The Art of the Coffee Shop

DSCF0985There have been two coffee shops that I have called home in my life. They could not be more different, both in layout, personnel, location and style and they are both near and dear to my heart. In fact, at least once a week, I drink out of a cup emblazoned with the name of one or the other. Consider this my ode to Kofenya and Bar Agostini and the art of the coffeeshop/bar.

The woman I affectionately still call boss was still in college when she started Kofenya in Oxford, Ohio. I guess she and her friend and partner were young and naive enough to think that they could start a coffee shop, so they did and I am forever grateful. I hated coffee when I started going to Kofenya. I was dragged there at 7 a.m. (the crack of dawn by college student standards, sleeping in by current standards) by a friend 4 times a week to read, talk and pray. It became a drug I couldn’t refuse… not the coffee, the place.

Walk in the door of Kofenya and you will likely be greeted by a friendly face, perhaps even a stereotypical barista. Those early days, you would almost always be greeted by the boss, because she lived there (practically) but there was the odd cast of characters. An opera singer, a bearded jokester before beards were hip, tattoos and piercings were common, and everyone in between. Even me, a straight laced kid from Columbus, somehow weaseled my way into the Kofenya family. And it was family. Heck, if you were a regular, you were adopted into the family. Original art hung on the walls, pictures plastered columns behind the counter, chalk menu’s were creatively scrawled and music, oh the music. Boss and her partner and the team were savants at choosing the right music. Mellow morning mixes, pick me punk, and even the midnight dance party (goals for graduation? dance on the counter. Check).

Kofenya was and is a lot of stereotypical college coffee shop. And that is what made it beautiful. Because it became the place to go to study, hang out, have deep conversation or just belly laugh. The originality was that it wasn’t copying anything. No, it simply because the things that the boss loved and if you walk in the doors, you felt that love too. And damn, they made a good cappuccino.

My second love affair could not have been more different. Agostini dal 1968 (alternately called Bar Agostini, Panificio Agostini, Forno Gastronomia Agostini) was located a literal stones throw from my apartment in Roma, Italia. One walk around my block was all it took to discover, hey, there is this place that has delicious cornetto (Italian breakfast pastry) and cappuccino that takes 2 minutes to walk to in the morning. Even when I moved the second year, I would walk the five minutes to Bar Agostini, ignoring the three bar’s I passed along the way. The vibrant colors, wonderful smells, and organized chaos was a place I could call home.

You have to understand that in Italy, a bar (coffeeshop) with seating is a rarity. Most often, you walk into a little shop, order your drink at the register, hand the receipt to the barista as you call out your drink, stand at the marble countertop and drink your your drink and then leave. It’s a beautiful thing. Just not a sit down, stay a while thing. So when I discover Bar Agostini and it’s seating (because it is a bakery, tavola calda and bar), I am sure they thought I was one strange American who didn’t speak much Italian, sat down and read and wrote in my journal while drinking my cappuccino and eating my pastries.  But they didn’t tell me to leave.

Instead, they asked me questions and welcomed me each morning with a smile. No one spoke much English, so it was slow going at first. My Italian was pretty bad but they excused it. Signore Lorenzo, the original owner was a perfect Italian gentlemen, fitting the stereotype you see on TV. His seemingly dour face would crinkle into a smile as he welcomed me each morning, seated on his throne of a stool behind the register. His daughter Maria Antonietta, who took his place when his health went downhill, always beamed with a smile, asking me how my day was.

The barista’s were the image of Italian barista perfection. Caught up in their frenetic dance of serving the crowds that would ebb and flow like waves, they still managed a smile, a laugh, a private joke in the midst of the crowd. Andrea (guy, Andrew in English), Roberto, Anna Maria… they became the friends I knew I would see every day. If it slowed down enough, they would ask about my day, my work, ask to learn a new word in english. My favorite? “Cornetto con frutti di bosco” became a beautifully pronounced “Cornetto with frrrruits of the forrrrrest” by Andrea. Maurizio, Maria Antonietta brother, would always emerge from the ovens in the back, covered in flour, to laugh, tell a joke, and tease me about my Italian.

Everything about Bar Agostini brings me back to the way things should be. That the food was delicious was an understatement. The fresh bread, the amazing cornetti, the gelato or fresh fruit juice; there is a reason that I literally spent every morning there. I called it my private chapel; the things I needed were provided and it was where I could get away, put in headphones if I wanted to drown out the clamor and be still in the midst of Roman chaos. And they welcomed me like family. I had a tab if I needed it. Didn’t have money on me? They would give it to me anyway and tell me to pay them later. When I went back two years after leaving Italy, I was welcomed with hugs and kisses and Maurizio joking that when I went back to America, I needed to tell them about “my bar”.

Two places, two completely different atmospheres. One American, low key, sit and stay awhile in peace; the other Italian, chaotic, constant motion. Yet they both have perfected the art of the coffee shop. And I am proud to have called them both home, at one time or another.

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