I often felt hungry, but never lacked for food. Our host family, the Chellinis, provided us and a few other paying guests with full room and board, for what it was worth. Nearly every day during our college year in Florence, Italy, at lunch and dinner, my roommate Marie and I sat in our places around an oblong table with our hosts. Meals began punctually, and the menus varied day to day but not week to week. Monday: mystery meat timbale; Tuesday: risotto; Wednesday: pasta; sometimes eggs; sometimes a rich minestra, and on Sunday, always a roasted chicken.
In contrast, breakfast had scant nutritional value. Marie and I were accustomed to dorm standards like a big bowl of hot or cold cereal; eggs and breakfast meats; milk with coffee; or thick and warm, buttery toast. Every morning around 7:00 in casa Chellini, Teresa the all-purpose donna, housemaid, and scullion would knock on our bedroom door, ask “Si puo?”which meant, “May I come in?” and after hearing one of us answer, would enter bearing a wooden tray always set with the same objects: several thin slices of stale bread or dry toast, two small slabs of butter, a tiny pot of jam, two coffee cups and saucers, and a small pot of bitter coffee next to a little sugar dish, two tiny spoons, and a small pitcher of milk.
Teresa would set the tray on my desk, which faced a window with a view of the street. Hoping to speed up our morning routine, she would raise the shutters and let in the weak early morning light. Hands on hips, she would ask, “Va bene?” We always answered, yes, everything was fine. We felt sorry for Teresa and never complained to her about breakfast. She had been working for the Chellinis for at least five years, after they hired her from an orphanage where she had grown up, probably the Opera Madonnina del Grappa. She slept in a closet off the kitchen; her toilet and hand basin were hidden in another closet in the opposite wall behind the kitchen sink. The Chellinis never bought her toilet paper. She had to use torn-up old newspapers. Teresa wouldn’t have understood our arrogant pity; she was happy to be free of the orphanage. She enjoyed meeting so many interesting people, in the very apartment where she worked.
Never satisfied with breakfast, on the way to the university Marie and I would stop at a neighborhood bar for a good caffe. An Italian bar is not a tavern, but more like a café where alcoholic drinks are available on an equal standing with espresso. The first time we stopped at Bar Montebello, its owner, Elio, was standing behind the zinc bar and polishing glassware. Of average height with a receding line of curly salt-and-pepper hair, he smiled as we approached. Asking what he could offer us, I answered that we’d each love to have a good coffee because our host family down the street served us a drink undeserving of the name caffe. Later in the school year, we discovered that the daily breakfast coffee Teresa brought us was left over from a brew the Chellinis enjoyed by themselves after dinner, once Marie and I had excused ourselves from the table. Teresa would reheat it the next morning.
After learning we were students from the United States—still uncommon in those days—and were living in Florence until summer, Elio began to call us his studentesse americane, his American students, and with a flourish would serve us delicious, foamy cappuccino with a cornetto on the side every time we dropped in. Like hobbits, we’d have a first, then second breakfast at least four times a week. Elio became our informal advisor about managing our life in the city—how to avoid harassment, who sold the best snack food, which newspapers to read if we were socially conscious—and he treated us with increasing respect throughout the school year.Sometimes we’d stop by after classes for a glass of something and would stay a while to watch “Gunsmoke” dubbed in Italian on the bar’s television, a unique set in the neighborhood. Of the many people who added warmth and adventure to our junior year abroad, Elio was among the most dear.
It’s common knowledge that a productive day starts with a good breakfast. On the mornings we’d stop at Bar Montebello, Elio would supply Marie and me with the kind encouragement we needed to meet the daily challenges of life in an unfamiliar culture. The rich coffee and pastry he served us didn’t hurt, either. Decades later, I have not forgotten Elio’s generosity and warmth.
Next: A Tavola: lunch and dinner.