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El Quinn
‘Kofay wi Mario Lanza'

Smokie Joe’s café…

Old Giuseppe - affectionately known as Joe, was the gravel voiced Italian proprietor of the Val pia café in Glasgow’s Argyle st, who served a good Italian espresso at £1.20 a shot. Giuseppe shut has doors for the last time just under 2 years ago, as his wife’s ailing health and his own past - retirement age demanded he slow himself down. Traditional caff's disappear from the high street nigh on weekly now and the demise of the Val pia hasn't gone unnoticed. Joe's café didn’t boast the romanticism that some old school café’s still do: there was no gay pastel coloured formica tables; no ageing jukebox that sat idly and proudly in the corner, and akin to most Italian cafés, there was no classic Italian fare on offer either; just fried staples that kept Glaswegians coming back religiously for more of the same artery hardening fayre.

I’d bemoan the fact that italianos were renowned for their love of food, so why did Italian café’s serve the most life threatening menu known to glaswegians? Was it simply that they asked for it? Old Joe would laugh, wave his hand and say in his thick as molasses brogue: I TELL YOU THEES, if I TRY to offer the two egg omelletes and instead of salt and brown sauce, serve with it the olive oil and parmesano cheese, my customers …they no come back…they no pay either! Oh well, maybe some things are not worth convincing others of.

After one horrific morning In the local dole office, remonstrating with upstart advisers and brutish uncouth security staff, I fled to Joe's for a wind down, and there’s old Joe sitting down with squid, mozzarella and a salad portion, with olive oil and balsamic bottles on the table…all that was missing was a quart carafe of vino rosso! I barked why was that fine dish not on his bill of fayre, whereupon he held his hand over his heart, and twixt chews sounded at me: HAVE TO CUT DOWN KOLL ESS TEE ROLL…Roberto, his adult son and heir to the café he had no intent in taking over, duly served me up a plate of the same. I told them about my demeaning time at the dole; they told me once again why the basic foodstuffs we were eating wouldn't wash in cafés like the Val pia. I protested to Roberto that if he were to take over the reins of the café, he had a good few options of bringing it up to date and serve some select but affordable dishes. No go, fatso. Having worked in the café since primary school days, Roberto was tuckered out with the café business, and wasn't willing to put his wee bit family through what he had went through as the son to café proprietors.

I used greasy Joe’s in its last five years of its existence. Mainly I went there for the coffee- an early morning hangover espresso, or mid afternoon cappuccino, taking a book along to read, but somehow never managing to get by the first few pages, as there was always some anecdote or argument old Joe would drag you into. There again, I would quiz him about Italy, whereupon he would pour himself an espresso, ask you if you wanted another one, and he would wax lyrical about the ruralness of his village; how he had a brother that still sold goat’s cheese by the roadside, and that nobody back then could beat his mother’s polenta!

He told you this often, but you never minded hearing it on repeat. Whilst you got the impression that part of Italian culture was dying, what indeed was dying was the great Glasgow café coffee culture, as it continues to yield to minimalist steel and faux wood bistro type excesses, that are all too familiar in the city today. You know them: put anything in a hunk of
bread and call it a pannini just doesn’t wash with me, neither does the great american pizza…(sweet corn…pineapple…oh please!!). Exorbitant prices too…sometimes you really have to kick yourself to remind yourself you’re in Glasgow and not Rome- there again, Glasgow purports to be city of European repute in 2009. Hmmm

The coffee was good though; it was good too, just sitting and allowing contemplation to wash over you in a place like Joe’s…there was never a radio to be heard, let alone the insipid music that all eateries seem to drown us out with now. Television still had to be invented thankfully, where that café was concerned! Hell, even up to his last day of trade, Joe still had an old bell phone that would ring incessantly; unanswered, letting all that heard it know, that he didn’t do answer machines either. Somehow though, it fitted in with the ambience of the place. Mind you, it was a whoore of a place pre smoking ban. if one person light up a needy fag, rest assured, you went out of that café reeking; cursing, deciding never to step foot in it again. But back you went regardless….

Perhaps the ambience was helped along by the fact that the wee café was found directly under the heillenmannie’s umbrella. It had an almost film - noir like quality, due to daylight never seeping under the bridge, regardless of the weather. Often, when the café was smoked out from fags or fried fayre, Joe would open the door and you looked right onto an arc lit argyle street. That coupled with rain splash from the horrific amount of buses that passed taking twat passengers to and from the city, added an extra touch to the streetscape, that actually made that wee area of Glasgow seem pretty…for a few seconds anyhow; till drunk and reprobate voices filtered indoors, kicking your arse and reminding you just where in the hell you were.

You couldn’t help to smile, when old Joe and his wife set off to disagreeing. The pair of them sounded like two cats on a fence, not in the midst of fighting; more serenading each other. The language was indecipherable, but it was also musical. That coupled with their gestures made it all the more animated- but the swansong was when old Joe would burst into a Neapolitan tune of old…it sounded all Mario lanza to me!

The Val pia café, literally the valley of peace, is no more- the place now a pizza slice and fizzy drink haunt, where chairs and tables have yielded to counter and perch like seats that encourage you to eat your food and get the hell out fast, as your coccyx slowly ossifies. I’ve used it once- I could still make out roughly where me and an ex girlfriend sat on our first date. By gawd, they say memories are made of this; that they never fade, even in a dimly lit memory of a café of old… where the Breda coffee sign lit up that small shop front’s exterior underneath a bridge that displaced highlanders would meet underneath years ago, to catch up with their ain folks.

Two years on and I’m struggling to find a decent retreat to jerk a coffee off over an hour and just sit and…think. So, it’s Farewell to you Giuseppe Joe and co…farewell too, to decent espresso, at decent prices. Your kind of service nowadays you just can’t buy.

 

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