Monday, November 16, 2009

Set the WABAC Machine to Berkeley Cafés: Back for Seconds

At the Piccolo

 With my brother, sister, and mother (I'm in Dad's sunglasses) at the Piccolo, training for a life at cafés

I might have lied, just a little bit, when I said I could trace my appreciation of time spent in cafés to those hours in that nameless café.  I should have said I rediscovered my appreciation in that café.  But me and cafés?  We go way back.

All the way back to afternoons at the Piccolo on Telegraph Avenue in Berkeley. My parents occasionally took my sister, brother, and I there, usually after an afternoon browsing at Moe's and Cody's bookstores.  In those days, Telegraph Avenue was a different place.  This was before People's Park and the riots of the late 60's.  In the early 60's, clean cut Free Speech Movement activists gathered at the Piccolo. The street had a bright scrubbed look, the same look my childhood has in my mind.

Of course, in those years I didn't drink coffee.  My parents took us to the café for a treat, an Italian soda.  They didn't believe in training wheels on bikes, but training drinks were a good idea.  My favorite was the tamarindo, which tasted faintly of cola, and came with a fat lemon wedge to squeeze.  At least in my memory.  In the picture above, my glass seems to have a blue liquid in it.  No idea what that could have been.

You know those bottles lined up on café counters today, for making ill-advised flavored lattes?  They seem to have every flavor imaginable, from Almond Roca to peanut butter.  But when I was little, the San Francisco-based Torani made grenadine and tamarindo syrups (sadly, neither remains on their current list of offerings).  That was it.  And no one thought of putting them in a latte.  Oh.  And that latte?  Those were first made at the Piccolo, a bow to American taste, which found cappuccinos too strong.  The Piccolo was renamed Caffe Mediterraneum (and referred to as 'the Med') later in the 60's, but my family called it the Piccolo for some time after.

I'm not really a coffee dogmatist; I do make an exception for one flavored cappuccino, of sorts.  On the rare occasions we went to North Beach in San Francisco, we usually had our coffee at the Bohemian Cigar Store.  Once I was a bit older, I liked to order their cappuccino con Vov the Italian egg and Marsala liqueur, like zabaglione in a bottle.  To this day I try to keep a bottle of Vov on hand, to pour a small float atop an afternoon cappuccino.  It's perfect for the hour when the caffeine/alcohol line gets fuzzy (another word waiting to be coined), when you still need a little boost, but are starting to think about winding down your day.

Another café we visited was the Espresso, on the northside of the campus.  Set back from the street, cavernous and just a little aloof, it was nicknamed 'the Depresso'.  But I always liked it, with its dark, cool interior.  Perhaps I was predisposed to living in Portland?  Later, when I lived a couple of blocks away from the Espresso, I went every Sunday (a laundromat was thoughtfully situated next door). Their cappuccino came in a heavy footed glass, which freed up table space for the Sunday paper.

By that time I was drinking coffee.  My parents had found a beautiful chrome Faema machine in a thrift shop for $25--a lot of money for them.  It sat on its own pedestal (later a small round café table) to the side of our dining table.  Each night after dinner, one of us kids would grind the coffee (from Peets, back when Mr. Peet presided over one coffee and spice store) in the manual grinder for my father's espresso. 

Incidentally, I have no idea what kind of coffee was used at all these cafés.  I have a feeling that if someone from Portland 2009 really set the WABAC machine to Berkeley cafés in those decades, they might find their coffee to be lacking.  But I suspect it was still pretty darn good.

(At all i've seen, Richard Friedman has a collection of Berkeley photos from the late 60's to today; about halfway down the page are a few interior shots of Caffe Espresso, and an exterior of Caffe Mediterraneum).

View Set the WABAC Machine to Berkeley Cafés: Back for Seconds in a larger map

By the time I was a student at Cal (for one year only, one of 9 colleges where I took classes before getting my bachelor's degree), there were two more cafés I frequented.  My friends and I spent many evenings at the Intermezzo, on Telegraph.  I still remember a barista (though they weren't called that then--what did we call them?) named Massimo who I always thought looked a bit like a thuggish blackshirt, though I'm sure he was anything but. 

The other was Caffé Roma. Almost all of Roma's seating was outdoors. Students, professors, professional students, and slightly (and not-so-slightly) crazy people mingled over caffe lattes and pieces of carrot cake.  You never knew who you'd run into there.  Speed-chess players, violently slapping down the timers on their clocks after each move, sat alongside young students flirting with one another.  Professors sat quietly reading, or engaged in vigorous discussions.  TAs held office hours at choice corner tables.

My friendships with Italian TA's, nurtured at Roma, paid off when one introduced me to Pavel--my future husband.  And indeed, much of our early courtship took place at Roma.  Though our first date, seeing Greta Garbo in Anna Karenina at the old Telegraph Repertory Theater (Pavel's suggestion), was capped with tea at the Med, sitting up on the mezzanine.  We still end most days with a shared pot of tea.

So you see, I did lie a bit.  Back at that Portland nameless café, I was no newbie.  I'd been trained from an early age in the art of sitting in cafés.  I had these skills down: nursing a cappuccino or latte, watching the regulars, and eavesdropping--just a bit.  Rather, at the nameless café I realized how much I had missed that connection since moving to Portland.  I was ready to have it again.

The Piccolo became the Med, and the Espresso closed.  Roma is now Caffe Strada.  And we moved to Portland.  Everything changes.


David said...

Of course, I love that picture!

Giovanna said...

Me too, of course. Mom is just so beautiful!

lshere said...

That little girl in the sunglasses is so utterly you!

Charles Shere said...

I remember T . saying, on that day and at that table, Berkeley is the best place in the world, and this is the best place in Berkeley.

Giovanna said...

What a wonderful thing to remember, a child being perfectly content. Those moments are exactly the ones that I love best of all.

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