A Caffè Latte with Laura: An Interview with Caffè Italia

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By Amanda Marchese

exterior caffe italia mtl blog.jpg(Photo credit: Mtl Blog)

Take a stroll in Little Italy, and you can't miss it. Caffè Italia is located on the main street, near the famous Italian grocery store, Milano's. Walking into the caffè is like traveling to Italy, but more wallet friendly. Every time I visit, I'm welcomed by the murmur of conversations from customers and baristas in Italian, as well as the sweet-sweet smell of Italian treats. Caffè Italia is reminiscent of an old caffè in Italy where everyone knows your name and your regular order. Unsurprisingly, the caffè has gained loyal customers who have been going there for years. I say "caffè" instead of "café" because of the very simple fact that this coffee house is Italian not just in its brew, but also in its essence.

The place is buzzing, there's a television in the back playing the soccer game, the espresso machine is sizzling, and the place is bustling with people--inside and outside. The caffè offers typical espresso-based beverages, like lattes and cappuccinos for $2.75 and espressos at $1.75, as well as Santal Juices and Italian soft drinks. And if you're in the mood for a snack, they also have a variety of sandwiches, cornetti (croissants), and of course, panettone.

Caffè Italia is owned by Luciana Serri and her two daughters, Laura and Nadia. I recently got the privilege to talk with Laura Serri, who takes care of payroll and baking her famous carrot cookies. In our interview together, I discovered the true meaning of Caffè Italia, as well as a few secrets.

Montréalités:

Your grandparents first opened the caffè in 1956, correct? Had they just moved to Montreal from Italy?

Laura:

My grandparents came to Canada in the 1950s and they bought the caffè in 1956 from a great uncle who was moving back to Italy. I don't think they had ever really planned to open a caffè, it's more like it just happened. They didn't own a caffè in Italy, my grandfather was a salesman--they did not have much money, that's why they came to Canada.

Montréalités:

What are the memories of the place when you were young?

Laura:

I practically grew up at the caffè. My mom worked there and she registered me in the school near the caffè instead of near our home. So I would go to the caffè for lunch instead of going home. The customers used to help me cross the street! It was a real treat because my grandmother was there too. Later, my grandparents moved upstairs from the caffè, so when my sister went to school, she would go to nonna's upstairs for lunch.

caffe italia 1956 from laura .jpgCaffè Italia in 1956 (Photo credit: Laura Serri)

Montréalités:

Is coffee tied to family for you?

Laura:

Coffee is family. It has been my family's business all my life. When we get together, that's pretty much all we ever talk about.

Montréalités:

From articles and photos, I've seen that the caffè really hasn't changed in appearance. Despite a recent renovation, it looks like it always did. What's the reasoning behind that?

Laura:

All I can say is that if it's not broken, why fix it? Actually, it is the customers who begged us not to change, so we didn't. Like I said, my grandparents bought the caffè, so the décor was already there.

Thumbnail image for the family at the cafe the gazette vincenzo d'alto.jpg
From left to right: owners, Laura Serri, Luciana Serri and Nadia Serri
(Photo credit: Vincenzo D'Alto, The Gazette)

Montréalités:

One of my favorite features of the caffè is the bar. What is the idea behind having a bar in your caffè?

Laura:

All caffès in Italy have bars. The bar is the heart of the caffè; that's where you get to chitchat with the baristas.

Montréalités:

One of the many reasons why I love your caffè--besides the great espresso--is the commitment to tradition. I feel like I'm having coffee at my nonno's house; he has the same brown espresso cups. How important is tradition to you and to the essence of the caffè?

Laura:

It's all about tradition. People come to the caffè to meet friends, discuss sports or events, have a coffee, eat a snack, read, or relax. No WI-FI here, we are old school. In these days of instant gratification, I think it's good to slow down...even if it means having to wait for your coffee. It's therapeutic.

Montréalités:

The caffè has been open for 58 years; that's a huge accomplishment! What do you believe is the secret behind the caffè's success?

Laura:

I think the secret to our success is consistency. The coffee has been the same for 58 years, the cups have been the same, the décor has been the same, and the owners have been the same. I think people find comfort in that. Also, the fact that it is a family business and that you can come see some of the family members at any given time reassures people. After a while, the customers feel like they are part of the family.

Thumbnail image for cup caffe italia aless.tif(Photo credit: Alessandra Salloum, Instagram)

Montréalités:

You're located on the main street in Little Italy, there's no surprise that you're surrounded by numerous places to get coffee. Thinking a little broader, Montreal is a city hyped on coffee. What sets Caffè Italia apart from other coffee shops around the city?

Laura:

Our coffee is good. It doesn't taste like vanilla, or hazelnut, or pumpkin. It's not about getting back to basics; we never left the basics. I think that is what sets us apart. We are old, comfortable and safe, like a slipper.

Montréalités:

What would you say is Caffè Italia's signature: Atmosphere or espresso?

Laura:

The signature, for me, has to be the coffee. That's what makes the atmosphere.

Montréalités:

What kind of coffee beans do you use?

Laura:

We make our own mix and that's all I will tell you. It's been the same mix from day one. It's a secret! But we sell our mix--ground or beans--so you can even have our coffee at home.

Thumbnail image for beans caffe italia aless.tif
(Photo Credit: Alessandra Salloum, Instagram)

Montréalités:

One of my favorite memories here is when I was standing at the bar waiting for my cappuccino, and an older man came in. The barista who was making my drink recognized him, and in Italian asked, "What can I get for you today?" The man replied in Italian, "Surprise me". It just made the place so wholesome. How would you describe your customers? What kind of customers do you receive?

Laura:

We used to have only men as customers, workers mainly, who were here in Montreal alone, just off the boat. There were very few women. Then non-Italians started coming in because of the good coffee and somehow Italian women started coming more and more. Our customers range from very young to very old and everything in between. We are now serving the fourth generation of our original customers. We have many artists, athletes, business people, but more importantly, ordinary people who work nearby.

Montréalités:

What can Montrealers expect when they visit Caffè Italia?

Laura:

When people come to Caffè Italia, they can most definitely expect a good coffee, and if they come early, they might get to see signora Luciana.

Montréalités:

Finish the sentence: "A good coffee should always...."

Laura:

Good coffee should always be made with love!


6840 Blvd. Saint-Laurent, Montreal

Little Italy

514-495-0059

Opened Monday to Sunday from 6:00 am to 11:00 pm

4 Comments

Amanda, I love your images! I love how you include recent pictures and older ones, especially the picture from 1956.

Your interview was a great read: short and sweet! I also love your writing style. The background paragraphs were SO well written. I felt like I was reading a page from a really good novel. Well done, Amanda!

I pass by this cafe all the time and could honestly say I learned something about it. Great idea with the 1956 comparison photo.

P.S.: You have a problem with two of your images that aren't loading, unless it's just on my screen.

Love the images and how they separate the article.

Thanks Kevin!

And for the pictures, I think it's the loading. I also think it depends on what browser you're using. When I checked out my article using Firefox, the two last photos weren't showing. But now I'm using Safari, and they're there. I'll keep it an eye on it though…thanks for letting me know!

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