spent my childhood and adolescence in a small village. It was not one of those one-bar places you sometimes came across driving along the “strade statali,” the old Italian highways flanked by umbrella pines, milestones (kilometer stones, actually), and stone posts on both sides, the latter painted black and white. There were at least three bars in Alezio, in the south of Apulia. At the time, bars were a sort of club where only men would meet, especially in the evening, for a game of “briscola” or “tressette,” (both popular Italian card games). They were territories from where women were generally and tacitly banned, unless they were chaperoned by their husbands for a Sunday afternoon ice cream. Always wrapped in their black clothes, older women would give bars a wide berth. Children could step inside, even by themselves, but girls, once they reached their teens, were soon initiated into the mysterious theory that bars were uncommendable places, especially if they wanted to safeguard their prospects for a good marriage.
I was particularly fond of one of the bars in my village, the one on the street sloping down from the main square. The name of the bar, “LuiMan,” after the first three letters of the owner’s name and surname (Luigi Manta, who had opened the bar in the 1940s), stretched on the façade over the entrance. The convoluted letters were wooden, painted silver, and at night they shone like neon, an effect created by two spotlights. The whole Manta family ran the bar and they were excellent confectioners and liqueur producers. Their pastries and ice creams were beyond comparison and were renowned all over the district. Their 50° anisette was deliciously heady. Pushing the two wooden-framed swing glass doors, with shining steel handles, you stepped into the main room, the largest of the two open to the public. You were instantly engulfed in an atmosphere reminiscent of those black and white American films that the local movie theater screened at least once a week, movies of gangsters and G-men, of gambling dens and fabulous broads.
On Sunday morning, as a child, I would often go there with my father to buy cakes for the midday lunch. That first room appeared to me like a huge cave, with its vaulted high ceiling, and, in winter when the swing doors were closed, the nebulous atmosphere created by dozens of chain-smoked cigarettes. On the right was the tall counter, behind which barmen and barwomen were perched high on a dais. Behind them was a long mirror hanging on the wall, and shelves overloaded with all sort of liqueur bottles. A huge Gaggia espresso coffee machine dominated the left end of the counter. The aroma of freshly ground and brewed coffee drifted out into the street, an enticing invitation, hard to resist. The ice-cream maker towered at the other end of the counter. A black and white television was perched on a high stool.
Card players sat at small round tables, deeply concentrated on the game. Other people were sitting at some distance, chatting, often loudly, cracking jokes, and sipping coffee or drinks. From time to time, an uproar would explode, when a player won a hand or made a blunder, and a battle royal would ensue. American songs and the latest Sanremo hits would blare out of the Juke Box at the cost of a fifty-lira coin. In time, a pinball machine appeared. In a corner or, when the weather was fine, outside on the wide sidewalk, there was the “biliardino calcio balilla” (table soccer) for boys and young men. In summer, late at night, epic card challenges were also settled outside, with professional zeal.
To me, the most fascinating room was the second, the inner room, whose main feature was the billiard tables. Lamps with green shades were hung over the green surface of the tables, casting greenish hues on the players’ white shirts and loosened ties. The participants stood around the table, each of them in turn rubbing the chalk on the tip of the shaft, calculating the distance between the balls. One of them would lean on the table, painstakingly focused on the right spin to give to the ball, one hand holding the butt, the other resting on the green baize, the fork between thumb and forefinger serving as a track for the shaft to slide. Only the clicking of the cue against the bowling ball broke the silence. Eyes would follow the perfect sphere rolling smoothly on the fabric, bumping against the cushion and hitting with a sharp clack the contestant’s ball, sinking it into the pocket. These men, with their studied and measured movements, their droning voices and white shirts, were my heroes. They were the ones I would emulate one day, certainly not the card players clamoring in the main room.
I never learned to play billiards. The tide of life brought me elsewhere, and the bar closed in 1974. When I came back, the heroes were long gone and it was only my recent reading of J. R. Moehringer’s “The Tender Bar” that triggered this flow of memories.
One of my most vivid reminiscences of the bar atmosphere is tied to the butcher whose shop was almost opposite the bar. Francesco, for everybody “‘Chello,” a local diminutive for the name, was a relative of the bar owner. His “mboti” (traditional Salentino rolls of lamb entrails) were unequaled. Chello towered on a dais behind the counter, wearing an immaculate white overall, like a surgeon, buttoned right up, but with the collar of a snow-white shirt and a regimental tie emerging at the top. If you peeped round the corner of the tall counter, you saw the bottom of his dark pinstriped trousers and shining black shoes. A matching jacket was hanging in a far corner. His black Neapolitan mastiff lay sleeping outside in the sun. After business hours, Chello would take off his overall, wash his hands, wear his jacket and cross the street to the bar. One evening, it was probably late spring, I was walking back home with my father and, when we passed by the bar, the doors swung open and Chello emerged from the foggy interior, dark pinstriped double-breasted suit and black Borsalino at a rakish angle, like an impersonation of Mike Hammer. A few bystanders, chatting and smoking outside, greeted him, “Hello, Chello, where are you going?”
“To the cinema,” his deep voice resonated.
“What are you going to see?”
“Solo contro i gangsters!” he jokingly growled back (“alone against the gangsters”, the title under which Gene Fowler’s “Gang War” was screened in Italy).
Then he got into his black 1949 Fiat 1100 E, and off he drove, leaving in his wake a trail combusted gasoline.
I have a keen memory of the first time I stepped inside the “LuiMan” bar on my own. It was a sultry August afternoon in the late fifties. My father gave me two ten-lira coins to buy my favorite ice cream and I walked there holding the coins tightly in my hand. I asked for a lemon cone, but when I opened my fist only one coin appeared on my sweated palm. I stood dumbfounded, staring at the single aluminum alloy piece for some time. When I looked up, the lady behind the counter was watching me, holding an ice cream in her hand.
“I lost one coin,” I uttered sadly.
“Never mind, ten Liras will do,” she said smiling and passed me the cone.
The following afternoon I rushed to the bar and put a ten-lira coin on the counter, in front of the same lady. She looked at the coin, puzzled.
“It’s for yesterday’s ice cream,” I shouted to drown the usual clamor of voices.
“Oh, no!” she laughed, “You didn’t need to, how sweet!”
Then she put the coin in the drawer and filled another lemon cone.
“This is on the house,” she said offering me the ice cream. “You deserve it!”
Dumbfounded again, I walked out of the bar licking my unexpected and refreshing gift.
- I wish to thank Cesare Manta, the son of Luigi, for allowing me to use a photo of the family bar and for chatting with me. Special thanks to art photographer Roberto Micoccio, for reproducing publishable pictures out of old dilapidated photos.