By Marsha Smelkinson
It’s an early evening on the Riviera di Levante, where the Italian seacoast curves like a crescent around the northeastern Mediterranean. The slow-setting sun sneaks between colorful umbrellas to lay a white streak across my cafe table. I am sitting alone, relaxing away the tasty tensions of a first day in Italy. In the past 24 hours, I have traveled from San Diego to Milan by air, from Milan to the sea via autostrada, and along the winding lanes of the Portofino peninsula with a wayfarer’s wide eyes.
For two years I prepared for this trip, devouring travelogues and memoirs of life and times in Liguria and Toscana, my destinations. Though being here is exciting and the vistas are memorable, there is little this first day to surprise me. Until I meet caffe freddo.
In the weeks ahead, I sampled caffe freddos in bars and bistros from the Mediterranean to the Adriatic. But none would flavor my memory so richly as my first, encountered unexpectedly at the end of a wandering day.
I’d arrived at Malpensa just after noon, picked up my rental car and motored through the narrow mountain tunnels toward Genova and the coast. It was 90 minutes of steering wheel-squeezing excitement, a giddy contest between my glee to be here and terror to be driving here, as cars and walls sped by in supersonic style. I emerged from a long, dark, final tunnel to the sudden surprise of sunlight kissing the sea. At last, I smiled, this is Italy.
The jet lag experts instruct you to stay active in the daylight, so I headed for the Santa Margherita Ligure and Portofino, the most beautiful ports along the jagged coast. I drove slowly along the perimeter, and stopped to hike up hillsides for even better views. Every twist in the Riviera road revealed another photo-perfect sun-framed scene that I recognized from my months of guidebook research.
It was a treat to see the checkerboard of pastel-painted buildings bordering the ancient harbors, now filled with millionaires’ yachts and framed by gem-laden storefronts and their sparkling clientele. I was excited to be among them, a visitor to this beautiful country, where so many scenic secrets and souvenirs awaited my discovery.
I awoke from my sightseeing daydream with twinges of hunger. I drove south along the coast, skirting the gradual drop-off from rocky cliff to sloping beach, and the concurrent slide from mecca for the moneyed to seashore for the locals.
I found a carpark near the train station at Lavagna, where I would embark tomorrow for the Cinque Terre. My lodging tonight would be in the hills above Chiavari, at a B&B in Leivi, about five kilometers away. But first I needed to eat.
So I walked through the tunnel to cross under the coastal road and into a peaceful beach town of low-rise apartments, small hotels, and bench-lined squares. Here all the signs were in Italian, with nary a logo I recognized. Inevitably I came upon a piazza surrounded by several cafes, separated only by changes in umbrella colors. I chose an open corner table, where I could still sit in the sun.
Momentarily a young man with dark eyes, smooth olive skin, neck-length hair, a gentle smile and a long white apron appeared, greeted me in Italian and presented a menu. Though guidebooks had promised English translations on all the menus, here I was on day one, finding them incomplete. Putting my modest tape-taught Italian vocabulary to use, I selected an antipasto and primi of pasta, electing to forego a feast until I’d caught up with the clock. For now I just wanted a light meal and some coffee to sustain me for the few hours before bed.
A full panel of the plastic-cased menu listed coffee drinks, without description. Still warmed by the streaks of summer sun over my shoulder, I asked for “caffe freddo,” hoping for some kind of cold coffee. Then came the first surprise. “Shakerato?” he enquired. Why not, I thought: ignorance is bliss. Coffee-and-cold is what I have in mind. Was this a local version of the combination? How bad could that be? “Si,” said I.
Surprise number two arrived moments later, in a martini glass silently deposited on a cocktail napkin by my handsome waiter. An inch of dark brew, topped by brownish foam, all gilded by drops of chilly moisture embracing the clear glass. If I’d seen lime green layers instead of sepia shades of coffee, I’d have expected this drink at a hot nightclub or trendy beach bar. Cliché be damned, I thought, this is really cool.
Turns out that caffe freddo shakerato is not iced coffee -– perish the over-watered American thought! No, it’s a hot-weather delicacy of genuine Italian sensibility, carefully prepared to an exacting recipe. Here it is: put two shots of espresso and a teaspoon of sugar into a cocktail shaker, and add ice cubes. Then shake that thing, and shake and shake and shake that thing until you’ve quieted the clink of ice against metal. Pour the cold liquid though the holes into a martini glass or champagne flute, then scoop some aerated foam atop the flavorful light syrup. Savor immediately for full effect.
Where caffe freddos are well prepared, there’s often a muscular young man at the bar doing the shaking – another Italian treat I happily absorbed. Beware the placid barmaid — like the one in the narrow storefront near the Piazza Santa Maria Novella in Firenze — who pulls a pitcher of prepared syrup from an under-bar refrigerator and pours it over ice into a plain tumbler. Clearly she is not a connoisseur. Caffe freddo merits enthusiastic preparation, best if witnessed by an excited anticipator. And hasten happily, I learned, to decorative cafes festooned with art deco mirrors or with a small hand-lettered sign on the doorway (“Freddo”) advertising the specialty of the barista on duty. On a hot afternoon in July, the famed Cafe di Simmo in Lucca and the unnamed bar near the east entry walls of Volterra did not disappoint.
I loved the taste and the look of the fine caffe freddo, the joy of discovering a destination that respected the pure recipe. I loved looking for these places and celebrating the triumphs with a chilled midday potion of refreshing intensity. I loved introducing this fascination to my friends and fellow travelers.
No doubt hundreds of handsome Italian waiters have surprised thousands of innocent tourists with caffe freddo shakeratos over the years. Still, I treasure my personal moment of discovery with singular satisfaction. In the scene, the taste, the mood and the style, my caffe freddo in Lavagna hinted of adventures to come. In the weeks ahead, I would follow many more twists in the road, but had already found reward with an unexpected new landmark.