A lifetime ago, September 1977, in New York City, I moved the five boxes of everything I owned from a cockroach-ridden furnished summer sublet on Jones Street around the corner to my first leased apartment on Cornelia Street in Greenwich Village. It was a studio, about 400 square feet; there was no basin in the bathroom so I brushed my teeth in the kitchen sink. Cornelia is a picturesque one block long street one block west of Sixth Avenue between Bleecker and West 4th. The West Village was a hip ‘hood. You never knew whom you might encounter. Gerome Ragni, one of the creators of the Broadway musical “Hair” lived there; I learned not to gawk at the model Lauren Hutton in front of me at the bank. I’d landed a nice, polite job with a scientific book publisher that covered my $180-a-month rent, but the job didn’t interest me half as much as my second gig, waitressing at the Cornelia Street Café.
I worked Sunday mornings (the actor Anthony Perkins was a regular), and Wednesday nights when they hosted a songwriter’s workshop. The workshop was headed up by Steve Forbert who was from Mississippi and just my age. He was already being called “the new Dylan.”
It was at the Cornelia Street Café I learned about Italian coffee drinks. Before the café owners, Robin Hirsch, Charles McKenna, and a perpetually angry Italian beauty called Raffaella took me under their wing, the only coffee I was familiar with was Folgers Instant and the pale swill they served at the Greek coffee shops proliferating the city. Raffaella was the Sunday barista and she schooled me to the nuances of espresso, cappuccino, Americano, macchiato, and café latte, which she said was a breakfast drink.
In 1977, in America, there was no “latte art.” Latte art — specifically those lovely heart designs created by a deft rendering of milk foam — are presumed to have started in Italy, but their actual provenance is unclear. Latte art is a mixture of crema and microfoam. The techniques to create them are called free pouring and etching. It’s a tricky business to get the crema and the microfoam to a particular temperature and consistency to create distinct patterns. In the U.S., latte art is believed to have started in Seattle during the late ’80s when a man named David Schomer championed a rosette pattern off a photograph he’d seen. Raffaella’s artistic expertise at the De’Longhi machine was creating the perfect high hat of foam to cap her cappuccino. Along with her artist’s model figure, Italian accent, and signature scowl, her talent for creating the perfect foam no doubt contributed in no small part to the success of the café.
These days I love wandering around Cannon Beach sampling coffee. In between gallery hops, I might grab an Americano at Insomnia, or nurse a cappuccino on the porch at Sleepy Monk. I love seeing Rachel and Rebecca behind the counter. They are a terrific sister act. In my humble opinion, there isn’t a better place for people watching anywhere on the North Coast than Sleepy Monk.
Last week I introduced a Gearhart friend to the wonders of Sea Level Bakery and Café. I urged her to buy a couple of demi baguettes to take home for the dinner party she was planning. We sat outside in the sun, marveling at the glorious weather. I ordered a 12-ounce latte to stay in a china cup. I confess I dislike coffee in paper cups. When mine came up, the design on it was so lovely, I felt moved to take a photograph. For a moment I wished I could travel back in time to show it to Raffaella. I know she would have appreciated it.