Look here, you guys. I’m a straight-up sucker for nostalgia. And coffee. Good espresso in teensy cups reminds me of being a mini, two-pigtailed Susanna, plopped atop laps around kitchen tables filled with great-aunties, great-uncles, my Nonno and my Nonna. If it was breakfast, there would be toasted Italian bread with sesame seeds for dunking in to my sugary (and I mean sugary!) black joy. If it was after dinner, we used Italian cookies or—oh, even better!—those Danish butter cookies in the blue tin with the cronchity, delicious sugared tops. You know the ones. (I always started with a whole little sleeve of the pretzel-shaped because, naturally, they are the most exciting. There’s a very strategic dunking procedure involved that results in the right coffeed-cookie ratio; a perfect bite that leaves the treat just dunk-drunk enough, but doesn’t result in leaving you with creepy, soggy crumbs at the bottom of your cup. These are the lessons of my youth, people!) Anyway, after dinner and in to the late, late night is when these coffee klatches happened and when you could count on the juiciest conversations. Mostly in Italian, always passionately loud with cigarettes waving frantically around to make whatever important point, and English enough for 5 year old, adorably curious me (nosy!) to stay quietly fascinated enough that they’d forget I was even there, letting all of the gory details slip right out. I’m pretty sure this is where I learned to pay attention.
My gramps, Nonno Frank, used to frequent a bakery on Vermont called Sarno’s and I loved when he would take me with him. Loved! I was his only grandbaby and it was so much fun to get hauled around the city by him because Frank? Knew EVERYONE. Sarno’s was like his office and he was the Mayor of Fun. He would congregate daily with his consiglieri for hours and hours. Doing nothing but yapping it up, drinking espresso and eating pastries. Sometimes they’d take a break and hit Palermo’s for a pie with anchovies, but after pizza they were right back at Sarno’s, discussing important details of who knows what. I think that’s a pretty good way to spend the day. In the early 1980’s the LA Times ran an article about the restaurant and there was Frank, front and center in this half-page candid color picture with his jaunty cap cocked, giving someone at his table the what-for. It captured his dolce vita perfectly, and was a point of pride* in his late life.
Which is why, to be sure, I have such a fond adoration for the Italian café on my block. My little neighborhood has no shortage of coffee: there are two Starbucks (Starbi? Starbuckses?), a Peet’s, a Coffee Bean & Tea Leaf and a Polly’s all within short blocks of each other. On the same street. You could do a wild and crazy coffee crawl and hit all of them in half an hour. Aroma di Roma, though, is where the people congregate.
It’s our sweet hamlet’s little haunt for cappuccino, gelato and conversation. By day it’s where people come to meet, to work, to decompress after the gym, get fueled for their day, have a morning-after post-mortem and the most delicious breakfast focaccia in the universe: panini-toasted and smeared with cream cheese, then festooned with chopped red onion, tomato, basil and a drizzle of olive oil. (Or the apricot croissant! Warmed! Yowsies!) By night it’s the place for dinner, wine and solving all of the world’s problems. It’s a magnet for ex-patriots from around the world and I have spent many hours people watching to my heart’s content. I'm also guilty of skipping up the street for a refill, quick squeeze and 2-minute catch-up with one of my nearest and dearest who alerts me to their pop-in to caff it up. You see all of the same faces, usually at the same times, convening to connect, to catch up, to play chess and cards. There’s always a political debate in the works, a saucy flirtation on the make, a broken heart being mended or grand plan being made. This is where they come to check in, check out, strategize and scheme. It’s got an energy and pulse that lures you in and makes you feel like your day isn’t complete unless you grab a quick jolt just the way you like it (I mean coffee, you guys. Don’t be DIRTY!) and update from one of your favorite familiars.
|Hey thanks, Tim Jordan!|
Everybody should be so lucky to have a check-in point...especially one that has plates of prosciutto and perfectly stinky cheese to share. Nonno would pull up a chair for sure.
*Also a point of pride: the Madonna video he was in when he was 70. It’s true. He's the ticket-taker, you guys! Frank's MTV debute!