This Isn’t Supposed to Happen in the Morning
by Heather Hartley
When I suggested brunch last Sunday, my Neapolitan boyfriend said, “What, and ruin two meals?” When someone puts ruin in the same sentence as meal, it’s rough getting back on sure footing. For me, ruin recalls farm-themed proms and that science project where you pour beer over a pile of baking powder: one fuzzy boom before your underage buzz explodes. For my boyfriend, it’s the blasphemy of offering sticky buns with chicken salad—same table, same plate, same meal. “Why do you put salad inside of a chicken anyway? It can’t do good in there,” he says. Then, it’s a question of timing: tell a Neapolitan that you’re serving broccoli and banana bread at 10:00 a.m. and they will ask incredulously, “But why?”
Like gelato in a heat wave or cashing a large unexpected check, breakfast in Italy is over all too soon. A traditional caffè-bar breakfast is usually taken standing up at a crowded counter and is both luscious and sparse. It’s a combination of a velvety, dark coffee (either the liquid gem of a caffè ristretto or a creamy cappuccino) and a plump, flaky cornetto con crema, a croissant-like pastry but don’t say it’s like a croissant because even though it acts like one, to begin with it’s an Italian recipe not French and the French add way too much butter and did not invent the fork, thank you very much, it was Caterina de Medici who brought tine and finesse to Paris in 1533 as Queen, more than two centuries before Marie Antoinette with her high hair came prancing through the corridors of Versailles with the King’s cutlery in her hands.
Whether you’re Christian, pagan, vegan or undecided, a good breakfast at the right caffè-bar can bring you closer to the gods and at bargain-ecstatic prices: in Napoli, caffeinated rapture will cost you no more than 2.50 euros (about $4.50). By the time I’ve stirred sugar in my cappuccino—one of countless unwritten Neapolitan coffee rules: don’t order cappuccino in the afternoon, it’s a breakfast drink and not only is it uncool to drink milk in the p.m., according to someone somewhere in Italy, it can be hazardous to your health and cause indigestion which is just evil.
Last Sunday morning we were having coffee at the local caffè-bar in what could optimistically be called their breakfast nook, but given that the coffee counter was a miniature version of a downsized American closet, any nooking was impossible, but necking could plausibly happen, a word that Giovanni confuses sometimes with nicking and we end up bickering about whether the conversation is about stealing stuff or the intimate deets of dating.
My plea for brunch that day was basically a flimsy cover for my thirst to drink with friends before noon. Brunch is one of my fond memories from growing up in the late eighties along with watching Duran Duran’s shoulder pads slowly turn into luxury high rises and hanging out at the DMV in my hometown, posing for the photo on my first driver’s license: hair by local stylist, makeup from the local pharmacy. Back then was the heyday for the grandfather clause of the legal drinking age and I learned to drink Mimosas and Bloody Marys with my Mom’s friends and learned to love those friends even more post-brunch. We all looked better by the end of the meal, blurrier maybe, but brightern, more luminous. And brunch just tasted so good.
Brunch is sweet and savory and big; Italian breakfasts are a burst of sugar and sweets and caffeinated divinity. I literally fell in love, in love, with the coffee very early on. It was my first weekend in Napoli and Giovanni had taken me to a tiny bar in an alleyway a few feet from his apartment in Forcella in the city center. Ordering for me, he showed me how to dip the cornetto into the rich cappuccino, how the earthy and sweet flavors mingled, how if you were in love you could order three lattes, four macchiatos, eight espressos and not feel the delightful numbness in your tongue, on your lips, that that numbness was exciting and magical and that you could find that here every morning right here in this tiny bar with its posters of Padre Pio and the Madonna dell’Arco peeling off yellow walls.
Not so much with brunch. “Brunch messes with your intestines,” he’ll say. It can be hard to argue with someone who has Cesar, la Cicciolina and the Swiss Guards—those men with spades in orange and blue gauchos and berets who guard Vatican City—on their side, but I enjoy a challenge. What Giovanni might really mean is that if you don’t eat on a regular schedule, you will die an early and painful death, and death is the easy part. It’s the purgatory part with all those people who have dyspepsia and foolishly thought like you they could have the Southwest omelet with refried beans and a sticky bun with double icing before the corn casserole. Dante may have said it first somewhere: there’s no Pepto Bismal in Purgatory.
You have nothing to gain inviting a Neapolitan to brunch except leftovers. Don’t think about the compliments they are not going to offer for the rugged, rustic version of sausage and biscuits or the organic ditty with no calories that tastes like a plastic straw and is impossible to swallow: there is no leeway for big breakfasts and isn’t a part of their ancient roots and sometimes you may have to be careful about the ghosts of Pompeii past who could come and get personally get if there’s harassing with their particular sweet breakfast stuffs. In the end, a tiny, exquisite espresso with your lover might not be so bad—fall in love before breakfast, share a pastry and forget brunch all together.
|Heather Hartley is Paris editor at Tin House and the author of Knock Knock, released by Carnegie Mellon University Press. Her poems, essays and interviews have appeared in or on PBS NewsHour, The Guardian, The Rumpus and elsewhere. She has curated Shakespeare & Company Bookshop's weekly reading series and was a Co-Director of their bi-annual literary festival. Her monthly column, "Aperitif," about literary Paris, is on the Tin House website.|