WHY HAS THIS LITTLE CAFÉ ON BOULEVARD ST-LAURENT WITH ITS ANCIENT FURNISHINGS, NEGLIGIBLE DESIGN, HUMDRUM WINDOWS, AND GENERIC SIGN BEEN A FIXTURE ON THE MONTRÉAL SCENE FOR SUCH A LONG TIME?
I dropped by hoping to meet Nadia, but as I hadn’t made an appointment, I met her mother, Luciana Barsetti-Serri, instead. A pleasant woman, she responded to all my questions and offered me a coffee too. The establishment was founded by her father Bruno in the 1950s, an era of large Italian immigration. The café attracted many Italian men who were alone with no place to spend their free time and socialize. About 50 clients can be seated here, and they serve coffee and sandwiches only – no alcohol. A secretary working for a local notary was the first to ask if women were welcome. Of course they were! This was during the 1970s when taverns everywhere were opening their doors to female clients. "Today the clientele is mixed, the majority being French-Canadian," explains Luciana, who is originally from Tuscany, but is now more Québecoise than Italian. Her daughters Nadia and Laura, and a grandson also work here.
There is a family atmosphere and the decor seems frozen in time – 1956 to be exact. “My clients tell me, "Don’t change a thing!" laughs Luciana, and yet the tired wooden chairs, the well-worn stools, and the other furnishings offer little to attract design enthusiasts. The only concession to modernity is the plasma television that attracts calcio and hockey fans on game days.
So why the stellar reputation? Their coffee, of course – Luciana makes her own blend – and affordable prices: $2.75 for a cappuccino and $1.75 for an espresso. Croissants and other goodies are served as well, including homemade roasted pork on ciabatta bread. It’s delicious, top-quality, family cuisine.
"There’s no terrace?" I ask. "It’s too dusty on St-Laurent," explains Luciana. In any case, it’s not a place where one goes to be seen. You go for a good cup of coffee, to meet friends, or chat with other patrons. While I was there, a client who had heard me asking why the place was so successful called out from the other end of the counter while showing me his bandaged arm, "We come to find comfort." So that’s Caffè Italia. A lesson in marketing: quality, good prices, consistency, and authenticity. We hope it will be here forever.