Despite Sicily’s profound traditional and cultural attachment to coffee, JENN RUGOLO has never harbored any expectation of finding the same concepts applied to coffee. An unexpected encounter – at a traditional bar in a tiny town in the south east of Sicily – made her question those expectations.
Once the crossroads of the Mediterranean, Sicily has been home to a myriad of cultures, blanketing the island with layers of complex history and tradition. This rich history, combined with a unique variety of geological features, makes the island home to seven different UNESCO World Heritage Sites. Two of these are specifically related to Sicily’s placement over the convergence of the African and Eurasian tectonic plates: Mount Etna, Europe’s highest active volcano, and the Val di Noto, a cluster of towns in the Province of Syracuse, rebuilt after a devastating 1693 earthquake in the beautifully ornate late-Baroque style.
Tucked into a slope of the Iblean Plateau, the Val di Noto town of Palazzolo Acreide is overlooked by the ancient city of Akrai, founded by Corinthian settlers from the larger coastal city of Syracuse in 663 BC. Both seem to be frozen in time: Akrai, at its time of abandonment in the ninth century; Palazzolo, in some indeterminate year in the mid-twentieth century. As a visitor, it seems the epitome of a small town – everyone knows everyone. This is perhaps most evident sitting outside Bar del Corso Infantino, founded in 1965. Locals sit at tables outside, greeting neighbors and friends as they walk down Palazzolo’s busiest street.
Despite strong Sicilian heritage in name and hair color, I am obviously not a local – especially to the barista, Giuseppe. Neither is my traveling companion, a former barista champion. We are not there to order coffee – Sicilian coffee is traditionally short, dark, dense, and not to my taste – we are there to try cassatina, a small, liqueur-soaked sponge cake layered with ricotta and candied fruit in a marzipan wrapping. But when Giuseppe recognizes my companion, he is excited to share his coffee with us; his excitement is infectious.
Giuseppe is apologetic as he grabs a handful of coffee from a pristine hopper and holds it out for our inspection. “It’s not specialty,” he says. The apology feels unnecessary; already my expectations have been subverted: the coffee is a medium-roast. When Giuseppe hands me an espresso, my expectations of a traditional Sicilian coffee dissolve completely: the shot is well-extracted to specialty parameters, easy and pleasant. It is nothing like the Sicilian coffee I had come to expect.
Over coffee, we learn that this Giuseppe, Giuseppe Valvo, has been studying with the 2016 Italian Latte Art Champion, Giuseppe Fiorini of Insolito Café, in the nearby, equally ancient city of Syracuse. He’s taken coffee courses, competed in competitions, traveled to coffee tradeshows.
At the end of our time in Palazzolo Acreide, I am left with questions. The first is most uncomfortable – at what point did I become someone who made assumptions like those I’d made about coffee in Sicily? – but the others have lingered far longer: would I have had the opportunity to have my expectations subverted if I had been traveling alone and unrecognized? How can I ensure I am always open to similarly unexpected opportunities in future? What do we lose when we let expectation guide us?
JENN RUGOLO is the Editor of SCA’s quarterly membership magazine, 25.
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