James Beard Publication of the Year 2017

The Best Antidote to the Scourge of Pumpkin‑Spiced Hot Drinks

The Best Antidote to the Scourge of Pumpkin‑Spiced Hot Drinks

Espresso in Sicily

No more pumpkin spice. No more ginger-laced, apple-baked, cinnamon-crusted, butterscotch-shellacked, fruitcake-flambeed, starch-laden junk that constipated an entire nation for the first half of winter.

I left it all behind for a demitasse of espresso and a puff of milk in Sicily: the espresso macchiato. A coffee that socks you in the nose and then delivers a foamy smooch to make it all better.

In any Sicilian town there is always, just around the corner, a cafe where a barista stands behind a bar ready to pull an espresso shot. Sometimes the barista is an old woman, or a young woman, or an old man and his son. Each of them is a boss behind the bar, pulling a punchy shot, and crowning it with a fluff of steamed milk for my espresso macchiato.

When that little white demitasse plate hits the marble bar, it makes a clink, and that sound indicates it is time to tune out the world and tune into this tiny cup of coffee. Time slows down a bit. That cup holds within it the next 15 minutes of my life. Uninterrupted, caffeinated bliss. If I feel like playing fast and loose, I might stir in a few grains of coarse sugar with the tiny silver spoon set on the plate. If I need a legitimate sugar fix to go with my coffee, a mini cannolo goes a long way.

From the bar, I watch Sicilians navigate narrow, bumpy streets in tiny cars, and admire some of the most creative parking jobs I’ve witnessed.

Packages of cigarettes line the walls behind the bar, each little box featuring a disturbing image of smoking-related illness. But the graphic imagery doesn’t seem to have talked too many people out of lighting up, because there’s always a smoker or two just outside the cafe. Stray cats wander by, looking for a little plate of fish bits or stale brioche soaked in milk that some shops leave out for them.

One day I was finishing a cafe con panna—an espresso shot with a dollop of whipped cream—and a bridal party stepped out of the cathedral across from the cafe. The bride and groom stopped for photos on the cathedral steps under a blue sky and cold winter sun. The bride wore a soft white stole over her gown, and it looked a lot like the swoop of whipped cream in my cup. I said a silent toast to the couple, and wished that their life together may be as sweet and rich as the little cup of coffee in my hands.

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