Finding Tradition and Engagement in a Tuscan Town’s Coffee Time

By Hannah Pickering · 2 years ago

An oasis of light, music, coffee, and books spilled into the street of the quiet, Tuscan town of Lucca in the gray light of a January afternoon.

The light came from a four-story, yellow building that opened into a one-way street.

Luccalibri Di Ciancarella Talitha is easily accessible for the drivers who park their vehicles in the road-side parking areas and the pedestrians on the opposite side of the road, many of whom take the path parallel to the city’s wall to navigate their way around the town.

The warmth that enveloped me as I entered the shop was followed by a moment of surprise. After studying abroad in Rome this winter quarter, I had grown used to the Italian method of drinking coffee: go to the bar, order your espresso, drink it standing up, and leave promptly.

While a part of me appreciated the process of learning another way to enjoy the ritual of drinking coffee, another part of me missed the comfort of the American cafe, filled with tables and chairs that beckoned you to sit and relax, or bring a laptop and get some work done while enjoying your beverage.

But Luccalibri—which, interpreted, means “Luccabooks”—was unique in that, while it offered the traditional Italian coffee experience, it also provided a space for people to come together and engage for extended lengths of time.

The quiet swinging of the door opening preceded the entrance of customers of various ages and in various modes of dress, many in groups, some in pairs. No one was standing at the bar and drinking their espresso; instead, some sat in tucked-away corners under a window covered in black grillwork while others leaned back into the cushions of the couches grouped close together. Women knitted in a cluster, talking in low voices.

Combined with smooth musical notes from a few mounted speakers, an inaudible murmur filled the space that was half coffeeshop and half bookstore.

Walking over the light wood floors, I approached a glass case containing a small collection of carefully-arranged pastries, mostly butter cookies and biscotti. The dark eyes and almost-there smile of the barista greeted me almost immediately.

I heard “ciao” spoken more often than “buonasera”, which is a more casual way of saying “hello” in Italian, like the English word “hi”. Perhaps the word choice indicated a greater level of familiarity and a potential relationship between the barista and the customer. Here, the word was spoken differently than it is in Rome, with a wider “a” and a drawn-out “o”.

The barista moved fast and softly, seeming to know your questions before you asked them—he responded to my unspoken query by telling me, “You can pay afterward”. He weaved deftly behind the bar, among the tables and couches and the customers reading, scrolling on their cellphones or talking in clusters.

The customers often said “Arrividerci!” after they greeted the barista, ordered their espresso, or bought a book from the bookstore. In Italian, the phrase means “see you later”, a term most often used when saying goodbye to someone you will see again soon.

I brought my cappuccino in its small, white mug that had the “Illy” logo on it, a popular Italian coffee company. to the bookstore side of the shop and sipped it among the volumes on politics, cooking, and children’s stories.

While the book section on this side of the shop was well-stocked, the space remained empty of people. Instead, patrons congregated among the books and wicker chairs on the opposite side of building. Shifting slowly, with hands held close together, they engaged in conversation. My knowledge of the language was rudimentary, so I could only pick out certain words and not whole sentences, but I can only imagine the breadth of topics that were discussed.

It was soon five o’clock in the evening and people were saying, “buonasera” in greeting. The sound of voices and the rhythm of constant movement grew and was accentuated by the sizzle of food on an open griddle.

As steam rose from the grill, the darkness outside the windows deepened. A few people left, but most stayed, still seated. Many huddled over tables and leaned forward into half-circles on couches.

I sat directly beneath a stereo. Even through the music’s volume increased past five o’clock, I was still experienced enough to know whether the tune or the lyrics were Italian or not. And with the crescendo, a similar quickening in energy spread throughout the shop, and the behavior of the customers began to change. People entered dressed in business clothes, perhaps stopping by the shop for some coffee after ending their work for the day. Many of them paused to quickly sip their espressos before heading out into the dusk again without stopping to relax and sit at a table or in one of the wicker chairs.

The music mingled with the jingle of coins on the glass counter, which reverberated through the shop, along with the sound of a man blowing his nose into a cloth handkerchief.

Two men took their drinks and stood at a wood table pressed against the wall, the partition that divides the cafe portion of the shop from the bookstore. They mimicked each other in the simple process of coffee drinking in Italy: accept cup, drop sugar, stir, sip, nod at the barista, and leave.

This was a meeting place of social interaction and commerce; a space to connect with others, to enjoy the flavors of espresso or the sweet taste of a pastry; to bide your time before a late, Italian dinner; or simply to be reminded of the significance of the global coffee experience.

And yet, in a small way, I felt like I was closer to home and all my favorite cafes in Seattle.

The act of sitting and sipping your coffee may not seem significant, but I savor my coffee time and enjoy finding particular places where I can appreciate the beverage along with a good book, an enlightening conversation, or a chance to say hello to a familiar barista. Thousands of miles from home, sitting in a cafe in northwestern Italy, I found that Luccalibri had managed to combine both the Italian and American coffee experiences into one, which was the highlight of my visit in the town and something I will remember for years to come.

Edited by Jack Russillo