Gio-Battista tightened a string on his violin and with a nod to the other musicians began to play an aria from an Italian opera. The hum in the cafe subsided for a moment and many heads turned to watch the little orchestra at the end of the hall. Music with your coffee, hot chocolate or penny ice cream was something new in London and still brought a sense of surprise to the visitors to Gatti's Cafe in Hungerford Hall.
Ragazzo, standing at a long counter, his waffle irons at one end and a big bowl of ice cream set on ice at the other, could hardly believe his luck. Here he was a waiter in training for just three weeks in Signor Carlo's new cafe. A year ago, this hall had been the centre of the great fire, its roof burnt out, the walls blackened, the furniture and floor sodden with water. Now the glass roof was mended, the walls painted, comfortable banquette seats built in against the walls and in the centre, small tables and chairs, the tables set with shiny white cloths, busy with customers. There were fine mirrors on the walls and a great deal of red plush everywhere. Signor Carlo had said he wanted this cafe to be a family cafe like the ones he had known in Paris. Not for him the smoky old coffee houses in the City, he wanted something cleaner, more comfortable and all with a little light music!
But it was Gatti's penny ice cream that was the biggest draw. Till now ice cream had been only for rich people, but here Signor Carlo had made it available for all and it was one of Ragazzo's jobs to serve out the ice cream ready for the other waiters to take to the customers.
"Two waffles and four ices - quick now." Ragazzo moved to the other side of the counter and picked up the waffle irons. He had become the swiftest waffle maker since the cafe opened and he was proud of it. As the batter sizzled in the irons, he looked around. The cafe was full with plenty of families, both tradesmen and shopkeepers, some up from the country, others just taking their children out for a Sunday treat.
A little girl was watching intently as he turned the waffles. She held a small pastry shell filled with ice cream in one hand and a spoon in the other. As she watched she dipped the spoon into the ice and put it in her mouth, slowly and deliberately savouring it. Ragazzo smiled at her. The children who came here, usually came for their very first ice cream and how they loved it after the first surprise and shock of its coldness.
The orchestra finished the aria with a flourish to some polite applause. Then they struck up a favourite tune - the Liverpool hornpipe. The little girl bobbed up and down to the rhythm and then made her way, dancing, to her mother and brothers at a table nearby.
Ragazzo slipped the waffles out onto the plates and sprinkled them with sugar. This was the last musical number before the interval and soon Gio-Battista and his other musicians would come down to snatch a cup of coffee, and if Signor Carlo was not looking, Ragazzo would make Gio a waffle - for he was very partial to them.
Ragazzo liked Gio-Battista. He was a rough fellow, a distant cousin of the Signore whose family had taken in Carlo when he first came to London, and although Gio had remained all these years a poor street musician, Carlo had a soft spot for him and had offered him work in the new cafe.
Ragazzo scooped out four scoops of ice cream, placing each carefully in the little pastry sea shells on the plates and adding the spoons. "Your order, Agostino." And Agostino swept up the waffles and ice cream and was gone.
Ragazzo looked up to see Gio coming down from the dais mopping
his face with his handkerchief, "Santa Maria, that's enough for me. I can't
stand this cafe."
"But why, Gio?"
"Too hot - stifling. I can't breathe." He drank his coffee. "No, the streets are where I belong. After thirty years playing on the streets, you can't change, eh Giovanni?"
Giovanni, his partner and flautist, nodded. "But it's a good job here, better than to be out in the streets in all weathers," said Ragazzo.
"That's just what Carlo said. Why don't you settle down, Gio, he said. I'll pay you good money. Settle down? Why we are settled down, Giovanni and I. We work the same routes, same pitches every day of the week. Saturday we're down here in the West End. Monday it's Clapham, Tuesday Greenwich, Wednesday Islington and so on."
"Isn't that a long way to go?"
"Up to 15 mile a day," said Giovanni, "rain or shine."
"But then it's not just playing to passersby," said Gio, "we have our regulars - houses where we play each week to the lady of the house or we play a special tune for the children or a nursemaid and they throw down pennies for us."
"And in the winter they sometimes give us a hot drink or a pie," added Giovanni, "we like our regulars."
Ragazzo was puzzled.
"We don't earn much, many's the time we've gone hungry," said Gio, "but we do see life." Giovanni nodded, "No, I think Carlo will have to look for other musicians after today."
He looked up to see Signor Carlo beckoning him back to the dais. "See, time's up already. We'll best get back to our music. You can make me that waffle another time, Ragazzo."
At the back of the hall an altercation seemed to have started. A customer was standing up complaining to a waiter. Another waiter fetched Signor Carlo from the cash desk. As Carlo walked over to the table there was a kind of hush in the cafe. Carlo stood, this huge man, towering over the customer. His voice rang out loud and clear. "A fly in your ice cream, my dear sir. Well what do you expect for a penny - a bombe surprise?"
There were sniggers from the other customers, amused at the Signor's bravado. "He's quite a one, Mr. Gatti, isn't he," said a fat lady to the mother of the little girl. "You'd think that gentleman had never seen a fly before, the way he went on."
Flustered, the customer and his wife rose from the table. Signor Carlo signaled to Gio to start playing and the little orchestra struck up a Viennese waltz. Then Carlo walked down the hall to where Ragazzo stood. "It's quiet now Ragazzo, take your break now."
Ragazzo followed him into the kitchen to get a cup of coffee. One of the assistant cooks was making ice cream for the next day. A large cauldron full of milk, sugar and egg yolks was bubbling on the stove, the sweet smell of the vanilla pod in the mixture filling the air. Moving the cauldron off the flame the cook whisked in the cornflour. Once it thickened, the ice cream would be set aside to stand and then frozen in the morning. Signor Carlo stood watching the operation.
The sweet sticky mass had attracted a bunch of flies, which swirled round the cauldron and the cook's head. Taking a swipe at them, Carlo said with a wink to the cook, "Fa attenzione!. Make sure there are no flies in this batch, my lad, otherwise you'll ruin my business!"