‘When I first came to the caffè as a child, I thought it was a fantastic place!’ Davide recounts. ‘There were sweet jars on the bar, like those ones in the cupboard now, and ice-cream just over there where that counter is…’

At work

Forty years on, Davide is running the place. He’s the third generation of his family to do so. The Old Coffee, in the Castello area of Cagliari, Sardinia, was originally set up by his great uncle more than 100 years ago. In due course, Davide’s father took over, and then after the death of his mother, Davide gave up his studies to work alongside his father. He remarks on how it was one of those decisions that you make at the time and don’t see the way it’s shaping your life.

‘So what’s it like to work here?’ I ask him repeatedly on my visits to the caffè, trying to fathom the combination of constraint and autonomy that mark his life. ‘L’amo e l’odio. I love it and hate it.’ It’s a line he uses often. It’s demanding, first, in terms of presence. Someone has to be there. It’s almost always him although occasionally he is helped by a nephew. ‘If I want to go somewhere, I can just close up,’ he says. Of course it’s true in principle but it’s difficult to follow through in practice. He always needs to be ahead of himself too, managing stock for what’s happening next week and into the future. But he also has to think of today, to be ready for the rhythms of coffee consumption, panini at lunchtime, apertivi and so on. He’s open from 9am to 9pm in the week, closing for a few hours on Saturday afternoon, then all day on Sunday. Plus he needs to be present in a different kind of way, available to listen to customers who come in for a moment of contact and perhaps some understanding. Even if he doesn’t always feel like it, he sees this as part of his role.

It’s very visible to the stranger’s eye how well he takes care of the place. Some of the original furnishings are in tact and the built-in display cabinets are especially unusual. Not only are they beautiful in themselves but Davide has filled them with an extraordinary collection of objects. ‘Will you tell me something about what’s here?’ I ask, pointing to a wall of cabinets, dark wooden doors at the bottom, and glass-panelled ones at the top. ‘They are things I like,’ he explains. ‘Look, here are some sweet jars like the ones we used to have. And this, well this was my grandmother’s.’ He opens a door and takes out a cup and saucer from a coffee service. It’s complete, he points out, including small plates, a jug and sugar bowl, and is around 130 years old. I hold a cup – carefully. It’s quirky and beautiful with an uneven decorated rim that would make it impossible to drink from!

If some of the objects in the caffè are living connections to the past, a past which is both Davide’s personal history, memories and relationships, and the history of the caffè itself, others have come to be there more directly from the former life of the caffè: old drinks signs and trays, as well as some pictures and photographs. There is a third kind of object there too: things that Davide has ‘lived’ that he likes to see in the present. There is a set of old records (vinyl), and various collections from hobbies and interests, for instance radios and cameras. This all adds up to the caffè being a repository of other lives and other dimensions of life as well as an everyday workplace and a space of consumption.

‘What of the future then?’ I ask at some point. Davide’s sons are established in their own fields of study and work and there is, at the moment at least, no one in line to take the place on when the time is right. He does not know what will happen. In the meantime though, Davide has made this place his own, whilst maintaining this family tradition through his work.