Capretto Rosto

Capretto Rosto[1]

“It was during the war years,” my father began his story, “that I became a coffee shop owner.”

I had heard bits and pieces of this story of his, but now, in the leisure hours of the afternoon during his visit to St. Augustine in 1977, I felt he was ready to tell me the rest of it. After all, he was a natural story-teller, always eager to say something about his past and only needed a slight nudge to get going. So I let him talk without any interruptions.

“When you boys had gone to the village as soon as the Italians had begun to drop bombs, I stayed behind with your mother and continued my work for as long as I could. But the sawmill was near the harbor, where the Italians dropped their bombs, so I decided this was the wrong place to be at the time and moved further out trying to make a living opening a coffee shop. The best location for that kind of enterprise was the square at Agios Menas, a spot in the southern fringes of town where the trucks and buses stopped to pick up loads and passengers before departing for the villages in the interior in the afternoon. Shoppers also came from Cambos, the extensive olive grove, where most town dwellers had temporarily camped, for the olive trees, planted ages ago by the Venetians and having grown to a great height, provided a natural camouflage for setting up tents for living there and being protected from bombs that fell in town. These people also came to Agios Menas square to do their shopping, since most shops in town had closed or moved to other locations.

“So since Agios Menas had become the new center of our community and buzzed with activity, I decided this was the place for me to do some business. I was of course inexperienced in that line of work, but one of my cousins, Gerasimos, who had owned a donut shop in the central square, joined me in that venture and taught me how to make and serve coffee to customers and to conduct myself in the new business. It wasn’t a hard thing to do, and I learned quickly, wearing an apron and going around tables, cleaning up afterwards, and so forth.

“Gerasimos thought we could expand and sell wine too, along with mezedes–salted sardines, cheese, and chunks of meat on the spit–to satisfy those customers who wanted something to eat as they waited for the trucks to load. Gerasimos had some expertise with minor culinary chores, and I soon learned how to assist him, so the business soon started to yield some profit.

“We were housed in a one-floor shack that belonged to your Grandfather Christos, used by him or his sons to leave their beast there during their visits to town to do their shopping, or for storage of their produce from the olive grove a kilometer or two away at Cambos. Now, with bombs being dropped and sirens sounding, he stayed away, and the shack was sitting there idle, so I asked if I could use it for that purpose. He readily gave his consent, since he felt he owed me one, for I had helped him with the purchase of that property before the war.[2]

“So business went on even with the bombs dropping, but most fell near the harbor or across the bay at Preveza,[3] where the military warehouses were installed dispatching provisions to the front. Bombs rarely came near us, but we naturally ran for shelter to Campos and hid under olive trees when the sirens went off. And on one of those occasions I almost lost my life. One of the shells from the anti-aircraft guns came down (dozens went up) and exploded right where I was hiding–in a ditch under a big olive tree. It dug a huge hole and fragments from it went up with rocks, soil and fractured branches from the olive tree and a lot of debris fell down on me, almost burying me alive. But such risks had to be taken, for I had to make a living. Your mother, who had moved to the village with you guys when the first full scale bombardment took place, visited me occasionally, brought me some provisions from her father’s farm, fixed the house, where I still went to sleep at night, and kept me company for a day or two. You boys stayed at the village, for schools in town had closed during the war in Albania.

“But when that war was over, around May, 1941, and the Italians came in, I kept the shop open for a few months until things settled and I had decided what to do.

“Naturally, business slowed down. The people camping out at Cambos came back to their homes in town, since there was no longer fear of bombardments, so we lost most of our former customers. Meanwhile, the trucks and buses at Agios Menas were immobilized for lack of gasoline, and the villagers no longer came to town to shop because supplies in the shops dwindled and they could get basic provisions in their farms. In fact, many people from town moved to the villages to avoid starvation. Whatever food was left in the stores was soon looted by the Italians, who bought everything on the shelves, paying with worthless Per La Crecias,[4] as we called the currency they brought with them to replace the drachma, which fell out of commission. People lost their wages and their savings, for banks closed. The only people happy were those who had taken loans from the banks, and, naturally, with the collapse of the Greek government, they didn’t have to repay them.

“Still, Gerasimos and I decided to stay open, selling some of the coffee and sugar that came to us via the black market as a result of the looting of the warehouses at Preveza which were abandoned. Some clever people got boats and came back loaded with precious food items–sugar, coffee, rice, flour, etc.–and started exchanging these items with local products, mostly olive oil, which was plentiful in the island. Endangering my life, I took a trip to one of the southern harbors, where a cargo ship had been bombed and immobilized there, and, using what money I had (the Greek money hadn’t completely gone then) I brought two horse loads back to your Grandfather’s in the village, assisted by his son Pericles, both of us having to travel through ravines and mountainous back roads to reach the village. Your grandfather let us use his storage room, where we put these things, and I gave him a sack of sugar and one of coffee, for these were what he wanted most, for old folks like to have their coffee in the afternoon. Some of the other stuff I distributed to our closest relatives, and I kept the rest, several sacks of flour, some sacks of sugar and rice, and of course the coffee for the coffee shop. They would last for a few months at least. So I was able to keep my establishment open for as long as I could, still being uncertain as to what I was going to do during those hard times, while the occupation forces were in the island.

“Well, for a few months things worked out for as long as the coffee and sugar lasted, though business slackened. Traffic at Agios Menas was minimal, though some people still liked to linger in the few coffee shops there as long as they could get their coffee and whatever other fare these shops could sell. Gerasimos and I kept the coffee shop open, for he was good at getting things in the black market–a talent I never acquired–trading flour and olive oil (how he managed to get them he never told me) for some meat, so we could accommodate the few customers who still care to come in.

“Then, suddenly, things came to an abrupt end. Up that point–it must have been the winter or spring of 1942–our customers were our Greek fellow citizens, whether from town or village. The Italian soldiers went into the shops that sold food items and they rarely bothered to visit coffee shops, where Greek customers sipped their coffee, smoked cigarettes, and chatted (rather loudly) when playing cards or tavli (backgammon). But on one occasion, Gerasimos managed to procure a lamb from a farm (not an easy task, for butcher shops had closed) and he decided to roast it in a small space at the back yard of our establishment, as a special treat to our customers. Some paid us in kind for their dishes, and he hoped to get small quantities of wheat or olive oil in exchange.

“Well, the aroma of roast lamb attracts customers like bees to pollen, spreading a good distance, sharpening appetites and causing stomachs to gurgle.

“That’s just what happened, except that the aroma reached the wrong noses. A group of Italian soldiers happened to pass by, and for the first time they came in, exclaiming, ‘Capretto Rosto! Capretto Rosto!’ and licking their chops. Gerasimos had just brought in the lamb inside, and was cutting it to pieces, expecting to serve the few customers who were already there, having smelled the same aroma. The Italians asked to be served first, and, as a new group came in, they started devouring our precious meal, and, in a matter of minutes, most of the lamb had descended to their stomachs. They asked for wine too, and more food, eating not just the lamb, but everything on the shelves or in the store. They even ate the lemons in a sack at the corner. Some gave worthless paper for payment, others didn’t bother to pay anything at all, but they kept repeating, ‘Capretto Rosto! Buono, Buono!’

“They came back the next day, and the next, and ate up all the food Gerasimos and I had managed to find around in the farms and gardens. They came until everything was cleaned, and nothing was left to sell. No coffee, no flour, nothing at all.

“After the fourth or fifth day, Gerasimos locked the place and gave me the key, which I had to return to my father-in-law.

“‘What are you going to do?’ I asked him.

“‘Don’t know. Maybe I’ll open up my dounut shop again.’

“‘Don’t you worry the same thing would happen?’

“‘Nahh! The Italians don’t consider donuts food. It was the smell of that damn lamb that got them inside. I shouldn’t have bothered with selling real food. In any case, that’s all over. What are you going to do yourself?’

“‘Back to the old mill. I still have my band saw. And the electricity comes in two hours every night.’”

“‘Well, nobody’s building houses right now. Try cutting women’s clogs. I heard there’s a market for them, now that leather is gone.’

“‘Clogs it will be,’ I said and walked away.


[1] Roast Lamb: The correct spelling is “Capretto Arrosto,” but that is how my father pronounced it.

[2] As I have noted elsewhere, the one story shack had been purchased with the 20,000, a sum left over from the original 120,000 sent by his sons in America, after the purchase of an olive grove at Cambos.

[3] A port city at the tip of Epiros, ten miles away north of Lefkas.

[4] Inflated money that circulated during the war by the Italians to replace the national currency.