Where does a self-proclaimed Metropolitan Foodie from San Francisco, an Italian girl who’s mostly mistaken for a Jewish girl, find a proper cappuccino in Arkansas? And what if she craves a warm, out-of-the-oven, bagel, smothered in cream cheese?
Piled high with fresh lox, capers and a smidge of red onion, she wants to construct a bagel and cream cheese (almost) the same way her Jewish brother-in-law from Scarsdale, New York builds his... but where? She is standing in the “deep” South, as one of her San Francisco friends puts it, but she is suddenly optimistic and summoned by her conviction!
She jumps off her porch in The Heights district of Little Rock, pocketbook in hand, and begins her quest for the perfect Jewish-Italian breakfast.
I missed San Francisco more than usual that misty morning in Little Rock, remembering all the hours I had spent at Caffé Trieste and Puccini reading Cervantes and admiring Don Quixote, my hands laced around a brown ceramic cup, feeling like I was vacationing in Rome. I didn’t want to believe that the same feeling couldn’t be found somewhere in the South. So, why not Little Rock?
I was determined to report back to my San Francisco friends that there was ethnicity and diversity in the little city that Bill Clinton made famous ~ the city I now temporarily call home.
I was glib as I walked past Starbucks on popular Kavanaugh Boulevard. I tried not to stare shamelessly at all the sell-outs standing in line. But those people had settled! They had thrown in the towel on their cup o’Joe, choosing corporate America’s version of espresso in a cardboard cup over the little guy – that beloved café owner who likely knows the story of Luigi Bezzera and Desederio Pavoni who fathered Espresso in Milan at the turn of the century.
Then suddenly I heard the voice of reality shouting, What are you doing? You are in Arkansas now! There are no immigrant Italians or Jews for thousands of miles! Turn around, order your Half-Caff, Grande, Carmel Macchiato and put a stop to this ridiculous charade! And that’s when I saw her…a little woman with a nose resembling mine.
She was in a hurry, making a beeline for something or somebody, moving quickly past Starbucks and me. Her resemblance to my Jewish sister, Deb, was uncanny. She was just as petite and nimble, sporting a nose as elegant and crooked as Deb’s, but also Roman and long like mine. I wanted to run up and hug her… Had she somehow heard my cry for diversity? Had my tug for ethnicity helped to pull her down Kavanaugh in my direction? Had I just stepped into The Twilight Zone?
She crossed the street, and I sprinted to catch up. My quest for the perfect Jewish-Italian breakfast was a virtuous one, so Mr. Self-Respect would just have to take a number and wait next to Mr. Pride and Mrs. Humility.
“Excuse me!” I rallied from behind, my hand finally reaching her shoulder. “Do you know where I could get a bagel and maybe some lox in the neighborhood?”
She didn’t flinch. She didn’t cackle or shake her head. And she didn’t ask how long I had been stalk… uh.. following her. Instead, she grinned and I thought I saw her distinguished nose wriggle. Then she pointed to a red awning across a small parking lot. It read, Boulevard Bread Company.
“There you are! I’m starving!” blurted out a woman with an accent, exiting her car.
“I know, I know… I got here as fast as I could!” she tried to explain to her foreign friend.
My tummy rumbled. My mouth trembled. I stepped in the red door behind them and my knees buckled, while the globe spun. I was suddenly standing in a San Francisco sound bite, amid a hubbub of baguettes and ciabattas baking in commercial size ovens. I was surrounded by hungry people chatting away, starting their day in front of a multitude of ethnic dishes and gourmet delicacies ~ and a surprising collection of well-priced imported and domestic cheese. There were Italian salamis to the left, lox, capers and olives to the right. All housed in a grand New York style deli case.
artisan bread • imported cheese • gourmet take-out
As I took it all in, a wave of oak roasted espresso curled inside my Romanesque nose. My eyes darted east and found rows and rows of a very familiar brand of Italian coffee bean, Mr. Espresso, lining the shelves. My heart skipped. Mr. Espresso is based out of Oakland California, just across the San Francisco Bay Bridge. It was started by Salerno born, Carlo Di Ruocco. He began importing Italian espresso machines and beans to San Francisco area cafes and restaurants from his Bay Area home garage in the late Seventies.
Carlo Di Ruocco is the quintessential “little guy” who started out just wanting to get a good cup of coffee when he first arrived in San Francisco from Italy. I couldn't have found a better espresso bean for a proper cappuccino!
My gut instincts have never failed me ~ nor has my elongated nose. They both led me right to the doorstep of “the little gal“, Christina McGehee, the sole-owner of Boulevard Bread Company and Café. Her perceived motto for quality food and service shine through… give your customers the highest quality imported and local ingredients that you can, without gouging them in their pocketbook.
While ordering my Mr. Espresso cappuccino, I spotted some of the best lox available on the wholesale and retail market, for a good price, cured from scratch by lox expert Browne Trading Company in Portland, Maine and shipped overnight to Boulevard Bread.
I was in The Twilight Zone… or possibly Manhattan? Chicago? Boston? I might have been in any metropolitan hotspot and yet I was standing in Little Rock, Arkansas. The typical cultural stereotypes of the South that my fellow-San Franciscans joke about had been debunked, even if only for one morning. I couldn’t help but feel triumphant. There are signs of cultural diversity in Little Rock, Arkansas ~ something I’ve come to admire and require from any progressive city.