“We’d better not see that Starbucks cup in here.”
“Yes, yes, I know,” I said. “I’m sorry. I just couldn’t finish it in time.”
She didn’t laugh.
That’s what you get when you enter Italy, or an Italian establishment. Their anti-ness to anything with Seattle’s green lady on the white cup is charming and expected, almost an equator. If I walked into Caffe Napoli with one of those so-Vancouver little to-go styrofoam pots and I didn’t get that reaction, I’d be upset, really.
It’s not that there’s anything wrong with Starbucks. It’s that it’s just not Italian.
You can’t find one in The Boot, and so you won’t find one in any pub, bar, restaurant, or espresso stop that respects the practices and principles of The Boot – even in charming, skinny, perfectly loud places like this one, just a single cafe in the many like it that line Vancouver’s Commercial Drive, the center for Western Canadians’ World Cup craze and the closest thing we out here have to Michael Corleone’s kitchen.
I’ll say first off: Caffe Napoli is beautiful in so many ways.
I’d expect the same thing at Caffe Roma, which is just a couple blocks away, or the Libra Room. Or Dolce Amore, a gelateria. Or Arriva. Or Lombardo’s Pizzeria. Or La Mezcaleria. Again, this little corner of Vancouver, they dig Italy here.
But Caffe Napoli is small. Tiny, really. And I’m crammed into it on a Tuesday morning, plopped nice and hurriedly into the third chair at the table with a couple other guys – one of them is wearing an Italy jersey, and the other has long, silver Italian hair. (Well, it’s long and silver. So, therefore, Italian.)
I called the day before, just to casually ask what time I should get there. The game started at 9 a.m. and they wouldn’t open until just before that.
But this wasn’t any other game.
The Azzurri – as they’re known for a few weeks every four years to the rest of the world, to all your friends who suddenly discover their long lost Caesarian roots whenever the World Cup returns – are facing Uruguay and only one of them can move on.
Italy has to win, or draw.
Uruguay has to win. Outright.
Each of them had done their part to banish England from the World Cup’s final 16, but both of them had failed against upstart Costa Rica, too.
And now they’re facing elimination – either Italy or Uruguay will be sent home from Brazil early, packing while they should be preparing.
I had to make a reservation. When I get there, I see why.
“You’re Kolby?” she asks, the same girl who wasn’t impressed with my Starbucks cup. I’m 26; she looks around my age.
“Yeah, yeah, I’m Kolby.”
The other women there learns my name immediately.
“OKAY, KOLBY,” she says, and then she leads me to my seat. The Italians aren’t subtle or quiet. Or shy. They don’t expect you to be, either.
They both remember my name for the rest of the morning.
“Sure,” I say, and I get up and walk to the bar to tell her my order. I’ve got Italian in my blood, but I guess I’m not as comfortable yelling across a room as my roots think I should be. “Caffe Latte.”
I can’t tell you how great it is to hear your name called out like that at a place you’ve never been, like you’re someone familiar – like you’re a part of a family.
My coffee cup from before is placed under my seat, and I’m gonna spend the next 120 minutes constantly making sure my feet aren’t about to knock it over. My laptop bag is tucked between my feet. I don’t wanna go to the bathroom or stand too often, just in case I become a door – not a window – in front of the wrong, crazed Italian fan.
I’ve been in situations like this before – I’ve seen live Fado in Portugal and I’ve had to wait for a waiter to bring my bill to me in Paris. I know the drill: Just sit there, shut up, and be thankful you are where you are.
But then, about 20 minutes in, someone behind me says, “This game is boring.”
That guy wasn’t asked to leave. Okay, maybe I can be myself a little then.
So I start talking, trying to enjoy my escape to Little Italy rather than doing whatever I was before – sitting silently, rolling my eyes at things I thought the place’s die-hards might, basically just trying to not be in the way.
And I should say – the food is terrific.
I got a prosciutto panini, which comes with black olives, and a Birra Morreti. And that coffee, of course, to kick things off. There’s something bad-ass and liberating about getting a coffee in a place that treats a coffee like a normal Canadian bar treats its beer. Like you can enjoy something sobering as if it’s something stimulating.
Right after halftime, as I’m finishing my sandwich, the theatre starts. On the pitch.
Italian midfielder Claudio Marchisio is handed a red card in the 59th minute, basically for no reason other than the zebras had to make things interesting. Italy is controlling the game, and Uruguay hasn’t had a sniff at the net. The Azzurri are handling the ball, possessing it, caressing it, with their maestro Andrea Pirlo acting as the valve once again – everything from the defence to the offence goes through him, and vice versa.
Marchisio was contesting a ball, and his foot connected with Uruguayan Egidio Arevalo Rios’s leg. It was foolish and careless, sure. But a red card? In the 59th minute of a crucial game, which Italy needs to advance, just like Uruguay does?
It’s a bold call. The kind of bold that will forever be analyzed if it comes to change or influence the game’s outcome – the kind of call a referee has to know he’ll have to live with, if the drama is ratcheted up further. And of course it would be.
Maybe 25 minutes later – but it seems now like it was only seconds between the game’s few momentous moments – Luis Suarez decided to re-embrace his Team Edward and he lunged at Italian defender Chiellini, grabbing a healthy bite of the quarterback’s left shoulder plate. It’s the third time Suarez has bitten someone, and he doesn’t just do it like most people might do it. Athletes have bitten other athletes before, normally in scrums and sometimes when another man has shoved his fingers into the biter’s mouth.
But Suarez doesn’t do it as a reaction… he jumps at his prey like a hawk attacks a desert mouse.
When he bit Chelsea’s Branislav Ivanovic in 2013, he ran straight at him and latched onto his arm like a rat with rabies takes to a Manhattan apple core. Suarez fell forward and through Ivanovic, tackling the Blues’ man with his mouth.
I know I’m running a little heavy on animal metaphors here, but sometimes things just fit and you have to say it over, and over, and over… and over. Just like Suarez bites people: over, and over, and over… and over.
So here goes, again: Suarez is a rat. He plays like a rat. He has the front teeth of a rat. And he chomps like one, too.
Of course, moments later, Uruguay put the ball past Italian goalie Gigi Buffon – it was the game’s only goal, just the one the South Americans needed.
I don’t know, by memory, who scored it. I don’t care because, ultimately, it didn’t matter – Suarez was the story, and he’ll always do whatever he can to be that.
If he can’t score, he’ll eat. Happily. (Like I had just done.)
The Italians around me were furious, but gradually.
They were upset when Marchisio got the red card, but only because they were afraid of what might follow. And then Suarez bit Chiellini and didn’t get called for it, and they were pissed because it was a chance to ban Uruguay’s best player and get even, 10 men-to-10 men. But when they lost, when the ball went in and the impending result sunk in, when their elimination was real, they were able to trace everything that happened in the past 90 minutes and lump it together into one heartbreaking, bitter, result – where Suarez and the referees were the enemy, not their own team.
Of course, the Italians could have beaten Costa Rica the game before. That would have clinched the elimination round for them anyway, and they wouldn’t have needed a result against Uruguay. But then, if we’re going there, we know Uruguay could have beaten Costa Rica, too – maybe the San Jose superstars are just better than the rest of us thought?
And likewise, the Italians should have defended better, even with a red card against them, even while a man down. All teams get hit with shi*ty calls; the best play through it. But still, the Italians’ anger is understandable: if they don’t get the red, they don’t lose their control on the game. If Suarez gets called for a much ruder, more violent, disgraceful foul, then the teams are even again. And the goal doesn’t happen. Uruguay doesn’t win, and the Italians are going on to the Round of 16.
But it’s hard for the rest of us to feel sympathy for Italy, really. They’ve won four World Cups in their history, and they’re cocky in victory. They also dive dramatically.
When the CBC showed its replay of Suarez’s bite, and Italian man in front of Caffe Napoli’s big screen jumped up to his feet in protest, turning around to the rest of us with his arms in the air and his mouth wide open, as if to say, “WHY!!? WHY!?! ARE THE REST OF YOU SEEING THIS?!?”
Ironic, that Italian theatre always resembles a Greek tragedy.
There’s a joke that dogs this team everywhere outside their own borders: that any quasi-fan suddenly re-discovers his or her Italian roots for one month every four years.
I have to admit that I’ve been guilty of this, too – not really giving a damn about the sport until July when, suddenly, I’m the most vocal, loyal Italian fan you’ll know.
And the real Italians, they’re happy to have me. They’re a familial country and an embracing nation, even if they’re loud and rude and isolating. I know that sentence contradicts itself, but Italy really does, too.
So, thank you for having me. Thank you for letting me sit and enjoy a game while you enjoyed your misery, like Italians always do – it’s better to lose on a terrible call with an excuse than to have to admit to your own faults, after all.
But the team did deserve better on that day, and the folks in this wonderful little restaurant in Vancouver did, too.
From inside Caffe Napoli:
Commercial Drive is a collection of everything Italian: