Why is the coffee so much better in Italy? The question hit me with my first sip of espresso. The tiny spoon and hardwood counter, my suitcase still resting against my knee as I waited for Peggy to rush home from the market and invite me inside.
I asked the question again this morning, trying to keep the coffee on my tongue for as long as possible, so I might ascertain just what about the flavor was so different. Less bitter. Darker. Smoother. I wanted to use words usually meant for describing wood, or wine.
I had a similar experience later in the day, when handed a chunk of parmigiano cleaved from the heart of a 20-pound block, in the kitchen of il Teatro del Sale. The taste of it made me think of a well, as if I was pulling the flavor up from its depths in a bucket. That’s how long it lasted, each tug bringing up something new.
Back to the coffee. So what is it? By now, twenty years after espresso’s arrival in the States, our machines must be just as savvy, our baristas just as skilled, our beans traveling equal distances from equatorial climes.
When Isodoro, the man behind the machine at Café Cibréo—a man who has made a career out of his craft, in a white button-down shirt and black vest—stopped by our table outside to say Ciao, Peggy asked him.
“il modo de lavorare” was his answer, Peggy told me when he left. His way of both shrugging off the compliment, and emphasizing that it’s not just one thing.
In espresso pulling, cheese making, and other things—it’s in “the way you work.” The artist’s sensibility. The way she, or he, approaches the task at hand.
“It’s the same way that a master door maker makes doors,” Peggy elaborates, a fitting metaphor in a city filled with vaulted archways, handcut stone, passageways and alleys that have transitioned pedestrians since the days of the Renaissance. Elsewhere, at home—in most places—a door is just a door. A barrier to keep strangers out of the bathroom, the bedroom, to keep neighbors out of the house. When was the last time I even noticed the door I reflexively shut behind me? (Was it carved? What kind of wood was used? What other hands have touched it?) To a door craftsman, doors are his (or her) life.
What I’m thinking about, sipping my espresso and watching the baristas greet each new customer, the waving of hands accompanying each syllable, is how I want to live.
Living could be just living, what we do, one foot in front of the other—or it can be an art, a craft. (The Greeks got here way before I did, and had a term for it: askesis, the art of creating one’s own life.)
And I know that in some way at least, tiny cups of espresso and chunks of cheese that taste as deep as laughter, as backyard wells, are part of this. Pieces of it. And perhaps, as in most arts, it’s all about how well we see, how much we appreciate, and how we assemble the pieces. Il modo de lavore.