Monday, October 15, 2018
New York Stories #1: Caffe Reggio
I'm working on a project for the paper this week so, in lieu of the column, I'm presenting some observations from my recent visit to New York City.
Once I visited an old Italian barber in Sandburg Village. This was years ago. He surprised me by serving an espresso and a biscotti while I had my hair cut. It seemed very civilized, the tiny cup and saucer, the hot liquid, the sweet biscuit, the snip of the scissors.
I didn't think of the nexus between barbering and espresso again until last week, in New York City.
The cab from LaGuardia dropped off us at West Third and MacDougal, in front of the law school. We had time to kill—the boy was at class.
"Let's wait there," I said, pointing to a bright green storefront across MacDougal, "Caffe Reggio." My wife and I rolled our suitcases in that direction.
Inside was a small, dark, space. Metal ice cream parlor chairs, white marble tables, black marble floors. Dark oil paintings. Busts. Pleasant classical music playing. My wife ordered a latte. I ordered a double espresso and a pair of the small round cookies I had noticed in the case. They serve a glass of water with your coffee—civilized. The orange-rimmed china cups and sugar bowls are emblazoned with the name of the cafe—also civilized.
And so it began. Five, count 'em, five mornings in a row, begun at the Caffe Reggio, founded in 1927 by Domenico Parisi, the man—it is said—who introduced cappuccino into the United States. Originally he ran a barber shop in the space, selling espresso to customers as they waited for their haircuts. Balancing the 20 minutes of work required to give a haircut, and the one minute to prepare an espresso, both costing 10 cents, Parisi prudently let the barber shop go by the wayside. The space was elegant yet casual, compact yet spacious. It felt like we had stepped out of the stream of time, into another dimension.
"It's worth coming to New York just to sit here," I said, on the first day.
A small door to the left of the counter, with a hand-painted plaque above it. The profile of a man—Dante, clearly. I went over to read the words printed there: "Lasciate ogne speranza, voi ch'intrate..."
I don't speak Italian, but I recognized the phrase, and the Canto number above confirmed my suspicions. Among the most famous lines in literature: "Abandon all hope, you who enter here." The inscription above the gates of Hell. A bathroom joke.
Our son arrived, all smiles—he had never been here before, why would he?—and we departed for his quickstep tour the campus.
But the next day we were back. My wife had a plan—walk across the Brooklyn Bridge, sample Brooklyn bagels—but we needed caffeine to send us on our way. I opted for coffee, and it came in a huge cup. Biscotti this time. Branching out.
"Do many customers notice the Dante joke?" I asked the waitress.
"Every second person," she said, flatly. Ouch. Pedantry is punished.
The third morning we had breakfast: sharing a "Crepe Reggio," filled with fluffy ricotta cheese. Delicious. The fourth day we met a friend there for breakfast and sat talking and catching up for almost two hours. Nobody rushed us. An omelet this time.
Back in Chicago, I delved into its history. Bob Dylan was a patron. So was Jack Kerouac. The room had cameos in movies such as "Godfather II," "Serpico" and "Shaft"—Isaac Hayes' famous soundtrack includes a song, "Cafe Regio," a reminder that musicians are not known for their proofreading skills. The place figures into Andre Aciman's "False Papers." The Egyptian author would return, sometimes several times a day, trying to master the ache caused by a girl he courted at Caffe Reggio, "Seeking to recover something I felt I lost there."
To me, it was the opposite. I felt I found something there, a certain calm, a place of temporary belonging. Edie immediately understood. "Every day we have coffee there is a happy day," she said, on the last day, when we made a point of heading there before meeting our son for lunch and then to the airport and home.
Four out of five days I sat in the same chair, facing the open green door. There was always a customer tucked next to the door, and I took to slyly snapping a photo of the patron. Chicago has much to recommend it, but there is no place like this, where time has stopped or, rather, is measured out in coffee spoons. Nothing remotely like it.