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.