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A Love Letter From a Snob to Coffee, The Italian Way

Something, actually, an abundance of things, about the experience of drinking coffee is just better in Italy than here in the US. Is it the fantastic flavor? Yes, that’s one reason, but not all. Oooh, what about the fact that there are gas stations with fully-fledged, long coffee bars just off the highway? YES. I have been fortunate enough to have experienced Italy’s true coffee dominance over America multiple times.

First, the flavor. The cappuccino, as well as the espresso macchiato, is delicious and smooth with its delicate foam. I have winced each time upon returning to the US, forcing myself to drink bitter Dunkin’ to wake up in the mornings. 

Second, the delightful accoutrements! The Italian cafes I visited featured croissant-like pastries with a subtly sweet custard oozing out. The buttery flakiness and delectable cream pleasantly complement the warm nectar of the cappuccino. Ah yes, just a tad better than the classic American coffee-donut combination, in which the cloying donut and severely bitter coffee-bean-water amount to an unsavory aftertaste. At Genoa’s Caffetteria Orefici e Latteria Buonafede, a small low-ceiling, white-tiled cafe in a quiet, unassuming plaza with just an older man and girl as the staff, they served one spoonful of delicious melted dark chocolate and one of fluffy homemade clotted cream along with each cappuccino order. This was easily the best version of whipped cream I had ever tasted and might ever taste. My sister and I visited there every morning during our three days in Genoa that trip.

Third, the culture. In Italian coffee culture, the customer is to enjoy their coffee in a ceramic cup and saucer then and there, at the bar standing up in the company of (mostly) friendly baristas. NOT in an earth-killing plastic/styrofoam cup and brown cardboard wrapper thing while driving a car. Although the Italian cafe provides a hospitable environment, the Italians don’t lollygag there at the bar, but rather quickly consume their breakfast and exit with a “Ciao!” I recall my family’s conversations with the friendly baristas at Rome’s Caffe Camerino, where I was first blessed with the authentic Italian coffee experience. We walked there every morning during our five-day stay from our nearby apartment

Fourth, the price! Each cappuccino at most places is under 2 Euros. My sister’s and my daily breakfast in Genoa rounded to about 8 Euros total. 

Fifth, the absence of Starbucks. I did not see any wretched Starbucks establishments or their ubiquitous plastic cups anywhere in Rome, for they simply are not there. In fact, Starbucks opened its first branch in Rome earlier this year, and I’m praying for its downfall. Or perhaps I don’t have to, for Italian cafes are superior in every way and will therefore quash any further Starbucks revenue, except for the occasional tourist rabble. 

Sixth, the incredibly perfect off-the-highway gas station coffee shops! Yes, the delightful Italian coffee experience can be found not just in urban areas, but on the side of a highway too. I noticed these on my recent spring break trip to Rome with BC’s University Chorale, where we stopped on the way to each of our two day trips in Orvieto and Florence at an establishment called Chef Express. Chef Express is no ordinary gas station, but rather an oasis featuring a fully-fledged, long coffee bar with four baristas and plenty of cookies, chilled sodas, and even children’s toys. Even here, just off the highway, I observed Italians drinking their coffee at the bar standing up, not carrying it out the door in a plastic cup to drink while driving. The employees there handled our Chorale invasions with efficiency and ease. I joked with my friend, Campbell, about my dream to someday franchise a Chef Express with him and retire in the Italian countryside. Then, I could linger at my own coffee bar a little longer, content knowing that I wouldn’t have to experience mediocre (American) coffee again.

Cover Photo courtesy of The New York Times

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A Day’s Lobster Trip

About twenty minutes north of Portland, Maine, off the side of US Highway Route 1, is a delightful shack-like eatery named Day’s Crabmeat and Lobster. On the right side of the white building, wooden deck steps bring visitors up to a sliding window, where one can order their lunch of steamer clams, fried clam bellies, clam chowder, crab cakes, lobster rolls, or whole lobsters with a side of corn on the cob. On the left is an entrance into a large, low-ceiling room with tanks of crawling lobsters, a counter with refrigerated soups and scallops, chalkboards detailing the prices of lobsters and steamers, and various Day’s t-shirts and mugs. Behind the buildings and next to the gravel parking lot are bright red benches overlooking a pleasant marsh with small sailboats, presumably ones for lobstering where sailors set traps and catch lobsters, in the distance. We first visited as a family in fall 2021.

Greeting you with a friendly face is an unassuming man named Trip. I recall shaking his hand, his burly, thick fingers callused with burns (from grabbing boiling-hot lobsters) enclosing my hand with a firm grip. Trip proceeds to lead my dad and I outside on the wooden deck, where a deep stainless steel tub filled with boiling water lays stacked on cinder blocks. He lifts the metal handle with his bare hands, drops in the sack of lobsters, and closes the lid. Although Trip recommends steaming lobsters at home, he says that because the restaurant has to cook nearly 100 at a time, the boiling water reaches the entire surface area of each lobster, and therefore cooks them more evenly. We walk back inside and nine minutes or so later, he carries the bright red lobsters in a styrofoam box over the counter.

Growing up in Michigan, every Thanksgiving, my dad ordered five 2+ pound lobsters shipped from Maine’s Cape Porpoise Lobster Co., instead of the traditional turkey. He always insisted that bigger was better because each lobster had more meat. To our surprise, Trip informed us that the distinction between smaller, younger lobsters (1.25 pounds or less) and larger ones (1.75 pounds or more) is analogous to that of veal and beef. My dad and I noticed a tangible difference with the meat of the smaller lobsters. The morsel of white, knuckle meat melted in our mouths–it was the most tender, succulent piece of lobster meat I had ever tasted up until that point. My dad and I were instantly converted, and thereafter we only ordered 1.25 pound lobsters from Day’s and other vendors. 

We left Day’s with five cooked lobsters, all 1.25 pounds each of course, and happily consumed them for dinner. My family and I all noticed that the meat was significantly easier to separate from the shell, similar to the coveted “falling off the bone” phenomenon of well-cooked barbecue ribs. The steamed shells were also much softer to crack, and we did not need the metal crackers and sticklike paraphernalia that Thanksgiving dinners in Michigan necessitated. 

Trip was definitely right, and possessed the experience to back his claim. He grew up in the area of Maine’s rocky, curvilinear coastline, fully immersed in Maine’s predominant lobster industry before working in commercial real estate for over 20 years, and then as a manager at Hannaford’s Market, a mostly Maine-based chain of supermarkets. Ultimately, he said he was sick of working in “corporate America,” and instead decided to work full-time at Day’s. 

Day’s closes for the winter, only to reopen March 1, for the boats need to travel further and in rougher conditions to catch lobsters in the winter. Lobsters are therefore sold at a higher price, and it becomes less economically feasible for Day’s to remain open. My family now insists that anytime we drive together to Portland, we stop at Day’s. Let’s just say we’ll no longer eat large lobsters shipped from afar, for a trip to Day’s is worth the wait.

Cover Photo courtesy of Scott Greenhalgh