Il Barista and Coffee Culture

While you order that triple low-fat caramel no foam no milk decaf latte from Starbucks and watch as the order gets shouted down the line three or four times by the “barista”s, know that, as usual, you are looking at the diluted version of an Italian tradition. Chapeau to Starbucks for reigniting the love of coffee in the U.S. (and worldwide for that matter), but I always find it interesting to peek behind the cookie cutter façade of what is in vogue to see where the latest trends came from and how truly “authentic” they are in their current form.

The “barista” in Italy is an artisan, a shrink, a jester and a philosopher rolled into one. The point is to make the early morning better while getting your dose of caffeine quickly and done right. The caffeine, though, is not really what matters. It’s everything else.

Monday mornings are typically dominated by taunts and trash talk about local soccer teams having won or lost. Tuesday through Friday is all about political commentary and satire. The weekend, of course, is dedicated to complaining about the workweek. Then, there is everything in between: tips on how to get a parking ticket removed, the best way to make fettuccine by hand like “nonna” and why your last girlfriend or boyfriend was a loser. This, of course, all happens as your drink of choice is prepared in the blink of an eye without having to write anything down on a disposable cup – and if you’re a regular there is no need to discuss your drink of choice at all – it just magically appears as you approach the “bancone” (the marble counter top typical of Italian “bar” which is where you go to get your espresso or cappuccino). You must also know that Italians don’t sit down for their coffee. It is the only thing that the Italians do standing up and quickly. That whole sit-down-and-sip thing is done beyond Italy’s northwestern border.

What makes the Italian barista such an intriguing figure is that beyond serving up an incredible coffee lickety-split, they are actual humans who relate with their customers. They are the coffee culture to which everyone aspires and which no one truly obtains. You cannot franchise the human touch and inevitably when you scale things, the human element suffers. The art and joy of coffee (like many other arts and joys) is completely lost when this occurs. This goes for the “Blue Bottle”s and other so-called “independents” in the U.S. that do serve a higher quality product, but are unable to capture the true essence of coffee culture, let alone provide an authentic “barista”.

When I show up for my espresso downstairs at my local “bar” I want to start my day off on the right foot and my barista is there to help me, just like your “sarto” knows how best to fit your shirt and your “salumiere” knows how thin to slice your prosciutto. The art of coffee is disappearing, as are the true “barista”s.

Discovering Vienna with kids

Imperial is the first word that comes to mind when wandering the streets of Vienna. Over the past twenty-five years I have visited this European capital dozens of times and most recently with my family. My sister has lived here since graduating from college and over the years I have come to explore and love this city thanks in great part to visiting her and her family.

Last week was our latest trip to Vienna and we visited some of the old haunts, as well as some new places. The most important thing to know about Vienna is that despite a certain degree of “grumpiness”, especially from the older locals (and their mostly small and yappy dogs), it is one of the most child friendly cities I have ever visited. Abundance and ease of public transportation (especially for strollers), a seemingly unlimited number of playgrounds and interactive attractions that both entertain and educate make travelling to Vienna with kids a true pleasure.



A walk within the “Ring” (the heart of the city) is always “de rigueur” and allows you to see the impressive Hofburg palace and the towering Stephansdom among other main attractions. You can also choose to take the “yellow” tram that circumnavigates the city center and allows you to see the Rathaus (City Hall), Parliament, the University of Vienna, the Museum Quarter, the Votivkirche and the golden Strauss statue. There are many more things to see in the city center, but for a first timer this will give you and the kids plenty to do, especially on a shorter visit.

We found a delightful book for kids called “With the Travel King in Vienna” (there is a version in English) which our kids loved reading out loud while walking about and using as a guide to discover the city (it also has a “pocket” for keepsakes and ticket stubs). I am sure there are many other such guides that make it fun for the entire family to explore and discover the city.

We chose to start off with something familiar, also for the kids, so we walked through the Volksgarten towards the Hofburg palace and let the kids run around chasing the giant bubbles produced by a street artist and dance around to the accordion being played by a gentleman who kept tipping his hat whenever a coin was tossed into the case that lay open at his feet.

Walking through the Hofburg toward the heart of the city with the clatter of hooves from the horse drawn carriages shuttling tourists to and fro you may find yourself briefly transported back in time to a certainly more grandiose entrance of the imperial family to their palace. As you continue towards the cathedral you cannot help but to stop in at Demel along Kohlmarkt for a delicious slice of cake and a warming cup of coffee served with white gloves. Although you will find it full of tourists, there are also plenty of locals who meet there for a treat since Demel continues to deliver on the quality of its bakery. After reenergizing we continued onto the Graben, the very heart of the city where there is plenty of window-shopping to do while passing historic Viennese brands, as well as global luxury houses. Then, just around the corner, to meet us with its soaring spire was Stephansdom.

You will find that Vienna induces you to stroll, rather than walk with purpose, an odd trait for a European country considered more Northern than Southern. You tend to notice and enjoy things around you when walking this way and it is certainly true in Vienna.

Our first day ended wandering towards the U-bahn (the subway) station to get home. This allowed us to discover a few more nooks and crannies in the tight alleyways behind the cathedral. One place in particular stopped me in my tracks. Bücher 777 was closed, but in the dusk and softly lit from the inside, this bookstore emanated extreme coziness and I just wanted to grab a book and sink into one the armchairs to read in peace or even read to the kids sitting quietly on the floor gazing up to catch a glimpse of the illustrations as I read (although the second scenario is more of a fantasy than a probability). All in all, a great image to carry home and into the night.



Since February in most of the Northern Hemisphere is not the best of travel times, we opted to visit some indoor attractions with the kids that we had never seen before. The second morning of our visit presented itself with a slight drizzle, but luckily we had already decided to head off to a dinosaur exhibit set up in a stark, but very cool industrial space near the river. Although not extensive, it was the kind of exhibit the kids love and most of their time and energy was spent chasing each other around roaring like a T-Rex and reading descriptions of each dinosaur to fill out a treasure hunt sheet we had been given along with our tickets.

We had stayed later than we thought at the dinosaur exhibit and the kids were grumpy, chilled and hungry by the time we emerged. The plan was to get close to Maria Hilfe Strasse, one of the main shopping strips in Vienna, to do some more window-shopping (it was a Sunday and keep in mind that everything is closed in Vienna) and find a bite to eat. On the way, my sister and brother-in-law realized that we were quite close to Sälm Brau that, much to my pleasure, has an extensive list of their own brews on tap. We all warmed up and enjoyed some local fare inlcuding Stelze (roast pork shank, which I must have every time I visit), bratwurst, kartoffelsalat (potato salad), apfelsaft (apple juice) and, of course, beer. Lunch was just the thing to recharge and get us ready for our afternoon adventure in, of all places, an ex-bunker.

The Haus des Meeres (the aquarium of Vienna) is hosted brilliantly in a WWII flak tower that, it is said, was so difficult to dismantle after the war, it was turned into an aquarium in 1957 thanks to a group of scientists and members of the Viennese business community. We started from the top, where you get a stunning 360-degree view of the city, and worked our way down the various levels until we were back at the entrance that hosts a large pond full of giant goldfish with a sign inviting you to pet them. Needless to say, the kids loved it.

The kids at this point had worked up quite an appetite and as the families headed home, my brother-in-law and I detoured to pick up some up some Schnitzel for everybody because you can’t go to Vienna and not have some. The bonus, of course, was the twenty minute wait during which we were forced to sample what was on tap.



We started off the day visiting what my oldest son likes to call “the crooked house”. The Hundertwasserhaus always thrills my kids because of its colorfulness and absence of straight lines or corners. Even on a cloudy day it brings a smile to their faces as they touch the colorful tiles that pepper the building and run around the undulated sidewalk around it. We continued our walk through the city center stopping for a sweet snack at Aida with its vast selection of cakes and pastries before catching a tram to go and pick up the cousins at school. Then came the favorite part of the trip for our kids and the cousins because we headed over to Monki Park where kids can run around, scale walls, get lost in the maze of chutes and ladders, as well as play ping pong and mini golf. We have been to Vienna enough times that we longer have to see all the sites each time we go and Monki Park has become a treat within the treat for the kids, a way to “feel at home” away from home.



The next day we woke up to blustery weather and given the mix of sun and clouds we decided to make our way using the super efficient S-bahn and U-bahn, with a brief stop to see Karlskirche, to the Belvedere which is the “temple” of Austria’s Secessionist artists Klimt, Schiele and Kokoschka. This time around we did not go inside because the younger kids in the group would grown quickly bored of the wonderful exhibits inside. The gardens, though, provided a great place to let them loose and have them blow off some steam. We continued to wander back towards the city center and ended up visiting the Haus der Musik which we were told had several interactive exhibits. It was impressive. A great mix of history and educational features that entertained the kids and gave them some food for thought. Lots of questions on sound waves, instruments, composers and music in general. The last exhibit was by far the most entertaining and popular: the interactive Vienna Philharmonic that you conduct. The kids got a laugh out of one of the orchestra members stopping mid score to stand up and (from the giant screen) berate them for doing a terrible job conducting as they swung the conductor’s baton frantically to make the tempo unbearable. The kids were still giggling and talking about it on our way home.



There was not much time on our last day to sightsee and we spent the morning shopping for those things that we love about Vienna and cannot find back home, especially certain food items. We bought loaves and loaves of bread. All types of “whole-wheat” bread because the assortment is always staggering. Rye, pumpernickel, seeds, nuts; you name it. Then würstl in every which way: paprika, cheese filled, bacon wrapped and much more. Of course, the Sachertorte which you can find at the Hotel Sacher, if you want the original, but also at Demel, Aida, Oberlaa and, our personal favorite: Heindl. I would have filled an entire suitcase with beer, but, alas, it is the only thing I could not take with me (although at the airport I always grab a bottle of Williams pear brandy).

I also took some time to browse a few stationery stores. It may be the vicinity to Germany, but the pens and paper they have in Vienna are a stationery addict’s dream come true. There are also many design stores in Vienna that I could move into if allowed, given how well cured and selected the content.

We always leave Vienna with a heavy heart saying goodbye to family and friends, but also because each time we go there, we always feel at home.





Discovering Berlin with kids

Discovering Berlin with kids

There are not many cities that make you feel energized as you walk through their streets. Berlin does this to me, and much more. I have explored it in three very different moments over the last two decades. My first trip was as a young backpacker in 1992. The wall was mostly still up and East and West still had a very disjointed transportation system. I went back for work in 1999 and found the wall gone and a city in the midst of a renaissance, though I did not have much time to take it all in between one conference room and the next. This past Christmas I was once again headed to Berlin, this time with the family.

I did not know what to expect from Berlin, but, oddly, I had butterflies in my stomach from the anticipation. The same exact feeling I had as a teenager and flying to Rome for the summer holidays knowing that I would soon see that cute girl I had a crush on from my previous visit. I can’t quite tell you why, but I have always had a thing for Berlin.



We survived the flight with the kids with only on incident of OJ spilling all over the youngest. Luckily he was sitting with his aunt so she got most of the sobbing and whining. The ride to our hotel was uneventful, but gave us a glimpse of that incredible mix of architecture that makes me love Berlin so much. The Novotel itself is what travelling families should always hope to find and stay in. The courteous staff was always helpful and helped get off on the right foot with a little gift for each of our boys at check in.

The first order of business was to head out to one of the many Christmas markets that dot the city during the holiday season. We settled on Alexanderplatz and started to walk over enjoying the Ampelmann traffic lights which were the first Ostalgie (a play on the words for East – Ost – and nostalgia – nostalgie; said of objects and symbols of the Cold War) mementos the kids encountered and gave us the opportunity to attempt an explanation of a divided Berlin, more or less successfully. The Christmas market was packed as was to be expected on Christmas Day. We spent most our time browsing the stands and eating. Memorable for me was the cored baked apple slathered in butter and vanilla sauce with a hefty sprinkling of almond shavings and cinnamon, accompanied (as the locals taught us) with glühwine (mulled wine). The kids in the meantime took full advantage of the presence of their aunt and uncle to ride the giant ferris wheel and take numerous whirls on the carousel while eating all of the gingerbread they could get their hands on.

The next order of business was, of course, planning dinner. On our way over to Alexanderplatz earlier in the day we had walked by Nikolaikirche and into Zur Gerichtslaube restaurant to ask if they had a spot for lunch, but that was asking a bit much considering it was Christmas Day. We were determined to have at least one meal in what looked like a very cozy and local restaurant. Arriving “late” by German standards we found a table and sat down to a delicious meal of blood sausages, roasted pork, liverwurst and all the trimmings: sauerkraut, potato pancakes, red cabbage and leek-bacon-dumplings. The evening ended with a nightcap at the hotel while the kids played in the lobby that is well equipped to entertain the kids for hours!



The main mission of the trip to Berlin was to bring the kids to LEGOLAND Discovery Centre. Our second day started early with a trip to the Sony Center in Potsdamer Platz where our kids realized their dream of running rampant through a world of Lego this and Lego that. Although, the center itself is not very big, the exploration center at the end is just fantastic. How to labs on building and creating, “earthquake” tests, ninja training and so much more kept the kids (and admittedly the adults) enthralled for half of the day. The kid’s favorite part was the race and stunt center for Lego cars they got to build and test themselves.

It was very hard to leave, but we could not stay the entire day inside and so we had a quick lunch at the Lindenbräu brewery where we ordered every type of sausage we could find on the menu, of course. The brewpub itself has some great views of the impressive Sony Center that was built after the fall of the Berlin wall and completed in 2000. We reenergized and got ready for our afternoon walk that started at Potsdamer Platz where we showed the kids a few pieces of the Berlin wall and then headed towards the Brandenburg Gate. On our way we passed the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe that was constructed after my last visit to the capital. We decided that our kids are too young to fully grasp the magnitude and scale of the Holocaust so the discussion has been saved for a later date when they can fully understand what happened. I observed this incredible memorial and could not help but appreciate its austerity and at the same time watch my kids run through the maze-like structure making it ring out with joy and laughter as they chased each other and played hide-and–go-seek. At first I tried to hush them and keep them from running around, but at the same time the contrast of innocent joy and devastating sadness was not lost on me and I could not discourage them from bringing hope to such an important reminder of what atrocities the human race is capable of committing.


I had not been back to the Brandenburg gate in many years and as they assembled the stage for the upcoming New Year’s Eve celebrations I looked around to see how much Berlin has changed over the last decades. I love the vibe this city exudes, there is something electric about it and there is only one other city that I know that is so vibrant: NYC. The other part of Berlin that I have fallen in love with is the mix of architecture. I am not an architect and so my observations are of a personal aesthetic nature, but I think most people will agree that there is quite an eclectic representation of design and architecture in Berlin ranging from baroque to Bauhaus. In this sense I am reminded of Chicago that is another of my favorites in terms of architectural mélange.


Returning to our hotel we meandered down Friedrichstraße and then cut through Gendarmenmarkt since we had not had our fill of Christmas Markets. The show they were putting on when we arrived was a wonderful Cage Aux Folles-like reenactment of Swan Lake and Cinderella which was great fun for the kids and allowed me to sneak off with my brother- and sister-in-law to a stand they had discovered the year before where a gentlemen make letterpress business cards as you waited. The day had tuckered everyone out and so we headed back to the hotel for some R&R and we helped the kids write about their adventures in their journals.



The Berlin Zoo and Aquarium were next on our must-see-with the kids and we got to the famous Chinese Gates early to see as much of it as possible before the kids conked out on us. The zoo is extensive and allows you to see a wonderful range of animals. The housing itself was quite particular and most of it was clearly inspired by the regions of the world that each animal represents. We also were finally able to taste the famous Currywurst for lunch and the kids then took full advantage of the enormous playground in the middle of the zoo. The aquarium was also a treat. The shark tank, of course, was the most popular with the kids, as was the reptile exhibit with its snakes and crocodiles.

The kids were, as expected, exhausted, but luckily they still had some energy to walk through the Tier Garten and back to Potsdamer Platz where we caught one of the Christmas shows in the atrium of the Sony Center before taking the U-bahn back to the hotel.

Our last full day came to a close with a very intimate dinner at Ephraim’s that was sumptuous, filling and quite satisfying. Throughout the dinner our waitress was very kind and attentive, but our communication was difficult and tortuous. I tried English and then my basic German, but to no avail. Despite the language barrier (and not only apparently) we were able to order and get everything we asked for so some way or other we communicated.



Our last morning in Berlin started with a classic breakfast of “Berliner” and coffee as we walked the Museum District that is under heavy construction and renovation along Unter der Linden, an impressive boulevard leading from Alexanderplatz to the Brandenburg Gate. We did not have time to check any of the exhibits, but the kids were still able to get their work out running around in front of the various museums and along the broad sidewalks. We then found ourselves in one of the most marvelous bookstores I have ever seen (with the exception of Powell’s in Portland which I suspect cannot be beat!): Dussman. I confess that the amount of stationery in the bookstore probably skews my view to “extremely favorable”. The kid’s section with it window seating and a mix of stark modern and cozy classic make it hard to leave.

Unfortunately, it was time to leave and very reluctantly we caught a cab to the airport. We promised ourselves that next time will be for a bit longer because there is so much to see in Berlin that more time is needed.

Finger Licking Good

Imagine walking the streets of Rome all morning pretending not to be a tourist and hoping to blend in while you look for that “not for tourists” spot to plunk yourself down and order another cappuccino while rubbing your feet. You know full well that ordering a cappuccino after breakfast will blow your cover with the locals, although it may just be the accent, but you have set yourself a goal of at least three a day before heading home so you need to stay on schedule.

Until now, you’ve stuck to the winding side streets with a great sense of pride in keeping off the beaten path and criss cross the main tourist routes only when absolutely necessary. You wave and blurt out a friendly “Ciao!” to the locals you meet and, thoroughly amused, they wave “Ciao!” back. You’re almost a native!

Then you turn the corner and find yourself in the midst of the tourist hoards: fanny pack zippers jingling, cackling while taking a selfie pointing at a naked statue and observing perplexed a guy dressed in orange sitting cross-legged pretending to balance a pedestal, with one hand, upon which his colleague, also dressed in orange, is seated (you can’t miss them in Rome).

You are in Piazza San Lorenzo in Lucina – smack dab in the middle of town. You are also in luck. Ciampini is right there in the middle of it all and it is full of tourists, but it is also full of Romans, because it does have great gelato, but even better “tramezzini”, if not the best in town.

Tramezzino Uova e Asparagi

Ciampini – Tramezzino Uova e Asparagi

It is said that the “tramezzino“, a triangular white bread sandwich without the crust, was invented in Turin as an alternative to English tea-time sandwiches and the word “tramezzino” (literally “in-between” with the use of the diminutive “-ino”[s] or “-ini”[pl.] suffix) was coined by the prominent Italian literary figure Gabriele D’Annunzio at the turn of the twentieth century since it was easier for Italians to pronounce.

You’ll have to summon what strength you have left to go in with your elbows wide and a determined look on your face, but it’s worth it. Think of it as a prize that you must win, as well as a fully immersive experience into what it is like for Italians to get through the day without ever forming a line. Glance at the selection of these delicious “tramezzini” sandwiches while you work your way to the register (you have to pay first, as in most places) and ask them to add a a typical Italian citrus soda called “chinotto” to your receipt to enjoy a truly authentic Italian standing lunch.

My favorite “tramezzini” at Ciampini are the “uova e asparagi” (eggs and asparagus) and the “tonno e carciofini” (tuna and baby artichoke).

Now pivot from the register and weave your way to the bar counter. Make eye contact with the guys behind the counter, they are much like children and dogs, so you must be firm and determined. Hand them your receipt and quickly list your order because they, unlike most of Italy, move very fast. You’ll probably need to point and gesticulate a bit to show them which “tramezzini” you want, but that will only make you look more Italian. Good luck and buon appetito!

Maserati hits the century mark.

I felt it was only appropriate to peek my head out after so long with news of Maserati’s centennial celebration. The roller coaster ride that has been Maserati over the last few decades has morphed into a smoother ride with the Ferrari-FIAT duopoly providing renewed energy, engineering and design to the Italian icon. After a lackluster series of hand-offs this great car brand founded in Bologna has finally found its soul again. It is great to see it resurgent at the ripe old age of 100. Congratulazioni! #Maserati100

Camo In, Camo Out.

My wife hates it and you probably will once you see it. I noticed it on the wrist of a flight steward during a trans-Atlantic flight on Alitalia. You know the crappy Italian airline I must always fly to get to Rome direct to visit my parents and in-laws as well as the extended family. The flight crew is usually wearing Armani designed uniforms and they exude “sprezzatura” left and right as well as a good dose of “Don’t ask me anything because I am too beautiful and well dress to care.” Which in Italian is pretty much the same as flashing the middle finger with nonchalance – just because.

The watch Gods are looking down on me and have been planning a slow and torturous death for me from the minute I ordered this thing online. I don’t know why I like it so much. It is really far from any of the watches I own and wear, but there was a little voice calling out to me. “Buy me. Wear me. You know you want it!” And so I hit the confirm button on the order page and a few days later there it was in the mail.

It is not terribly easy to operate and you have to get used to reading the time since the seconds appear larger than all the rest, but these are minor details when I have a camo watch. I figured camo is trending right now in the menswear sphere… jackets, shirts, underwear, socks, Pitti, shaving cream, cologne… you name it they’ve made it in camo print (even @NTBro has a camo stash from Barney’s that he won’t admit to or he would have to call “Bullshit!” on himself). It’s been in for about 6 months so now it will be out again for another 6 months and then in again so most of the menswear bloggers were still in diapers when it was in the last time around so they think it is the coolest thing since double monks were “invented” by the Sartorialist and an old Italian cobbler in the F/W 2009.

OK. I kid you kids (sort of). Relax.

Back to the monstrosity on my wrist. I love it. Like a rubbernecker on the FDR Drive, I can’t avert my eyes from it. I’m not going to get into the nitty gritty of it because technicalities will bore you and frankly this is not a Patek Philippe so what’s the point. Know that I like it, my wife hates it and you may too. Frankly, my darlings, I don’t give a damn.

The “Fuggedaboutit” Backpack by Outlier

Buzz about The Minimal Backpack by Outlier and the fact that I like supporting local NYC business roped me into getting one on back order in early December after the first batch sold out like hot cakes. When I got back from Rome after the holidays, there it was waiting for me. I wasn’t sure about the all white, but given that the original by Hyperlite Mountain Gear is reflective grey/silver it was really the only option. I am not a big backpack fan and haven’t been since college, but having kids changes things dramatically.

Practicality and aesthetics are not always an easy combination to find. What I like about the Outlier pack is simplicity, quick access, durability and waterproofing. NYC gets its fair share of rain and snow. I am often pushing a stroller and an umbrella is just impractical when the rain hits you while wheeling your kids around. My laptop, notes, books and other tools of the trade must always come with me and without an umbrella few bags will keep out the elements completely especially in a downpour.

So far with several days of rain in NYC I have dropped all my work essentials in the Outlier and it is pretty much the only things that has kept dry while bringing kids to school and then running to meetings. It is not for everyone and for me it is not an everyday pack (hard to match with a suit, but I am not always in one so…), but I can see it fit in to a bike commute or college campus where it can take a beating (and of course the great outdoors which is how it was intended in its first incarnation). There are no pockets or zippers or slits for headphones or any such add-on it is simply a duffle style pack with a roll top closure. I do not mind so much since I uses folders and pen cases and other smaller bags to keep wires, accessories and what not in order – I do not have to look very long to find what I need which unless you are a woman used to rummage through a bottomless purse can certainly be a turn off for a bag. I will have to give it a bit more work in the urban jungle before I can attest to its toughness, but so far it shows all the hallmarks of a rugged bag. It reminds me so much of another Brooklyn creation – the Mighty Wallet. It must have something to do with the “fuggedaboutit toughness” that Brooklyn is always looking to exude.