It was mid-summer of ’89 and I had just arrived at the artsy Tuscan village of Pietrasanta, Italy. My friend Nancy had a pad in the middle town above all the little shopkeepers. She had a seasonal rental while working on her sculptures in one of the world-renowned studios each year. We originally met at our sculpture studio in Los Angeles, at Mount St. Mary’s College, and became fast friends. The school had stunning outdoor studio space way up in the hills of Brentwood. It is there where we learned how to use power tools and chiseled away the hours overlooking the LA skyline (the studio in LA was right on the next ridge near the Getty Museum) with killer views. When Nancy invited me to visit her in Italy I was absolutely thrilled to spend three weeks “Under the Tuscan Sun.”
It took me what felt like an eternity to arrive in Italy (with a coach ticket from California.) In those days they still allowed smoking on international flights and the Italians were known not only for their coffee but for being chain smokers. After flying for over 14 straight hours, I was half asleep when I realized that the additional train ride from the airport to her town was a few more hours away. I arrived in the middle of the night and was greeted by her smiling face at the train station. She whisked me away to her little pied a terre off the main street. It was so dark, I didn’t really get to see anything. After so many hours en route, all I wanted to do was sleep.
Morning arrived almost instantly with the most incredible aroma wafting through my window overlooking the street. It was the first time I can remember literally, “Wake UP and Smell The Coffee!” It was intoxicating. There was nothing quite like it in my limited experience of living in New York or Los Angeles. This was not just cawfee. (as in Cawfeee Tawk!) The scent of this intoxicating elixir floated through the village and permeated all the stores, cafes, and residences.
It was the first thing I remember about that trip and like ‘Remembrance of Things Past” (Marcel Proust), I realized that I lived my life as an aesthete. In the realm of the senses I am a sybaritic soul with a penchant for the finer things that life has to offer. These finer things are not necessarily material, but more sensual. Living through the five senses and beyond, I fancied myself an aficionado of sorts.
Unfortunately, my budget was more along the lines of an artiste. However I realized that one can feel the essence of affluence by experiencing and appreciating the richness of life through the sensations. That is why I will always remember the scent of high quality roasted coffee and especially the unforgettable taste of real Italian espresso.
That summer I made it my mission to sample the best of the best in the most unique coffee culture in the world. In those days there were no Internet cafes, the invasion of Starbucks was not even a glimmer in Howard Schultz’s eye, no coffee culture to speak of, no limitless coffee choices, and the coffee revolution hadn’t hit the US. From my limited experience, I became a coffee connoisseur of sorts.
The Italian coffee was brimming with rituals and rules which the Italians have perfected from the finest machines, beans, grounds and blend, but most importantly they infused art of the human touch. There are dozens of explanations as to why the Italians have been considered the Old Masters of coffee making. Some say it’s the roasting of the beans, where the oils begin to caramelize, many even say it’s roasted to perfection, but the other important aspect is the highest quality beans (usually Arabica). The art and science of coffee making is just many of the creative aspects of the Italian aficionados. Some say it’s the water, or the large turnover and quantities so that the beans are freshly roasted, while some say the blend, but most say that anything tastes better in Italy!
Instead of California Dreamin’ these days I’ve got Tuscany on my mind, in my heart and soul. Lately I find my nose is the best judge of coffee even before I step foot in the cafe. I suppose until I end up back in Italy, I will be on that eternal search for that first sniff, to “Wake Up and Smell the Coffee” will be an indelible imprint in my mind, and hopefully, I will be there again, soon. What I know for sure is that a great cup of espresso with a pile of foam makes me happy!