A block away from the entrance of the Vatican one would expect a café where the main customer is a tourist, the workers speak near perfect English and the below average food is over priced. Instead, behind the glass counter filled with delectable pastries and sandwiches stands a middle aged Italian man, yelling “buongiorno” at incomers and creating a state of panic for the non-Italian-speakers, who merely need a quick snack before filling up on the renaissance splendors of St. Peter’s Basilica.
It becomes obvious upon entering that this tiny bistro is a family owned joint. The man shouting Italian at the poor, confused tourists while conversing boisterously with locals is the father and owner, the Café King ruling over the cornettos and paninis with a firm, yet compassionate hand. Meanwhile, his three sons reign over the cappuccino machine, working their princely magic on the steamed milk and silky espresso while leaning their elbows against the counter to flirt with girls sitting across from them.
Holding up four fingers and stumbling over the words “cornettos and cappucinos per favore,” our shy order made it clear to the Café King that we did not understand a word he was saying, yet the only change he made was to slow down and speak with a more gaudy emphasis on his trilled r’s and flourishing o’s.
“Quattro cornetti e quattro cappuccini,”he bellowed and we nodded eagerly as he wrote down our order on a small slip of paper, handed it to us and then pointed to the corner of the café, still speaking loudly in Italian. In the direction of his pointing was a woman sitting behind a cash register, and she smiled kindly as we clumsily handed her the receipt and the money.
There turned out to be more than one kind of cornetto, and after two minutes of indecisiveness and language barrier miscommunications, we sat down with two crème, one chocolate, and one marmalade, each extraordinarily sweet and covered in a dusting of powdered sugar.
Slightly exhausted from the process of ordering, I took a sip of my smooth cappuccino and bit into the crème cornetto, trying not to get powdered sugar on my red dress. Catching my own eyes in the mirror on the wall, I began observing the morning happenings of a Roma café by reflection, as if I were a spy in a Roman espionage movie.
Watching the dance between the customers and the workers, it soon became clear that the Café King, although he believed whole heartedly to be the one with ruling power, was actually second in charge. For in the quiet corner, behind the cash register sat the queen mother with a sly smile on her face. While the locals played the part of subjects, standing at the bar with their coffees, chatting and laughing with the espresso boys as the Café King puttered about making noise, the queen sat coyly in the corner with her all-knowing smile as she worked the cash register with a silent understanding of who was really in charge.
We the tourists ate in silence, sitting at the tables taking in the wonder of it all like peasants in a castle, graced with the chance to observe the workings of royalty and eat the sweet, flaky pastries. I got powdered sugar on my dress, but the Vatican didn’t mind.