I love Italian cafés, or bars as they’re called here.
Of course you can’t generalise. Not all of them are such shrines to all things sweet. Some are best avoided, generally the ones where you walk in and there are a load of old men. Not that I have anything against old men, but it’s often a sign. In Spain if I walk in and there are a lot of old men, chances are they serve good tapas. In Italy, it’s not quite the same.
In both cases, if you’re looking for a quick toilet, don’t. They probably won’t even have real toilets preferring the Turkish variety. And in any case they won’t be clean. Although this is no guarantee. You can go to the chicest bar in Milan and chances are you’ll still be clambering down some rather lethal staircase into somewhere you probably were better off giving a miss.
Choose your bar, and choose your toilet, with care.
On the other hand, the best of Italian bars are almost like living works of art. And it’s not just about the food. It’s the whole atmosphere. From the group of mums who have just done drop-off to the businessmen having their quick caffé before going off to the office, it’s clear that the Italian bar is central to Italian life.
Some of them are very traditional, family-run and have a regular clientele that’s been going there for years, and are often the best. My local bar is like this. It was one of the first bars I came across when I moved to the area and it’s still my favourite. I walk in and the world is as it should be.
Today there were some particularly appealing chocolate and raspberry affairs sitting in the cabinet where I walked in (see main picture). Not strictly cakes, they are actually semifreddos. Or semifreddi, more like a mousse disguised as a cake, as a result of its semi-frozen texture. And utterly beautiful. Too good to be eaten? Not quite. Trust me, they need to be eaten.
There’s something so very civilised about going out for breakfast in Italy. Or maybe that should be there’s something so very civilised about having cake for breakfast, even if a brioche doesn’t strictly count as cake. I remember when I came here years ago, I’d go around in raptures like some kind of crazed Marie Antoinette. “Oh, let us eat cake for breakfast! How wonderful it is to eat cake for breakfast!” And I’d sit and have pasticcini (little pastries) for breakfast, and think I’d arrived in some form of culinary paradise.
And what better way to start your day than looking across a glass cabinet that’s full of various brioches? Take your pick: various types of jam, chocolate, Nutella (who says Nutella isn’t for grown-ups?), pistacchio, Gianduia (like Nutella), apple and so on. This morning I had an extremely buttery and delicious affair with cooked cream (a bit like custard), raisins and almond flakes. And the whole thing was freshly dusted in icing sugar.
Then there’s the coffee. Italy is famous for its coffee, and Italian coffee can be seriously good. Cappuccinos are smooth and creamy and caffé lattes are the real thing and served in a glass and not a paper carton. Coffees don’t come in sizes, they come in cups. And that’s how it should be. And in spite of Starbucks’ recent invasion of Milan’s Piazza del Duomo complete with palm trees and protests, well, let’s just leave it at this. They might do a caramel frappuccino, but personally, I’d rather have this.