“…even birds skittering for morsels on the ground are moving too fast for the slumbering pace of Atrani’s daily agenda.”
At the foot of Piazza Umberto lies a scallop shell white church dating back to the 10th century, unassuming curb appeal compared to the other gaudy, baroque-era cathedrals in Italy. A sign outside warns of a local legend that it’s bad luck for newlyweds to walk hand-in-hand down its steps post-nuptials, lest you bring ill-will upon your marriage and curse yourself for a rocky road ahead of early divorce and untimely death.
Above its doors, the imposing clock face judges with a watchful eye all activity that lies below, like the billboard eyes straight out of Gatsby: a group of mid-20s British friends with overstuffed rolling suitcases and out-of-place expectations of European partying, eyeing their dainty white-railing provisions above the barberia; a fit, tan 40-year old French couple, patiently waiting as their meandering toddler straggles behind; a 60-going-on-30 German husband and wife, strapped with climbing poles and hiking backpacks.
I took careful note of these comings and goings that late morning, and the next four dreary mornings, from the same seat at Il Birecto Cafe that boasted “American Breakfast,” protected from the rain underneath the canvas, consuming what would become our usual order (2 cappuccinos, 2 ginseng coffees, 2 pastries). The routine of settling our roots in the smallest municipality in all of Italy felt like home quicker than actual home: awkwardly ordering in half-English/half-Italian, dropping a chocolate-covered coffee bean in a hot beverage, alternating sips of acqua frizzante, the two of us observing the Piazza’s quiet microcosmic activity, praying that an island-sized sliver of dry sunshine would penetrate the ceaseless, cold slaps of rain on the town’s ancient ground, stone as straight and compact as teeth, where the same white-haired, leather-skinned man took his post on a folding chair under an umbrella outside his giornali kiosk, a look on his weathered face of someone who’s loved and lost countless times.
Our late breakfasts at Il Birecto prepped us for what we would come to realize was across the board for Italian dining: achingly slow service. Any Western courtesies ended abruptly at the cafe’s bacon, eggs and pancakes section of the menu. There was no dropping in for a quick bite, asking for the check, doggy bags or coffees to-go. The first morning, after close to an hour, we dropped the hints: drunk the last drops of our cappuccinos, looked at our phones, stretched our arms and made eye contact with the staff; ready to, for whatever reason, rush into a day of…aimlessly wandering. I made a lame attempt at asking for the check in Italian, which was met with a scowl from our ginger pixie-cut waitress. I had screwed up already, trying and failing to not look, sound, or act American. Unfortunately, being American means that high turnover service in lieu of a quality meal is the very fabric of my being.
By the second morning, this became my number one travel challenge to overcome, which was simply to respect the custom, but more importantly, to savor the simple act of sitting quietly, eating slowly, sipping gingerly (funny enough, also advice authority figures tried to instill in me throughout my childhood). So, I accounted into our breakfast itinerary an extra 45 minutes or so to make up for the leisurely pace. That still wasn’t good enough, and my impatience got the better of me as I cringed at myself for once again asking for the check, but this time with more improvement on the language front. The same waitress (recognizing us and our same order from the day prior) gave us what I can only call a curious, pitying look you would give an old dog at the pet store: sympathetic, but still not buying it. We paid, tails between legs, then over-tipped.
On the third and fourth mornings, we finally fell into a comfortable pattern with our waitress: us sitting in our same seats, her forgoing the menus, remembering our order, us adding even more time to our visit until it became a peaceful, necessary part of starting any day, and then, finally, her warmly welcoming us like old friends on our fifth and final morning, when she brought us our check without prompting.
I was startled out of reveling in my flaky nutella-stuffed croissant when the bell tower perched atop the black Roman numeral lettering for Noon clanged like a somber ghost’s sharp bellow at the hour, on the hour, stirring locals and travelers alike to get going with their day – a hard feat when even birds skittering for morsels on the ground are moving too fast for the slumbering pace of Atrani’s daily agenda.
We strolled out of the town’s portal towards the sea where we climbed the steep roadside steps every afternoon and evening to our oceanfront AirBnB that had the house number ‘6’, darling green shutters, woefully expired tea in the spacious galley kitchen, and a mirrored armoire that I believe held the apparition of an old sailor who came to me during sleep paralysis. Every night, we pulled close the shuttered windows from the 40 degree dips and thunderstorms, and my chest tightened as if the soul of some Vesuvius victim with unfinished business was trying to force their way back to life through my body. I relished in the morning ritual of finally unhooking the shutters’ clasps and swinging them open dramatically like a Disney princess to welcome sunshine into the dank bedroom. Despite its impeccable sea view and quaint beach cottage accommodations, leaving the apartment for a day’s jaunt or a dinner in town was physical relief from what I was convinced was clearly a haunted place.
The first night, we remained in Atrani proper for our very first official sit-down Italian dinner at Savo. Despite the chilly drizzle, we sat behind a clear tarp with a view of the plaza, the golden heat lamps and candlelight in iridescent blue glasses adding to the feeling of being in a cozy, centuries old fort. We were greeted like newlyweds, glasses of white and acqua frizzante poured (sparkling became the go-to the remainder of the trip), and dined on the freshest tomato-mozzarella and simply seared octopus known to man, fish cooked in black salt and served with piping hot seasoned oil, a chocolate cake and pistachio semifreddo both atop a crunchy and addicting lemon shortbread cookie.
This spectacular meal served as our next hard-earned lesson: Italian portions were actually adequately sized – I may even argue quite large – unlike the warnings of the know-it-all travelers before us who claimed Italians ate much smaller portions and that’s why they lived healthier lives. With this preconceived notion in mind, we made the easy decision to order some variety from each course to ensure we would be full (which meant 2 appetizers, 2 entrees, 2 desserts, and potentially 2 bottles of wine). Perhaps the waiter’s baffled expression when we kept rattling off more food even after ordering just the antipasto should have been an indication that we were getting in over our heads. The regular custom, we would later realize, is to order maybe one appetizer and one pasta course, or perhaps a salad and a fish entree (meat was not common on our tour of Southern Italy), dessert only if the social gathering calls for it, and coffee. Always coffee. (Or a digestivo). Basically, portions are the same size, you just order a lot less off the menu. However, we came to Italy with food and wine at the forefront of our minds, anxious to sink our teeth into every imaginable morsel of Italian food we could get our hands on, so when in Atrani…
Leftovers discouraged, we finished every last bite, retreating back to our AirBnB to call it an early night, bellies full of too much fish and wine and a little bit of shame at our gluttony, but not before stopping at the foot of the dark cathedral steps to take a look at the now softly-illuminated, yet still threatening, clock above its doors. Surely, I thought, ascending the steps hand in hand had no negative outcome, right? I entertained we climb the steps just for kicks. We laughed at the superstition, but chose not to anyway.
© 2020 Andrea Festa