In 1927, an Italian-immigrant barber named Domenic Parisi was beginning to lose his eyesight. Having cut hair for forty years, he took all $1,000 of his life savings and sent for an espresso machine from Italy. And this is how America was introduced to one of its oldest serving coffee shops in New York City, Caffè Reggio.
It is the first American cafe to serve cappuccino, heralding a new wave of coffee that took America by storm. Opened to offer up free cups of coffee to his guests waiting their turn for a haircut, the shop was soon decorated with artworks.
Café with No Change
Caffè Reggio has survived for more than 90 years and is still popular among the people. It is located in one of the most romantic neighborhoods in New York City, 119 MacDougal Street in Greenwich Village. It’s the café’s lush, antique surroundings that draw devotees most. The cafe where one delves into the philosophical foundations of famous artworks like The Unbearable the lightness of Being. In a city of Starbucks and chain stores, Caffè Reggio continues to be a gathering place for visitors ranging from older to younger generations of writers, artists, and philosophers to experience the original café who introduced espresso to New York.
“Why would we change?” “This is what people want. Everything in New York changes, but we don’t. That’s the beauty of it,” “We’re going to try to stay the same. That’s something that nobody else does,” says the owners and managers of the café. They say the café, not changing since 1927 is the secret to its success. Caffè Reggio has been a famous hangout for decades, especially for most notable poets like Kerouac and Corso. The coffeehouse has harbored bohemians for decades. Even John Kennedy gave a speech in front of the café. It has been featured in many classic New York movies as a backdrop including Godfather II, Shaft, Serpico, and others. “They approach us; we don’t approach them,” says the owner.
The Historic Interiors
Caffè Reggio boasts a lot of artworks that are not typical of a coffee shop. Being the oldest bar in the West Village Caffè Reggio has splendid furnishings that have never been renovated in recent years. The collection of historic artworks akin to a small museum or gallery, some hundreds of years old adorn the walls. Throughout the café are over 80 original artworks, including a dramatic 16th-century painting from the school of Caravaggio. Caffè Reggio retains much of its original feel, with tin ceilings, Italian furnishings, marble-topped tables, and iron-backed chairs. The ornately carved wooden benches, a Renaissance-era antique bench supposedly owned by the Medici family that contains the family crest, and other art pieces dating back to Renaissance Italy. The 100-year-old espresso machine itself is a piece of art and a very precious antique. Its majestic profile embodies the history of this place. This novelty brought by the cappuccino helped to increase the fame of Caffè Reggio.
It has a shiny chrome exterior adorned with gilded angels and horses around its base and was crowned with a cherub at its top. It stands against the wall on display but hasn’t been used since the early 1990s.
Caffè Reggio accommodates 55 people inside and 8 people outside and employs a staff of about 20 employees including chefs, servers, and busboys. The tables and chairs are packed in close together throughout the tiny room. When delivering food, the waiters wobble and slide their way through this maze of tables and chairs but they are used to it. These round-backed cafe chairs, Caravaggio-style paintings, and the soft glow emanating from Caffè Reggio’s chandeliers contribute to the coziness of this café.
Caffè Reggio is one of those places where time never seems to pass. The dimly lit interior, with cracked walls which are covered in ornately framed large paintings, contribute to the appeal of the space and makes one feel as though they traveled back in time to a period when small, intimate restaurants were everywhere. Everything in Caffè Reggio brings the nostalgia of old-school Italian coffeehouses in New York City. Sipping a cappuccino here almost makes you feel like you have arrived in Italy. The very best thing about this arty, ever-popular cafe is a visual treat one experiences with marble-topped tables and Renaissance paintings that line the walls.
While the notes of classical music resound in the background, the beautiful works of art dating back to the Italian Renaissance dominate the walls: sitting at Caffè Reggio is like going back to an era when people would sit at the bar to sip a coffee in complete tranquility, chatting with their friends, admiring the works of art, reading a book or listening to the songs of Verdi or Mozart. In a city where nearly everything changes and everything is updated, Caffè Reggio prides itself on maintaining the status quo and staying the same. Stability and
knowing that something from the past remains is what many customers crave. It is one of the few places left in New York City where you can spot writers furiously scribbling in leather-bound notebooks and reading.
Caffè Reggio is a place to go out of your way to experience the history and the food alike.
Today this historic place seems to be a little out of tune with its surroundings: next to it there are shops selling falafel and pizza, yet this is what makes the café one of the fascinating places in the city of New York. It captures one’s attention by every single detail. It is as if everything around it evolves to keep up with the times, while modernity does not seem to concern the Caffè Reggio where here people still come to sit and relax. Whether it’s to grab a bite with friends or munch on something during a study break, the atmosphere will always be Caffè Reggio’s main attraction.