To those who come to me asking how to see “the real Tuscany,” I say, forget the Uffizzi, the wineries and the villas, and go to a bar—a bar in the Italian sense of the word, that is a café. Ah, you think, a welcome break in the pace and pressure of travel with family, twenty minutes to slip into neutral, park myself over a long, warm coffee, and shoot the breeze or flip through the paper. But that wouldn’t be Tuscany at all.
First, make your entrance. Open the door, step inside, and stop. The whole bar will turn and look you up and down (they know you’re American by now), at which point, stand tall, try to look bored and mildly disdainful, and scan the room, as if for danger or possible prey. Then, walk straight to the pastry counter. Order “un’ brioche,” which is the thing that looks like a croissant, or if you absolutely have to point, say “quella,” not “quello” because pastry is feminine. When you are handed your pastry in a napkin, resist the urge to thank anyone, and don’t smile; it looks suspicious so early in the day.
Take your pastry and move toward the counter in front of the coffee machine. Stop admiring the scene and fix your eye on the server, who will do her best to avoid yours, unless you are a uniformed police officer, in which case you won’t have to tell her what you drink, wait very long or pay.
Chances are you will make your all-important order from a few rows back, so imagine yourself on stage and project, project, project. Skip the please, because the server can fill two orders in the time it takes you to enunciate “per piacere.” You can order a short coffee, called a “caffè” (nobody says espresso), a cappuccino, or a caffè latte. If you call the latter a “latte,” your server will ask “Hot or cold?” and pour you or steam you a glass of milk, a perfectly respectable choice in bars near nursery schools and hospitals. No one orders a double anything, whole milk is all they’ve got, and the only flavor is coffee. You can, however, personalize, in terms of the vehicle of delivery (if you like cappuccino in a tall, thick glass instead of a mug say, “nel vetro”), temperature (“bollente” or “boiling” if you like it piping hot, though if you spill any, you won’t be able to sue as Italy does not enjoy a functioning judicial system), or texture (“poca schiuma” which means “light on the froth,” though a self-respecting Italian would never order its opposite). Eat your pastry quickly while your coffee is being prepared (they didn’t give you a plate, did they).
When your coffee lands on the counter, and you’re still standing a few rows back, do not start explaining or gesticulating to the dense crowd around you. Italians will move aside automatically, almost reverently, there being universal agreement on very few things in this country but without a doubt on the importance of drinking hot. Add sugar, if you want, give a quick stir, and pick up the mug or glass. Take note: whether you’re drinking a short coffee or a long one, it’s time to drink it all—not chat or look around or settle your elbow on the counter and open the paper. Some people lower the mug to give it a swirl mid-way through, but putting the mug back on the saucer may well prompt the server to inquire, “What’s wrong?” or, worse, to clear it away entirely.
That’s it. Now you pay and get out. As much as Italians adore food and drink, as common as the jokes are about a workday that consists mostly of breaks, a bar visit here is a few-minute affair, a comma, not the full stop we Americans are used to. The good news is, it’s cheap. A pastry in Siena or Florence will run you a euro or so, and a coffee the same or only slightly more. It’s considered polite to pay with exact change or something close to it. At the cash register, say what you had (“pastry, coffee, glass of water”), pay and head for the door, calling out “Buongiorno!” (even the regulars avoid the commitment of “Arrivederci”) to no one in particular on your way into the street.
I went to a bar one morning with my daughter, Charlotte, on the way to her school, to her first morning of tenth grade. She dropped her backpack at a table, and then we went to the counter to choose our pastries. A large, older man with wavy, white hair and the air of a padrone said from behind the counter, “Bentornata, cara,” to her, “Summer’s over, eh?” She didn’t answer, or even smile but ordered her chocolate éclair— “Un beignet al cioccolato”—and took it back to the table, leaving me to wait for my coffee, and like so many mothers raising children in a country not their own, marvel that she (half German, half American, raised in Siena) had so fully absorbed the Tuscan nonchalance, the self-possession and reserve that both earn and come to signify respect and affection here.