When I first moved to Verona in September 2011, Italy was just emerging from the most severe economic recession since the Second World War. At that time, even the most optimistic economic forecasts predicted nothing more than sluggish growth for the immediate future. Exports had fallen by 25% and, despite some signs of tentative recovery, business investment was still well below pre-crash levels. In 2011 youth unemployment stood at 29% and it wouldn't reach its peak until 2014, when it hit an eye-popping 43%.
Just a few months after my arrival, on 12 November 2011, amidst protests, riots, sexual scandals and the mounting debt crisis, the Berlusconi era finally came to end. Il Cavaliere was replaced by arch technocrat Mario Monti, who struggled with the task of restoring market confidence to Italy's teetering economy. Since then we've had the largely forgettable Enrico Letta, the charismatic but short-lived Matteo Renzi and finally the quietly effective Paolo Gentiloni - Italy's 5th Prime Minister in the 6 and a half years I've been here.
On the pitch, Hellas Verona were finally beginning to emerge from a long period of exile in the lower divisions. In the 2011-12 season they finished 4th in Serie B and only missed out on promotion when they lost to Varese in the semi-final play-off. In the 2012-13, Verona finished 2nd, with an emerging young playmaker called Jorginho being a central protagonist for the gialloblù. The 2013-14 season was perhaps the best footballing season in my 6 and a half years in Verona. Back in Serie A for the first time in 11 years, with players like Luca Toni, Iturbe and Jorginho, the gialloblù finished in a respectable 10th place. Since then, there have been ups and downs but Hellas are currently struggling at the foot of Serie A.
Notwithstanding the plight of the local football team and the looming general election in March, signs are at that the Italian economy is slowly emerging from the devastating recession that coincided with my first few years in the country. In Verona, signs of economic buoyancy have been apparent over the last 12 months or so. Shops, bars and restaurants are recruiting again and the recent arrival of a number of striking new eateries are surely a sign of expanding economic confidence. Big, bold, brash affairs, and each with a decidedly international outlook, the emergence of these new establishment are perhaps a sign of the direction in which the Italian economy is heading? Although my preference is always for the dark, dingy trattorias and bars that sell cheap, wholesome, local food, three of these new establishments have caught my eye recently.
The Yard, Corso Cavour 17/a
The Yard, as the anglicized name suggests, has a real international flavour. With it's high ceilings, exposed concrete and modern art, the interior owes more to the loft restaurants of New York than to the typical Veronese trattoria. This international feel is also reflected in the menu, with American, Lebanese, oriental and French influences.
Doppio Malto, Viale del Lavoro, 50
Seeking to quench the seemingly unsatiable appetite for craft beer and 'Made in Italy', Doppio Malto is another bold new addition to Verona's eating/drinking scene. Located in the industrial quarter just outside the city centre, the beer is freshly brewed on site, the surroundings reminiscent of a New York brewery.
The Den, Piazzale Olimpia, 36
The Den is another newcomer to Verona's drinking scene. Located just across the road from the stadium, this is very much a sports bar in the finest English tradition. High stools along the bar, big screens and a wide range of English and craft beer. The dark wood and soft lighting give this spacious bar its den-like quality. Perfectly located for a pre-match pint.
Anyone who follows my twitter feed will know that I enjoy the occasional coffee break.
Like many football fans of my generation, I grew up watching Gazzetta Football Italia on a Saturday morning. I wasn't so keen on the football itself, but loved watching smooth-talking host James Richardson pore over the exotic Italian papers from some sun-drenched piazza, usually with an extravagant gelato in front of him. Although I tend to avoid the sun-drenched piazzas (too expensive for my tastes), I do love reading the Italian papers with a decent splash of coffee.
While the health benefits of drinking coffee are well documented, my coffee breaks are of course more than simply medicinal. Italian bars are a great place to hang out (although Italians tend not to), catch up with the news, exchange small talk about the football or simply just enjoy the perfect coffee.
My tastes have Italianised over the years and I no longer drink caffè latte or cappuccino. In fact my tipple of choice in these cold winter months is currently a piping hot Americano (shot of expresso + boiling water). After lunch I'll have a caffè liscio - a straight espresso and then perhaps another Americano in the afternoon.
It only takes a couple of trips to the same bar for you to be accepted as a regular. If you go to the same place at the same time every day you'll probably get to know some of the locals as well. In fact, I still occasionally pop my head into the very first bar I frequented 6 years ago when I first arrived in Verona. The barman hasn't changed. Always friendly and welcoming, it remains one of my favourite spots in Verona.
Anyway, here are five suggestions for an authentic Veronese coffee break
Caffe' Dell Ammiraglio, Corte Melone, 2c
Tucked away in a small piazza between via Mazzini and Corso Porta Borsari, a friendly welcome and a superb Club Sandwich await you at this great neighbourhood bar.
Bar Caffetteria al Duomo, Piazza Duomo, 4
Opposite the Duomo, the lush courtyard through the back is the perfect place to enjoy a late continental breakfast.
Oste Nero Coffee and Wine Bar, Via Barbarani Berto, 12
Located in the San Zeno area, this intimate bar is warm, snug and inviting. Delicious home baking too!
Bar Columbus, Piazza Cittadella 14
Located in Piazza Cittadella, this is a popular old school bar that serves a mouth-watering range of sweet and savoury snacks.
Elk Bakery, Via IV Novembre, 1A
Just across the Ponte della Vittoria, if you're craving something a bit different, Elk Bakery is a popular American-style diner that serves tasty cookies, pancakes and smoothies.
We'd just crossed the Po on the final stretch of a gruelling winter drive from rural Tuscany back home to Verona in the north east. With freezing temperatures and heavy snow forecast, we had abandoned our normal route home through the scenic mountain pass, il Passo delle Radici (1,529 metres), that connects Tuscany with Emilia-Romana. Instead we took the more circuitous route, avoiding the high northern Apennines, that would see us first head south towards Lucca, then swing west to Florence, before finally turning north past Bologna, Modena and Mantova.
By late afternoon we were on the final stretch of fast flowing motorway between Mantova and Verona. The worst of the weather was behind us and our spirits were beginning to lift. All going well, we'd be home within the hour. The poor souls who were heading south, on the other hand, faced 60 km tailbacks between Brennero and Modena as they returned home after a long weekend skiing.
Having thoroughly exhausted our current cd of choice, La dolce vita (a crowd pleasing compilation of singalong Italian classics), we now opted for Stevie Wonder's Definitive Collection to see us through the final stages of our journey.
A musical education for my two young kids in the back, my wife and I blasted our way through hits like Superstition, Sir Duke, Masterblaster and Isn't She Lovely.
Fifteen tracks in comes the unmistakable piano intro of For Your Love. By the time the drums kick in at 30 seconds we are deep in the groove. Thirty seconds later comes the voice. Rich, resonant, sincere.
"All the gold in all the world is nothing to possess..."
With me on drums and the wife on lead vocals, it was one of those fleeting moments where the music, the moment, everything just clicked.
"Well", I said to my rather bemused looking kids, who seemed to have enjoyed our performance despite themselves, "it really doesn't get much better than that!"
And then, catching me completely off guard, came this...
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