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Spring 1992
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Savoring New York's Coffeehouses
Richard Brookhiser
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My first date with the woman who eventually became my wife took place on a February evening 14 years ago, and was notable for at least two reasons. The first was that, though I slipped on the ice and did a fall like Ray Bolger as the Scarecrow, she agreed to see me again. The second was that, after I picked myself up, we went on to La Continentale, a coffeehouse then on Second Avenue.

I had never been in such a place before, yet I felt myself, even at first acquaintance, in the presence of an archetype. The ceiling was made of pressed tin; the floor was covered with small hexagonal tiles. The walls were hung with the autographed publicity pictures of crooners and actresses, most of them obscure, who had once come in for espressos. The espresso machine, topped by some pompous metal doodad, was grander than the hood ornament of a Twenties sedan. An operatic tenor sang over the sound system; the cappuccino was delicious. I had discovered the New York coffeehouse.

Since then, coffeehouses have become one of the reference points on my mental map of Manhattan—spots of rest and refreshment I keep track of the way bedouins remember the location of desert wells. Whenever I run errands, or simply go out strolling, I always have a coffeehouse in mind as a way-station or an end-point. The Upper East Side, whatever its average income level may be, is sadly deprived as far as these oases are concerned. The Upper West Side and the East Village, however, are adequately supplied. But it is in Greenwich Village and Little Italy that famine turns to feast—so much so that the connoisseur can choose a coffeehouse according to his moods, or even to the seasons.

To observe la vie boheme, the place to go, as it has been for years, remains Le Figaro Cafe on Bleecker Street. A restaurant more than a true coffeehouse, it has extensive coffee and dessert selections, and many of the patrons order nothing more. The wallpaper—laminated pages of French newspapers—suggests a time when Europe was automatically assumed to be cool, and America Philistine. The most interesting pronouncement I ever overheard there was from a young woman in a sun dress, a wide straw hat, and long white gloves, who was explaining to her companion that her generation, by which she meant people younger than 25, didn’t think sex was “so important.” At such moments, you think how good it is to have aged.

In cold weather I head for Macdougal Street and Laterna di Vittorio. Laterna is on the first floor of a short, brick, federal-style house, which was built for Aaron Burr. Its interior is small and dark, with red leather banquettes and two fireplaces. On raw and drizzling late winter days, coming here is the next best thing to returning to the womb. In summer, I go south and east to Cleveland Place where, across a small park from the real estate office of John Zaccaro, lies my favorite New York garden. When I first discovered it, it belonged to a coffeehouse called Giotto. The garden is long and wide, embowered by the brick sides and backs of tenements covered with rippling coats of ivy. At the back stands a grape arbor. On warm August nights there is nothing more refreshing than to sit there and watch the constellations.

One day, several years ago, I found Giotto closed and a Japanese restaurant installed in its place. I would sooner have sold them Rockefeller Center. Happily, the interlopers didn’t last, and the place is a coffeehouse again, called Giordano’s. The tables out back have become white plastic, but the new owners have wisely kept the grapes—and the stars.

Almost all of the city’s good coffeehouses are Italian. The founding dates of the oldest correspond to the breaking of the first great wave of Italian immigration: Veniero’s, in the East Village, founded in 1894; Ferrara, on Grand Street, founded in 1892; Roma, on Broome Street, was founded in 1951, but the coffeehouse that preceded it on the same site dated from 1891. Once the Italians settled into New York, they wanted to eat. And since no other ethnic group in New York knew how to cook (Jews? Irish? Germans? WASPs?), they had to cook—and bake, and brew—for themselves.

Many of the coffeehouses are appendages of pastry shops. Necessary appendages—for it is espresso that makes Italian desserts comprehensible to non-Italian palates. Without it, Italian desserts seem either far too rich and sweet, or—in the case of their cookies and biscotti—far too hard and dry, and not sweet enough. Espresso is the missing ingredient that brings everything into balance. It cuts through all that cloys and dissolves whatever sticks in the throat. Since espresso is strong, and since it comes in such small cups, it also forces you to take your time. In this, Italians make an interesting contrast with the Chinese. The Chinese are the other American ethnic group which refuses to eat badly, but lingering over the table is a concept unknown to them. When Chinese finish a meal, they rush away like offensive linemen at the snap. Italians savor.

This is the most accessible aspect of the Italian art of living. The art of living, though it charms outsiders, may not represent an unmixed blessing to its practitioners. The Italian journalist Luigi Barzini thought it concealed, and compensated for, assorted anxieties and pains. The decorative rituals of Italian life, Barzini wrote, were developed, not “by people who find life rewarding and exhilarating,” but by people who are “pessimistic, realistic, resigned,” and even “frightened.” Outsiders must let Italians psychoanalyze each other. As far as dessert goes, if Italians do bear special burdens, they keep the fact to themselves.

Keeping to themselves explains another often-ignored aspect of the Italian experience in New York, and America generally—their capacity to live alongside strangers. This talent is not evenly distributed. The Irish were notoriously tempestuous in the nineteenth century, as blacks are today (both groups of course got at least as much grief as they gave). Italians have managed to get along with almost anyone—a talent that is confirmed by the geography of American cities with large and old Italian populations. A century ago, Little Italy abutted Chinatown, even as its remnant does today. Similarly, in San Francisco, Chinatown and North Beach have long been neighbors. Not that Chinese are particularly hard to live with, except for racists. Italians, be it noted, haven’t thought it was hard at all.

Artsy neighborhoods—the kind that attract twenty-year-old women in long gloves who have discovered the boredom of sex—also typically flourish side-by-side with Italian ones. Nathan Glazer explained why: “Italians of the immigrant and second generation . . . do not subscribe to an abstract morality. Concern for odd or immoral behavior is limited to one’s own family ... thus it has been possible for Italians to look tolerantly on the oddballs, and to go about their business without being bothered.” Thus Greenwich Village could function as the base of both Eugene O’Neill and Carmine DeSapio.

Tolerance has not always been the image of Italians in the eyes of the world. When Italians began their great outflow a century ago, Anglo-Saxons, here and abroad, reacted with unconcealed distaste. The Italians who figure in Sherlock Holmes stories are always stabbing each other, while one turn-of-the-century Canadian historian wrote that the latest arrival to his country was “the Italian, who has come with his organ and (we hope) without his knife.” The wheel has turned and brought us back to that attitude, as Howard Beach and Bensonhurst have taught New York and the world to think of Italians not as clannish with a “c,” but Klannish with a “K.”

There is some truth to these new-old notions, but it’s less than a half-truth. While the internal tensions of Italian life sometimes break out into violence, and perceived threats to the community are resisted with a determination that is often blind and occasionally brutal, it is still the case that Italians have been one of the most pacific ethnic groups in American history, and that they remain so whatever the headlines scream. Next time you go to an Italian coffeehouse, check out what’s happening next door or down the street, and ask yourself if your ancestors or peers would have stayed put, so calmly and so generously.

 

 


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