Sunday, June 02, 2024

Caffè and Cannoli with a Sicilian Surrealist

una favola...

My first trip to Italy was in 1971. I was a student on summer break and spent days in Rome, wandering the streets at all hours with my camera. One night I happened to be near the Spanish steps when it was very late. In fact, it was almost dawn. And down the street from the steps on the Via Condotti, the familiar noises of a coffee machine, the grinding, the steaming and the drip, drip, dripping, sounded. With the aroma of fresh coffee, I was drawn like an insect to light.  It was there where I first encountered the Sicilian Surrealist.

My Italian was, and still is, rudimentary. But I knew how to order a coffee. “Un caffe latte, per piacere,” I said in my best Italian accent. As they were preparing my order, an elderly man shuffled behind me and asked in English, “Where did you learn to order coffee like that? Surely not in America?” I turned and “buon giorno’d” to him. He was speaking in English, which, though also rudimentary, was better than my Italian. He also spoke French, German and Greek. I was way out of my league.

But, morning was now upon us, and the coffee was ready. So, he invited me to sit down with him. It was a small table, against a wall, with a large red bench seat which he took. And a bistro chair, facing him. “I like it here, it reminds me a little of Greece, and it is ancient, like me. How is it you ordered coffee like that?” I told him I learned about caffe latte from my Aunt Vittina when I was staying with her and her husband in Palermo. “Oh, you are from Sicilian parentage?” he inquired. “Yes, on my father’s side,” I replied.  “So, we are common in that affliction,” he said.

“What are you doing in Italy?” he asked. I told him that I had just finished an artist workshop in California called the Jesuit Art Institute, and that the Jesuits, when they learned that I was coming to Italy, helped to sponsor part of my trip afterwards so that I could take an artwork to the Jesuit headquarters in the Vatican to the head of the order.

“Pedro Arrupe?” he inquired. “Indeed, yes, the very same man,” I answered.

“So, are you an artist too?” he pressed. I answered that I was still in university and was attached to their art department as a fine arts major, but photography and film making was my main predilection.

He told me also was an artist, a painter, and that he had been up all night, working on a painting and couldn’t sleep and he was “being harassed by a demon.”

He had these dark, deep-set eyes, reminding me of the Sicilian author Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa. Indeed, he looked like he was being hunted more than harassed.

“So, what do you expect to do with your art degree?” he asked. I told him at this point I was just trying to stay in school and not get drafted and sent to Vietnam to get my ass shot off in a war I didn’t believe in. And I did love photography. “So why not go to Vietnam as a photographer?”  It was a valid question, but not a subject that interested me. Also, shooting a camera when everyone else around me were shooting guns didn’t feel like the odds would be in my favor.

My answer was different though. “What I am really interested in are these streets, Italy, my family and how they came to make a life here and then in America. I have been walking the streets here, in Naples, in Palermo, in Florence, with my camera, as you can see, and I can attest to the demons you claim are harassing you, for there are also tragic, and yes, some diabolical acts I have witnessed in my time here.”

He took a sip of his coffee and pondered. Then he called out, “Maria, would you make us some cannoli?” in Italian. “My treat,” he said.

I was so out of my depth, sitting here with a man the age of my grandfather, who said he was an artist. What did he want from me? He didn’t look like that kind of person, you know, who was roaming the streets looking for sweet meat. No, he was legit. But still, I wondered, why me?

Of course, I was in the wandering photographer mode and my senses were all open to the world in front of me. Perhaps he sensed that too. I was also young and naïve. But I wasn’t foolish, even though I’d had little, or no, sleep.

The cannoli arrived, one for each of us, accompanied by a small pot of coffee, American, to linger and enjoy the fresh dessert. “So, what will you do today? Where will you go?” he inquired. I told him that I was going to roam around the gardens near Villa Borghese. “Oh, do stop in at the modern art museum. There are some fine examples.” I told him I would.

“And later, for dinner what will you do?” I said there was a little tavola calda near the train station on my way back to my room, and that I’d probably stop there.

He took out a card from the inside of his jacket and handed it to me. “Why don’t you join me and my family for a modest dinner this evening.” My wife loves company, and she is a good cook. I also love wine, and so we can open up something nice. Would you like to do that? I’d like to know what you saw during the day and we could discuss it tonight?”

I looked at his card, he lived nearby the Spanish steps. I told him I’d love a home cooked meal. “Perfect then!” He stood up as we were getting ready to leave. “You probably want to get your day started and I don’t want to interrupt you any further for now. My name is Giorgio. We’ll expect you at 7:30?” I told him yes, thank you, and that he could count on it.

I had no idea who he was or where the evening would take us. But I was in ancient Rome, and I was looking forward to the food. And the wine.

  End of Part I

 © written and photographed by Alfonso Cevola limited rights reserved On the Wine Trail in Italy

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