PEOPLE – Bar Bessone Blues

08 Apr 2003

Today, Sunday March 30, is like a day of mourning in Piazza Carlo Alberto, Dogliani, Piedmont, Italy. After being run for 67 years by the same family, the town’s renowned Bessone bar and confectionery is closing down for good. There are no heirs to carry on the business and the owners have retired.

Over the last few days I’ve watched a gloomy procession of customers—most of them have grown old with the bar—wandering in and out. Either for a game of cards with their usual buddies or to buy sweets or sugar or cocoa powder. This timeless corner of the oldest piazza in town has left its mark on the urban landscape over the last 100 years or so. In 1936, after apprenticing in the Cicogna and Giargia bakeries, Giorgio Bessone from nearby Mondovì went into partnership with his sister and bought the coffeeshop cum confectionery at 29 Piazza Carlo Alberto. The sellers were the elderly Maglianos, who’d probably been running the place since the turn of the century.

Giorgio Bessone met his wife Rita Cabutti in Dogliani and she worked alongside him from 1939. When Giorgio died in 1966, Rita took over the business. Daughter Maria Paola, born in 1941, worked with Rita in the bar and it’ll be she who’ll be closing its doors for the last time today.

Rita spent over 60 years of her life behind the counter and couldn’t face seeing the bar close. After a period of ill health, she passed away three weeks ago, aged 87. All the town attended her funeral. It was a strange March Saturday, shrouded in falling snow. According to Maria Paola’s wishes, Rita’s coffin was displayed at the center of the bar. That was her place, that’s where everyone had known her.

For anyone seeing it for the first time today, the Bar-Pasticceria Bessone has no particular appeal. But for people, like me, people who have spent much of their social life in Piazza Carlo Alberto, it was an extension of the home and the family.

It was open all hours and it sold everything from loose sugar to cocoa powder to fresh eggs to coffee grains to cakes and ice cream. In one corner was a public telephone in a huge bronze-coloured SIP* booth.

Maria Paola’s told me about the Bessone specialities. Until just after the Second World War, first her parents together then her mother by herself would bake bignole, or cream cakes, and flaky pastry and corn biscuits and baci di dama, dainty chocolate sandwich biscuits, every day in the wood oven on the floor above the bar.

The bar itself was—and still is with the odd alteration—divided lengthwise into three levels, with steps leading up from one to the other. The backroom, which was once an interior courtyard, now has a windowed ceiling. Here oldtimers play their endless games of scopa.

Until the early seventies, Maria Paola told me their icecreams were made by hand.

“My mum used to make the creams. In those days there weren’t as many flavors as you get today: egg and chocolate and hazlenut and lemon and strawberry (when it was the season). We bought ice from Pietro Devalle’s factory** and it was my job to stir the cream for hours in the icy container…”

The homemade icecreams and cakes (baked in a new electric oven in the backroom since the sixties) survived until the eighties. As long as Rita was in charge, that is. Maria Paola and her husband Felice kept the bar going, selling cakes and sweets and liqueurs, but the homebaking stopped.

Fashions changed with time and Bar Bessone changed a bit too. The habits, though, hardly changed at all. An ugly formica wall replaced the old wooden shelves—or at least some of them, which was a good thing. Two new seventies-style counters substituted the original wood furnishings. The Art-Nouveau columned shelves in the cake department were left untouched, although they were daubed with several coats of brown paint.

The handmade icecream went out and the readymade stuff came in. For a greedy and careless little girl like me it made no difference. Quite the opposite. When summertime came round, after running round the piazza all afternoon with my playmates, I would dash into Bessone for some refreshment. Meaning popsicles, either chocolate-coated or in the most wild and wonderful colors.

Maria Paola was the unofficial dispenser of coffee—delivered in thermos mugs—to all the businesses on the piazzas. My mother, a hairdresser, was a regular and so were her customers. I knew all their favorite drinks as well as I was often the errand girl, running backwards and forwards from the bar to the shop, from the shop to the bar.

The most important thing about Bar Bessone was its incredible role as a meeting place. Every Tuesday, the farmers from round Dogliani and nearby towns would crowd into the bar. From eight in the morning farmers’ wives could be seen in the entrance, next to the bar counter. They’d come into town to shop and sell their eggs and chickens and tume, wheels of cheese. This was the realm of espresso coffee and marocchino,*** and mandarin punch or hot china cordial. The realm of women and their chatter. The domain of Rita and Maria Paola. The country women would stock up on groceries and fill their hipflasks with Fernet.**** In traditional Langa fashion, the sexes were kept separate and the men stayed in the little backroom at their cards.

For the All Saints Day Fair (November 2 in Dogliani) Bessone would become the favourite venue for a bowl of cisrà, the traditional chick pea and tripe soup that’s been ladled out over the centuries in the market next to the Church of the Confraternità dei Caduti.

Bessone regulars would gather together in the back of the bar to eat cisrà. It was a kind of lay ritual with lots of folk singing. And the Dolcetto flowed freely.

From nine in the morning until midafternoon, Bar Bessone was swathed in a cloud of shag smoke that mingled with the fumes off the cisrà and the reedy notes of these old funlovers. On the morning of the Fair, Bar Bessone was the place if you wanted to take a trip down memory lane and hear the almostforgotten romantic ballads of a the turnofthecentury.

The most telling change at Bessone came in the early nineties. It was then that the first North and West African immigrants—from Morocco and Senegal—arrived in Dogliani. Rita, Maria Paola and Felice were probably the first (and for a long time the only ones) to welcome immigrants into their bar. Which is how Bar Bessone turned into a totally original melting pot. The old Langa folk played marché ‘l re***** at one end of the bar, young Moroccans congregated at the other. Senegalese in long brightcoloured kaftans called their families in Dakar from the phone booth, while old ladies with shopping bags bought 200 grams, say, of Leone lozenges. During Ramadan, trays appeared of hardboiled eggs to dip in salt alongside the mandarin punch.

Not that it was always as idyllic as it seemed. In the early years, there were problems of integration and alcohol often played tricks on the young North Africans. But I reckon no other place has managed to keep its identity and adapt to the passing of time like Bar Bessone—at least in Dogliani.

And now it has closed, this bar that’s always been so special for me. Many of its customers have passed away, others are in resthomes, others will have to find themselves a new bar. The piazza is much emptier now and many Doglianesi (by origin or by adoption) are feeling a little bit lonely.

*Former Italian national telephone corporation

** Traditional distillery and ice-house just outside the town on the River Rea. It closed down in the 1950s.

***Espresso coffee topped with frothy milk and a sprinkling of cocoa powder.

**** Classic Italian digestif.

***** Card game

Alessandra Abbona, a journalist, works at the Slow Food Press Office

Photo: Maria Paola at the counter in the fifties.

Adapted by Ailsa Wood/John Irving

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