2018 Primetime Emmy
& James Beard Award Winner

Ah, Back to the Old Coffee Vs. Alcohol Debate

Ah, Back to the Old Coffee Vs. Alcohol Debate

Coffee in Salento

“I’m meeting some friends for a coffee tomorrow,” Gabriele said on the phone. “Want to join us for breakfast?”

I was staying in Salento, in the south of the Apulia region—the heel of Italy’s boot. Gabriele was a friend of a friend, and he took me under his wing. I think he felt sorry for me, a woman traveling alone, on a tight budget, without a vehicle. There wasn’t much to do in the village I was staying in, and without a car it was hard to get around. Without Gabriele’s help, I would have spent my vacation sunbathing in olive groves.

I had been told that life in Apulia was simple, lived in villages instead of big cities, centered on food, wine, music, dancing, good company, and coffee. “You catch up with your friends in one village, party in another, have a coffee here, a beer there,” Gabriele said. “Life is great in Salento.”

Life in the countryside had appealed to me. During my first two days in the village, I enjoyed having my cappuccino and cornetto at a cozy local bar. I enjoyed listening to people talk in a strange mix of Greek and Italian, and I liked hearing the peal of church bells. I also liked Salento’s specialty iced coffee: a lightly sugared espresso poured over ice cubes and served in a whisky glass—perfect for hot summer days. Then I noticed that I was the only woman in all-male bars, and also the only foreigner. I felt lonely, and decided that a village vacation wasn’t my cup of coffee, after all.

“One needs a car here, or a scooter,” Gabriele said when he picked me up next morning, “Otherwise you drink coffee at home, like old ladies do.” Villages in Salento tended to be more conservative than towns, I was told, so women usually met for coffee and drinks in their homes, while the men went out.

For breakfast, we drove to a popular beach, Torre dell’Orso, a seven-mile drive from my village. Every weekend Gabriele’s friends met at a local pasticceria, Dentoni. They arrived from different villages and chatted over breakfast before going to the beach. It was a bit cold for swimming that day, so we discussed plans for the night, sitting at a table lavishly laden with coffee and sweets. “Try a pasticciotto,” Marianna said, “It’s a bit too rich for my taste, but it’s a famous treat of the region.” Pasticciotto dough is traditionally made with lard, and the one I dug into had warm, smooth, and devilishly sweet custard inside its crust.

We all met again later that evening for a coffee in the village of Melendugno. Then, when we sat in a bar much later that night, after hopping from one village to another in search of snacks, drinks, and parties, it was coffee again. “We just like coffee,” Marianne said. “It keeps you awake. I love it much more than alcohol.”

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