If there is anything a pandemic has highlighted for me, it is that I crave little towns. During the last 12 months, in fact, life in big cities has proven to be a bit too tough, whilst little scenic villages, perhaps by the Italian Riviera, have offered a safer lifestyle, attracting the envy of those who live in metropolises. Forests, beaches, cliffs, and natural reservoirs became ideal stages for stress-releasing walks, empowering runs and mind-clearing jogs just five minutes from town centres. Those who live in small cities are not ruled by the traffic, or by a busy transportations system, are not stressed by lost tourists or expensive rent, instead, they are marked by a place like no other: the local bar (also known as il Baretto), the quintessential phenomenology of the Italian spirit.
Il Baretto divides people’s lives around the clock: it’s the place for a cappuccino in the morning, a quick bite for lunch, aperitivo before dinner, and an amaro for the nightcap. Like an orchestra, with the regulars playing the role of musicians and the bartender as a conductor, the venue produces its own melody, made with the sound of laughs, the buzz of the coffee machine, the jingle of the ice poured into tumblers, the pop of the proseccos and the grinding of the juicer. An old radio always plays the same songs, which are the musical background of everlasting conversations about football, love and politics. Piles of regional newspapers accumulated in the corners of the room and an old tv broadcasting every single football match ever shown in any European league are just the finishing touches of such friendly environments. Yes, of course, bars are also found in cities, in the form of fancy cafes, with crystal clear windows, fashionable customers and posh drinks, but il Baretto has a different spirit, less cool perhaps, but definitely more genuine.
Take a look at the prototypical bar, the one that contains all of them, the platonic idea of the baretto di provincia. Austere in the look, it is mostly covered in wooden panels, with a long counter, a few tables and chairs and one of the following amusements: flippers (when the bar was in fashion in the 60s), pool (a rare breed, mostly bars from the 30s), table soccer (those with outdoor space), slot machines (very common nowadays). The walls are covered with artworks with questionable taste: second league football team scarfs, terrible band record covers, paintings powered by the local artist (as famous inside the Barretto as he is unknown outside it), postcards from popular places, and, weirdly, foreign currencies hung on the walls like war collectables. Between the counter and a pile of forgotten liquor from unspecified decades, stands not-so-still the bartender. Usually very grumpy, the bartender is like Schroedinger’s cat, existing sober and drunk at the same time, depending on whom they are talking to. Drunk with their friends, very talkative with regulars, extremely cold and inexplicably sober with strangers who enter the bar by mistake, the bartender lives inside the bar 24/7. Some even suspect they sleep inside the bar, between the barrels of beers and the toilet. It has been scientifically proven that the grumpiest are the bartenders, the kindest are the drinks, and the tastiest are the aperitivos.
Like in a Balzac novel, the place contains all the human stereotypes in one room, because it’s the place where la Comedie Humaine happens: mixing sympathy, rhetoric and nostalgia. A classic member of this bestiary is the sports fan, someone who spends the days reading sports newspapers and watching football matches from any European league, but also the Grand Prix, Giro d’Italia, Tour de France, Six Nations and much more. The sports fan’s secret desire is to be the coach of a football team, but the only coach they have ever been is the one who takes themselves from their home to the Baretto. A bar wouldn’t be such, without the womanizer, someone whose only goal in life is the pursuit of the female species. He only drinks red wine and behaves like a character out of a Russian novel, tormented by passion and internal turmoils. To conclude our collection of characters, we add the drunkard and the liar, either as one or separately. The former is roughly 1,000 years old and has spent 999 years standing at the counter with a glass of brandy in his hands. A red nose, watery eyes, and a breath worthy of a dragon are just a few of their essential traits. The latter, well, it is quintessentially part of the environment in the Baretto, blabbing made up stories, like a broken record, involving the liar and *insert famous person*.
The piece de resistance is the drink selection, whose style is simple: strictly nothing cool or fashionable. Hot beverages include only espresso, macchiato, cappuccino allowed until 2 pm (at the latest)… no babyccino or matcha latte will ever touch the counter of the bar. When it comes to cold beverages, soft drinks include Acqua Brillante (very unusual tonic water); Gazzosa (a gourmet version of the Sprite), Chinotto (bergamot sparkling drink) and San Bitter (a ginger-based non-alcoholic). But what makes a baretto a special place, is the selection of alcoholic beverages: outdated beers, biological and local wines before they were called this way (“this is my cousin’s Dolcetto” you might hear from the bartender), and a collection of rusty, obsolete vermouths and amaros, usually used only for every possible variation of the Negroni and to make Caffe corretto. Grappa is a must, as well as Fernet Branca, Sambuca for the brave ones and Vecchia Romagna for those with a PhD in bar-drinking, Amaro Petrus and Unicum for the elders and vermouth with extinct herbs for the jurassic old ladies. And the food? Nothing is forgotten in the bar, and the bartender daily prepares a selection of tramezzini and sandwiches, such as cheese and ham toastie, tuna and mayo and the evergreen pizzetta – religiously eaten at 4am after a night out drinking with friends.
So, what makes these places so magical? The fact that while the world has changed so much, and keeps changing so quickly, il baretto stayed absolutely the same, not changing a single piece of furniture or a cocktail recipe or its members. Perhaps the joy in the small things and the cosiness of familiar places are elements that we need to take into account when we want to find out what makes these places so real. The lack of pretentiousness, I consider to be my favourite element: who doesn’t like to be in a place where getting drunk on negronis and stuffed with pistachios, is considered a perfectly healthy and sound meal?
Ci vediamo domani al bar, allora?