I can’t decide whether or not I enjoy Italian historical cafes. Coming from the American tradition of NEW restaurants, historical ones are certainly novel, but that novelty can only take them so far. The idea of sitting in the same room as thousands of people before you may sound alluring, but too often these cafes feel as stiff as their past patrons are now. Perhaps the coffee tastes like an 80% robusta blend, the cups are thin and fragile or the pastries are stale and uninpsiring. There are a million pitfalls. Even the decor can be overbearing.
I’ve had breakfast at my fair share of historic spots this year: Mulassano in Turin, Pasticceria Torino in Parma, Pasticceria Tonolo in Venice, Traveggia, Medagliani, and even my first cappuccino at Sant’Ambroeus. These haven’t been the breakfasts — or coffees — that stand out in my mind. If they do stand out, it’s generally for that x factor and not, unfortunately, for their quality.
You would think that a cafe with a long history has said history because their coffee and pastry is so good that it’s kept people coming back over the years. This model might pop up with American and English institutions, but it doesn’t fit the Italian mind set. Italians are more concerned about chatting with their barista than the barista’s qualifictions. Italians want to make sure their friends are going to that bar as well. The ideal atmosphere for an Italian bar isn’t always one of serious quality, but one of community.
There are two rooms at Pasticceria Cavour in Bergamo’s Città alta, one for standing and oogling pastries and one for sitting. I sat down at a table and waited patiently for a barista to come and take my order. I ordered a cappuccino scuro — said, as written, in bold and italics — to make sure I wouldn’t receive a cup of milk. Luckily, the cappuccino was quite good. Not the best Italian one I’ve had, not even by a stretch of the imagination, but the coffee was present, there was a good amount of foam and it tasted moderately creamy. I was pleased, though not falling over. If this cappuccino was present at every bar, I would understand better why Italy has such a reputation for great coffee.
The brioche wasn’t good and it wasn’t bad. Part of me wanted to love it. It was light and flaky, there were layers and the tiniest hint of butter. There was, however, a distinct lack of flavor that made even the texture dull. With a croissant you get the beautiful flavor of butter and hopefully a delightful kick of salt. With a normal Italian brioche you get something a bit sweet or fior d’arancia-y. I genuinely got nothing with this, not even bread. A dull or awkward tasting brioche will usually perk up when dipped in cappuccino, but this did nothing. It would have been a waste of a perfectly acceptable coffee to dunk the brioche inside.
Historic cafes are interesting places that present you with an experience more than with quality. I probably won’t stop trying them, but I don’t expect to find a fantastic brioche or cappuccino there. They may be perfectly acceptable, but years in Italy don’t seem to be an indicator of quality.
Do you enjoy dining in historic locations or do you prefer to try the cool new place?