“We are reading the paper. It is Sunday and we are curious about our world.”
This is the closing line of the preface to a wonderful book – ‘Glass, Paper, Beans’ by Leah Hager Cohen. She is describing a typical scene in her favourite café; almost dreamlike and nostalgic. Calm and very human somehow. I like the sound of the place after just three pages.
This book was lent to me by the lovely Nissa. Nissa is the sort of person others would describe as ‘bubbly’. I prefer to think of her as ‘sunny’, she is so cheerful and smiling that she lights up our office. I don’t know her that well yet, and as such I have eternally linked her to the author of this book. In my mind at least, she is the one sitting in that cafe, watching other people read the paper.
Idly, I wonder if anyone will ever describe an afternoon sitting in my cafe. I doubt mine will ever have such a calming atmosphere.
Instead, I am sitting in Gusto Italiano in Sheffield. I like this place a great deal. This is what will hopefully come to be my sixth ‘fieldwork’ site, and i quietly relish the fact that I am at liberty to wile away whole afternoons guzzling espresso in here all under the guise of research. Gusto Italiano is run by a slim, slightly harassed looking woman named Esterina. She runs the place with her partner, and between them they serve coffee, forcefully organise the other waitresses, manage all the unseen parts of cafe life, and do all the cooking, and all the while, maintain impeccably neat and impossibly stylish Italian attire and demeanor. As my cousin Ol points out frequently (and often quite loudly) “All the waitresses are so fit!” He is right, too. It seems good looks are a prerequisite to employment there.
It was Ol who first introduced me to the place. Initially he praised the coffee, before admitting he actually went to waitress-watch. I shall not judge him, the coffee is very good indeed. I am skeptical of places who advertise ‘genuine Italian coffee’ – possibly a result of too long spent at Caffe Nero, but this place converted me. The coffee is Mokarabia; roasted by Langdon’s of London who also, coincidently, roast the secret blend for Caffe Nero. Mokarabia is a beautiful blend, very sweet and rich, and surprisingly their espresso blend is 100% arabica. There is no Italian tradition of using baked robusta as filler for the espressos. That alone has me hooked. It’s a bit pricey in here, but you are paying for the ambiance, the Italianess and the people-watching as well as the coffee.
This morning I came in here with Anna and Ol. As per usual Anna and I were late meeting him, but it is the sort of place anyone can lounge around in for hours, starting at the very pretty lattes and trying not to draw attention to the fact that you’re not spending any money. I bought Ol an americano, just to be on the safe side. He looked appreciative.
Anna, being her typical, inimitable self, really likes the place. The first time I brought her in, she immediately adopted the manageress and yabbered away in fluent Italian about the merits of Italian wine. Although amusing to watch, this was not particularly useful to my own research, which was the reason I came in! Today though, given the company, she just poked us with her umbrella, giggled a lot and invited us to help devour a huge chunk of genuine Italian chocolate cake. The woman is a marvel.
Aside from our rather noisy party, the cafe was quiet today. I returned later in the day by myself, sipped my latte and read ‘Glass, Paper, Beans’ contently, and absent-mindedly watched my fellow coffee drinkers. Given none of the staff in Gusto Italiano can be much over 30, the place attracts an unnerving amount of old ladies. The site of traditional and highly uncontinental pots of tea being brought over ceremoniously by suave waiters in bow ties to eager pensioners just doesn’t quite fit with the rest of the cafe’s image. Apart from the old dears, there are a few balding and be-suited businessmen sprawled in the leather arm chairs, with pens in pockets, laptops and one even has a blackberry. I glare at them from my hard wooden seat at the back, there are only a few comfy sprawling seats, the rest of the place is filled with black wooden chairs and very neat tables.
Gusto Italiano is situated almost equidistant from both universities in Sheffield,and given the caffeine intake of the average student, you would expect the place to be crawling with them. But I’ve never seen more than a few studenty types in here at once. When they are, they tend to be solo and sit up at the stools near the window, gazing out at the real world.
This is perhaps why I like it here. Chain coffee shops invite a sort of fashion-conscious elite, be it students or yuppies (if I am still allowed to use that term), who go because they like the image of themselves clutching an oversized branded mug, and because it is the place to be, and the place to be seen. Gusto Italiano is far posher, more up market, and perhaps even more formal in terms of general atmosphere than Starbucks or Nero. The music is piped and nondescript, pleasant enough if you are listening, easily ignored if you’re not and it doesn’t try to be cool. The service is polite but not scripted, and never falsely friendly. To my mind, by being relatively formal, neat, polite and offering straightforward and excellent coffee, Gusto Italiano manages not only to be genuinely Italian but so much less pretentious than any other coffee shop I’ve been to in a while.
I may not be here on important business, I may not be surrounded by fellow students and I may drink americanos instead of fancy large cappuccinos, but in here I can still amuse myself for hours without feeling remotely out of place. For me, that’s all I really want at a cafe.