Cappuccino and Other Italian Firsts in Italy
I had my first sip of a hot, frothy cappuccino in Italy thanks to two guys from the Bronx. And along the way to that cappuccino, I also experienced a few other Italian firsts.
My friend Cee and I were sitting in a little alcove of the Colosseum in Rome, taking a breather from our sight-seeing. We were discussing our plan for the rest of the day when we heard a loud New Yorker accent.
Cee and I looked up startled. A stocky man probably in his early thirties was smiling at us. Seeing our surprised expressions, he smiled wider.
“Sorry,” he said. “It’s just I’ve been in Italy for a month now and it’s nice to hear an American accent.”
Any other time I would have thought the guy was using a cheesy pick-up line. I mean, it’s Italy. Americans loooove Italy. There’s always thousands of us milling around the country; Rome in particular. It’s not that hard to hear an American accent in Italy. (No matter how unfortunate that may be to some.) But this was the spring after 9/11. Americans were cautious to travel and I had not encountered many Americans during my excursions in Europe so far that spring.
So Cee and I nodded in understanding to the guy standing before us, the stands of the Colosseum stacked up behind him.
“I’m Nick,” he said and held out his hand. Cee and I introduced ourselves and he began looking around. “Vinny, over here!” he suddenly called and gestured to someone. A moment later we were being introduced to Vinny, equally stocky, equally New York, and equally as friendly as Nick.
We learned the pair were cousins, Italian, and were sight-seeing in Rome before heading down to southern Italy to stay with relatives for a few weeks. We talked with them for awhile, all four of us not wanting to begin moving again in the heat. They were very funny and seemed to know a lot about the Italian way of life. The next thing we knew we were all heading to Trevi Fountain together. Turned out, the fountain was on both of our destinations for the day. Plus, they seemed like genuinely friendly guys who just wanted to hang out and have fun.
“So you guys know the drill here, right?” Nick asked when we arrived at the Trevi Fountain.
Cee and I looked at him puzzled. “I don’t think so,” Cee said.
“Take a coin and throw it over your shoulder into the fountain and that will ensure your return to Rome,” he told us.
So with a hopeful wish to return some day, we did.
Next we found ourselves searching for the Rome zoo. Why the zoo suddenly sounded appealing, I don’t know, but Vinny and Nick threw it out there and Cee and I were having so much fun with them we decided “sure, why not?”
Off to the zoo we were trying to go, but it wasn’t quite happening. We were lost.
“It’s down the big hill over there,” a passerby told us. At least that’s what Nick told us was said. The exchange was in Italian. Nick and Vinny spoke perfect Italian despite never having been to Italy before – a benefit of being 1st generation Americans growing up with Italian parents.
We went down the hill. We reached the bottom and…no zoo. Vinny asked another pedestrian where the zoo was and he and Nick started laughing at the reply.
“What did he say?” I asked.
“That it’s up the hill.”
Cee and I laughed, too, and got ready to trek back up the hill.
“Ok, you two don’t seem at all winded by all this walking, but I think I’m done looking for this zoo,” Vinny said. “Let’s eat.”
Nick seconded this idea and jumped into the street to hail a cab.
Which is when Nick and Vinny introduced me to my first Italian cab ride.
It was terrifying.
Cee and I were squished in next to each other in the back seat along with Nick. Vinny was talking in animated Italian to the driver who was careening chaotically around cars and curbs. A Smart car suddenly cut us off (though in its defense, I think it was just trying to avoid hitting a moped) and a series of angry honks and gestures ensued. Our driver sped up aggressively to get around the offending Smart car.
“Do you think he skipped driving school to get his license?” Coley asked.
“Yeah, if he even has a license,” Nick answered.
I covered my eyes with my hands and peeked at the road through my fingers. “Oh my God, we’re going to die,” I whimpered.
Cee laughed. “This is crazy!”
Crazy it was. We skidded around a few more blocks and then the driver came to an abrupt stop in front of a restaurant with a red checkered canopy and potted plants placed around the welcoming doorway.
“We got it girls,” Vinny said as he paid the driver. He looked at our slightly shell-shocked faces and grinned.
“Was that your first Italian taxi ride?” he asked. “Incredible, isn’t it?”
“That would be one way to explain it,” I said dryly.
“They all drive like maniacs here, but it seems to work for them somehow,” Vinny said with a shake of his head.
We walked inside the restaurant and were seated after Vinny and Nick talked to the host for a minute in Italian. Cee and I just listened, having no idea what was being said, but enjoying the harmonic flow of the language going back and forth.
As we looked at our menus, Vinny drummed his fingers on the table. “So…what have you been eating on this trip?”
Cee and I exchanged a glance and laughed.
“Pizza,” we replied in unison.
“Pizza?!” Vinny said incredulously. “Don’t get me wrong. Pizza here is to die for, but you’ve been here for a week. Surely you’ve tried other things.”
“I did get lasagna at that one restaurant in Florence,” I said thoughtfully and looked at Cee.
“And we split that pasta dish in Venice,” Cee added.
Vinny and Nick looked at us dumbfounded.
“But besides that it’s been all pizza?” Vinny asked.
“Yeah…” Cee said and trailed off with a laugh.
“It’s the cheapest thing on the menu,” I said matter-of-factly. “We’re broke students.”
Nick put down his menu emphatically. “We’re treating you to a proper Italian meal today then,” he said and then he and Nick began listing items off the menu to order that we had to try.
First came the antipasto. Olives, peppers, cold peas, carrots, and other veggies in rich olive oil. For my entrée, I went the traditional route and got a huge helping of spaghetti drenched in a thick meat sauce. I thought it might be too boring, but Nick and Vinny approved my order.
Next, we ordered dessert – gelato, what else? (This was not our first time eating gelato. Cee and I religiously followed up every pizza we ate with a scoop or two or three of gelato.)
“And four cappuccinos,” I heard Vinny order without even asking Cee and me if we wanted one.
“Nice!” I said after the server left. “I feel like I haven’t had coffee in weeks.”
Vinny did a start at my comment.
“You mean I just ordered you your first cappuccino in Italy?” Vinny asked.
“And my first!” Cee chimed in.
“I figured that’s why you ordered them,” I said. “So we can try them.”
“No, I ordered them because you can’t not drink them when you’re in Italy.”
He and Nick exchanged a glance and shook their heads comically.
“Good thing we found you girls,” Nick said half-joking, half-serious.
The cappuccinos arrived, served in a cup and saucer with a sugar packet on the side. I peered down at it. A swirl of white milk and caramel-colored espresso floated like a piece of abstract art in the cup.
“Definitely go for the sugar,” Nick suggested helpfully.
I tore open the sugar and poured it in. It sat on top of the foam, slowly, slowly sinking into the depth of the cup as if into quicksand. I picked up the small spoon that was served with the cappuccino and pressed the sugar into the foam and stirred it.
I was having my doubts about this being as tasty as my usual Starbucks vanilla latte when Cee put her cup to her lips and took a sip. She put her cup back down and looked up at Nick and Vinny.
“That…is…amazing,” she said to them. She turned to me. “Hurry up and try it!”
I held it hesitantly from my lips. “Is it hot?”
“No!” she exclaimed. “Try it!”
I took a cautious sip just in case it was too hot. The foam coated my upper lip and a perfect creamy mixture of sweetness and bitterness slid down my throat. My eyes widened and I took another big slurp of foam.
“That is so good!” I said. “I am officially addicted. How have we missed a whole week of drinking these?”
We said arrivederci to our new friends shortly after dinner and wished them well on their journey down to visit their Sicilian relatives. Then Cee and I readjusted our budgets to include two daily cappuccinos.