little steady.”

“No problema amore, it’s only ten euros for whatever you want, we pay when we leave.”

Failing to duck in time.

As business promotions go, this was class.  A photographer roamed around the guests, looking for those high society shots for some glossy perhaps, Daisy and I ducking out of his way just in case.   By now we were out in the street to get some air and allow the smokers a little comfort break when Franco joined us with a bottle of prosecco ( Italian sparkling wine) and made me finish my half-full glass of dry white in one gulp.  “Try this and tell me what you think.” He implored, while getting the rest of our group to do the same.  We followed his lead and drank.  “I think this is as good a prosecco as you’ll find anywhere, perhaps better than a medium priced French champagne…at a fraction of the cost, don’t you think?”  He was spot on.   “Give me a minute, I have an idea.”  He said, leaving the bottle with us.  “Is Franco the owner then?” I asked those around the table.  “No, that’s Giovanni.  Franco’s the sommelier.” Said Mimmo.  “Anything you want to know about any wine, he’s your man.”  Franco returned in a few minutes with more bottles, he’d obviously taken a shine to me and was determined that I sample half of Italy’s wine output in one evening.  Our company was delighted and began to  encourage him, after all when the bottle was opened it had to be finished.  “Why don’t you get him to try that special reserve Merlot Franco.” They suggested.  “Oh and what about the Franciacorta.” (Italy’s champagne equivalent).  They understood Franco’s passion for his subject and were going to make the most of it.

By midnight the great and good had long-since drifted away leaving an amalgamated group of diehards, about ten strong, feeling extremely relaxed and convivial, the jokes getting more risqué and the laughter considerably louder.  I started to feel guilty about the remaining staff and the exhausted photographer who had obviously been told to stay till the bitter end.  “Maybe it’s time we went.” I said to Maria, “we don’t want to outstay our welcome, and I’m all wined out.”   We tried to pay for the three of us, though we probably should have been paying for thirty three, but Franco would only accept 20 euros for me and Maria.  “It’s your daughter’s holiday.” He smiled, “I hope she enjoyed herself.”

 Enoteca Gastronomia has been holding these evenings for some time and their popularity has grown to the extent that they are trying different locations to accommodate the interest and keep the idea fresh.  Most recently they occupied Lido Calajunco, adding tall palms and the soft surf to sensory joy.  I look forward to going to the shop and to the aperitivo evenings now, whether to enjoy the hospitality or simply buy some carpaccio and a bottle of Sicilian red.   I raise my glass to their knowledge, imagination and good old-fashioned customer care.   Support your local butcher….if you still have one  left.

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The Cricket Test

Maria with Alan in Gerace

It was a Springfield sky.  The full-blown summer, with its deep cloudless blue and the tourists, hadn’t arrived yet….but you could feel it in the air.  Reggio was beginning to wake up and the lidos were dusting themselves down for the season.  We weren’t pulling up outside Mo’s bar but at the Piper cafe, across from Cesare’s ice-cream stop at the end of Via Marina.  Alan and I got out the car and took a short stroll over to the promenade and looked over the straits to Sicily.  The car ferry was chugging its way  across from Messina while other merchantmen, fishing boats and various pleasure craft criss-crossed the blue-grey water.   “It’s a bit like looking across the Firth to Bute don’t you think” I said, feeling a little homesick for the Caledonian waters.  “Just a damn sight hotter.” sniffed Alan. 

I’m sure this is why I love here so much, the mountains and sea, so much like a Scotland-In-The-Sun. “Ah well”, I sighed, “C’mon, better see if we can get a seat”.  Alan had only arrived the day before and it looked like the week ahead was going to be a fine split between Mondiale (World Cup) and site-seeing whilst also trying to fit in some evening invitations that had come our way.  This day though, had more significance than most.  This was the litmus test, a marker on my road to integration, Tebbit’s cricket test.   Was I ready for the ultimate challenge?  Would I be nervous, excited?  It had captured my heart but how deep had Italy filtered into my veins.  As we made our way back to the cafe we could hear the match had already started, Italy v Slovakia in a must-win game to salvage some pride and hope for progress beyond the first stage. 

 The match was being shown in the raised gazebo that forms Piper’s outside seating area, right on the main junction (during the rush hour it can make you feel a bit like you’re sitting having a drink on a roundabout, but I like it…the world revolves round you for a change).  When we arrived the place was packed and the game five minutes old.   We stood like a couple of idiots for a moment, surveying the bar to see where we could park ourselves and bothering the customers who were now craning their necks to see round us at one of the two large flat screens.

“Quick” I said to Alan, “follow me or we’ll not be welcome”.  I tugged his arm and led him down into the cafe proper, in the hope of finding Salvatore on duty behind the till.  Salvatore, the manager, and I have a nice little arrangement.  When I finish school in the evening I usually have to wait about half an hour for Maria to finish her work and the Piper is where I always wait.  Over time I’ve struck up a good friendship with the staff and Salvatore likes to practice his English whenever he can, so a little refresher for him equals a wee refreshment for me, simple and mutually agreeable.

 “Why aren’t you watching the match?” he asked, gesticulating with the Italian thumb to four fingertips.  “There are no seats left Salvo, do you know anywhere else we can watch?”

“Scemo, (silly/fool) come with me, I’ll get a seat for you and your friend, no problema!”

He took us back outside and, leading us virtually by the hand, he barked a few orders at some of the customers and the waitress.  The customers swiftly obeyed, shuffling and nudging without leaving their seats to create enough space for  the two more chairs and table which the blond waitress produced out of thin air.  We squeezed in and ordered two beers while I looked up at the screen above Alan’s head and he looked at the one behind mine.  We could face each other and both watch the game.

0-0 and everything was quiet.

The ice-cold bottles of Nastro quickly arrived with two chilled glasses and a large bowl of mixed olives.   “Have you noticed that we’re the only people drinking alcohol,” whispered Alan without dropping his gaze from the screen.  I looked around, it was true.  All anyone had on the table in front of them was an espresso cup or a glass of water.  Had I fumbled the ball so early?    “There’s one guy who seems a little more nervous than the rest though”,  Alan continued.  “He’s on his third bowl of ice cream already!”    I realised that we were sitting next to the bar owner and his group of friends, including Mr. Choc and Pistacchio.  I nodded to the owner and he reached over to shake my hand.     “Not much happening,” he said. “Still, a draw is enough for us.”  The rest of the table nodded sagely. “Indeed, indeed.”

0-1.  My heart sank as the bar groaned in unison.  “Idiots!”

One by one bottles of beer began to appear at the other tables along with the ice cream so we began to feel brave enough to order a couple more for ourselves without being too conspicuous.     Just after the second half had begun a sunken-cheeked lady who looked as if she’d seen the better half of her eighties tottered into a seat beside us and plonked her walking stick on the table.  The bar was slightly less busy now as some had had to open their shops or go back to work.  The waitress was now running backwards and forwards supplying beers and snacks in equally increasing numbers as the game wore on and the tension grew.

0-2.   “Mamma mia, Avanti! Avanti!”  Everyone was beginning to get a little more vocally agitated and the hand gestures more animated.  But still no one was out of their seat.  As more and more snacks arrived at the tables I began to realise that food and not drink is the chosen method of stress control, when watching your team do none of the things you advise them to from your superior viewpoint…4,800 thousand miles away.    The waitress made the mistake of stopping for a brief moment in front of the screen to watch, a smile playing on her lips.  Bang!  The sound of the old lady’s cane smacking the table.  She waved her stick and screamed at the girl to get out of the way.  “Move you stupid girl, I can’t see!”  The waitress turned and smiled sweetly, “Sorry, so sorry,” she said as she returned to her work.

1-2!  I was up and punching the air…..on my own.   Everyone had stayed seated except me.  Red-faced and feeling like a complete fool I fumbled behind me for my chair and sat back down.  “Oh nooo!” I thought, “I can’t come back here again”  For some reason however, they’d all been more interested in the goal than my display and were concentrating all their efforts on the screens.  “Avanti! Move it! There’s only ten minutes left,”  they cajoled.  The waitress had disappeared.

2-2!  We were all up this time.  Yeeeeeees!  I was hugging the bar owner and jumping up and down with him, two others grabbed me kissing and cheering.  It was elation, relief and heart-felt joy….I had passed, it had been spontaneous and thoughtless, I was at one with Italy.  Then, silence.  It took us a full couple of minutes to realise that the referee hadn’t stopped the game.  Disallowed!  The only times I’ve felt as despondent as that was each time I’ve read a Scotland team sheet…before a game.  I was gutted.

At 1-3 with a minute to go I would have normally given up hope and gone  home but there was something new in the belief system, a reason to urge the Azzurri onwards.  We were all up and shouting, “Avanti! Avanti!” 

2-3 and 2 minutes of added time left.  The place went mad then immediately quiet.  Unbearable tension filled the room, could they do it?  Could they get one more?  We urged, we gripped our tables, half out of our seats we willed them on…  Oooh, aaaah, now you fool, shoot, Santa Maria shoot!

Final whistle!  It’s over!

I didn’t know what to expect then but inside I felt empty and dejected.  My “fellow” countrymen and the old lady on the other hand, simply shrugged.  “We didn’t deserve anymore, we left it too late.”  I suppose when you’ve won four World Cups you can afford to be circumspect at these moments……there’s always the next one.  Something that will need a little more culture changing on my part to appreciate.    Most people began to get up and leave with just a few tables left to finish drinks or order more.  The waitress had reappeared and the remaining clients began to buy her drinks and congratulate her, though we left with the feeling that the compliments were more to do with her form than her team’s.  Apparently she’s Slovakian!