Breakfast with Grandpa Vito Messina

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When I put out the call for breakfast stories, I received a sizable number of responses. This is not surprising; breakfast is a pretty passionate subject.

One of the most evocative tales came from Albert Messina, a good friend of my younger cousins Michelle Jaeger, and her brother, the late Harris Wulfson. Al’s story is a perfect example of food-as-memory; one can picture the young author as a child, barely able to see over the side of the table and into the cup in which his Sicilian grandfather creates nothing short of gustatory splendor out of leftover espresso, sugar, milk, and an egg yolk. Served with some toasted and buttered leftover Italian bread for dunking, the result is a magnificent, ultra-thin custard of sorts, and a fine way to start the day….and to remember Grandpa Vito.

From Albert Messina:

At dawn, my grandfather would wake up and make his way downstairs. Invariably, there were two staples waiting for him each weekend morning: leftover espresso and leftover bread.  Knowing what the morning would call for, he would have made espresso the night before in an old stove-top espresso percolator, which now sits in my cupboard.

In the morning, Grandpa Vito would pour the espresso into a small pan, and heat it over a medium flame; in a separate pot, he heated the milk.  The exact amounts have been lost to the ages, since I was too short to actually see the top of the stove. While the espresso and milk were heating, he cracked and separated eggs and put an egg yolk into each serving cup.  He then beat the egg yolks with sugar (a generous amount, since we were kids), toasted the leftover bread slices (Italian, of course), and liberally buttered them.  When the espresso was hot, he added a bit to the eggs to temper them slowly while stirring; he then poured about a third of a cup of espresso into each serving cup (depending on your age; it could be more, or less).  Grandpa Vito then topped the espresso/egg/sugar mixture with the hot, nearly-scalded milk. Breakfast on those mornings consisted of dipping the buttered toast in this very thin, exquisitely simple custard, resulting in a wonderful confluence of flavors born out of basic leftover ingredients.

I follow this method, but I usually substitute fresh bread, and brew a fresh pot of espresso. I don’t know how to describe it for a modern espresso machine, but I suggest preparing a latte and then tempering the sugared egg yolk with the latte. There really is no precise measurement, which allows for a lot of personal preference.

Al Messina is an attorney from Smithtown, New York, where he lives with his wife and two daughters.  He grew up in Great Neck, New York, the eldest of five sons, so helping with family meals was a necessity.  He says, “I took it upon myself to record my family history, which began with the documenting of family recipes. I view them as a living history for my children.”

Grandpa Vito would be proud.

{ 7 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Michele Giannini November 22, 2012 at 10:58 am

Thabk you for posting this. My husband has told me several times about his Sicilian mother putting eggs in coffee when they were young. I’m going to try it now. Buon appetito!

2 Cathy March 6, 2013 at 9:20 am

My Nonno used to make this too. He called it “ovo batu”. I think the reason I have such fond memories of this is that it was the only time I saw him cook in the kitchen. He would get up before my Nonna and would sit me up on the stool at the breakfast counter to watch him make it. He always got out soda crackers to break into it.

3 maxie July 20, 2013 at 9:30 pm

My Nonna made this for us kids all the time. But we didn’t toast the bread; we broke it up in chunks into the bowl. I still fix this for myself every once in a while when I’ve made the family’s Italian bread. It doesn’t work with fresh bread–it has to be a day or two old and starting to dry a little. Great memories!

4 Maggie July 21, 2013 at 4:50 pm

I am so happy to have found this. It is wonderful to be able to look things like this up on the internet. I remember my Grandma Carmela making this for me many years ago – at least 57 yrs.- but had not heard of it since. I will make it soon!

5 BIll Stockwell August 6, 2013 at 2:35 am

It was a cool autumn evening in1972, we had company over and I was making a fresh pot of coffee. My friend,Tom Arcuri said lets make Italian Coffee. Tom told me that his Sicilian Grand Father would make it for the grand kids when they were younger. We cracked a fresh whole egg into a heavy ceramic cup,
and added 2 teaspoons of sugar into the cup and beat the egg/sugar mixture till creamy then very slowley pour the coffee into tbe cup while stiring continually.
It makes a wonderful smooth cup of coffee. Tom’s Grandpa called the drink
Rushadoo. My family have enjoyed this warm, creamy drink in the cool fall evenings ener since. Thanks, Tom and and Grandpa Arcuri

6 Elissa August 6, 2013 at 9:54 am

Thank you for that lovely memory Bill—

7 Stephanie April 10, 2014 at 9:24 am

Thank you for sharing! I have been looking for similar stories to that of my childhood treats with my Calabrian nonna. She brought the recipe with her when she moved to Australia and would always give us the ‘eggs and sugar’ treat as kids, then added the percolator coffee and milk as we grew older. She calls it ‘cordiale’ which I found means ‘friendly’ in Italian. We never dunked anything in it but always used a spoon to savour the sugary egg mixture that would float to the top. Delicious!

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