The Cannoli King waxes poetic on the immigrant experience and power of food.
Most of the visitors of the Italian Market neighborhood of South Philly are there to experience Pat’s and Geno’s, two competing cheesesteak restaurants with several decades’ worth of storied rivalry. This fatty food battleground is dominated by the restaurants’ neon presences. Their overwhelming light fixtures serve as beacons signaling the potent and uniquely American combination of spirited competition and the “Use Sparingly” category of the food pyramid. But, in the shadow of these shrines to what some might view as American excess is a more dimly lit coffee shop that has similarly enticing offerings. However, there’s little fluorescence to attract you there.
RIM Café could easily get lost in the touristy hubbub near the corner of 9th and Federal. Very little indicates what exists inside its shadowy exterior. RIM’s walls are wooden and well–loved, plastered with countless pieces of memorabilia in place of wallpaper. Plants are scattered around the space and an ATM by the door has a colorfully–lit sign that provides a surprising proportion of RIM’s light. Behind an L–shaped marble counter stands a short, somewhat stout man in a hat fondly cleaning out a glass with a rag. He has distinctively French features and his mustache and fedora don’t hide them. This is René Kobeitri.
René summons me over with a sweep of his hand, gesturing for me to sit down opposite him on a barstool. The counter is packed with sauces, glazes, confections, fruits and all sorts of other adornments. My right elbow scrapes the edge of a pile of hazelnuts, and my left rests inches away from being inside a bowl of chocolate shavings. The menu that’s mounted behind René is short but remarkably uniform: everything on the menu, whether drink or dessert, has chocolate.
“You must like chocolate,” I observe. “No, I love it,” he responds. It’s not hard to picture René composing long love letters to his adored foodstuff, or perhaps contemplating asking for its hand in marriage. He sees me scanning the menu and suggests the “Lover’s Cannoli,” describing it as “oh my god,” which is apparently his favorite invented adjectival phrase. When you order a cannoli at RIM, you’re also ordering a performance, complete with yelps and theatrical gestures. Perhaps it’s this animation that has over the years earned him the nickname “The Godfather.” Now, René has fully adopted “The Godfather” as his alter ego and several photoshopped posters hang on the wall with René’s face covering up the cinematic Don’s.
As he starts preparing my oh–my–god cannoli, René tells me how he ended up in South Philadelphia. As he does this, he grates a shocking number of ingredients onto my dessert. One of these is a chocolate wedge that René refers to as “God Only Knows Chocolate” because he was drunk when he made it. Another is what he calls “Obama Chocolate,” for its pattern of alternating black and white stripes. Somewhere on his 30–year journey to today, René fell in love with the Italian Market neighborhood of South Philly.
“I like how it seems like the Old World,” he explains. He emphatically describes how hard it is, for instance, to find a store “where you can buy a chicken that’s killed right after you order it.” (For the record, such an establishment exists right next door. And for the record, said establishment smells like a cesspool.) René also points out that in the Italian Market, there are “not yuppies, but immigrants.” As he says “yuppies,” he waves northward, towards Center City. “Here are the real people,” he says, sweeping his index finger back down to the ground. America is just immigrants anyway, he reminds me. While he’s talking about immigrants, he mentions the concept of the American Dream and somehow eschews grandiosity in doing so. The man believes that if you give to America, America will give back to you. “Where is home?” I ask him. “Everywhere,” he says simply, shrugging. After silently putting globs of honey and sprinkles of pistachio bits on my dessert, he shouts excitedly, “Here we go!” My cannoli is ready.
You should know that René is prone to shouting. His accented speech is peppered with frequent exclamations. “Make it happen!” he screams at me, as if he’s infected with some sort of benevolent form of Tourette Syndrome. He’s my own personal cheering section and I have no choice but to take my first bite. René has told me numerous times that it would be the best cannoli I’ve ever had. His argument, however, becomes more persuasive by the bite. It tastes great, but what’s even greater is the glowing expression René has as he watches me consume my first RIM Café cannoli. He clearly remembers his first time.
As I’m eating, René pauses the conversation to photograph a cappuccino he’s been making for a customer. The more he twists the lens of his Digital SLR camera to perfect the focus, the more the steaming cup in front of him appears to be his muse. To René, objects of devotion such as cappuccinos and cannolis demand more than just a cursory treatment. This pursuit of quality is the basis of just about every business decision René makes; when it comes to supplies, cost usually takes a back seat to finesse. Eagerly, René takes me to another portion of the counter, where he takes out a blank sheet of paper and a rubber stamp.
“This,” he says as he directs my gaze to the stamp, “is a stamp I made 15 years ago. Stampmaking is one of the services I offer in France.” Without saying anything else, he plunges the stamp into a purple inkpad and presses it multiple times onto the paper. “Samedi,” it reads, “Samedi, Samedi.” “Samedi is French for ‘Saturday,’” he tells me. He’s delighted that his precious stamp has lasted so much longer than most rubber stamps made. “How many things do you buy these days that last 15 years?” he asks me. This gets me thinking: this little stamp has seen far more Saturdays than my family’s personal computers, cell phones, minivans and even rubber stamps, for that matter.
Next, he takes five minutes to tell me a story about Extra Virgin Olive Oil, in which he presses a deliveryman about the recipe for some olive oil that was about to be dropped off at RIM. The deliveryman was uninformed about the contents of the olive oil that filled his truck and didn’t know what qualifies as “Extra Virgin.” With aggressive hand motions and scrunched facial expressions, René shows that he’s incredulous and shocked — offended, even — that a salesman would even consider offering a product without knowing every detail about its preparation. This Extra Vulgar Olive Oil horror story highlights René’s deeper complaints about modern economies. René believes that quality and freshness — which are directly linked to enjoying a product — got lost somewhere in the world of profit maximization. Where mass–producers see efficiency, René sees cop–outs; RIM Café is essentially his response to this modern settling for cheapness.
While its high prices may be outrageous at first glance ($9.00 for a cannoli!?), RIM’s pricing is reflective of the high cost of living out an Old World mentality. $9.00 doesn’t cover just a shell and some filling — it also gives René the freedom to toss in whatever ingredients may have just been prepared and are lying around. As he makes a hot chocolate for a young couple, he sprinkles in a wide variety of chocolates, even including one that contains parmesan cheese shavings.
Improvising on a production process from scratch to sale is virtually unheard of these days and comes at a cost. He actually doesn’t harbor any grievances toward Pat’s or Geno’s, even though both of these cheesesteakeries’ supplies are most likely bought in bulk. He tells me he goes to get a cheesesteak once a week. A controversial sign on the window of Geno’s says, “This is AMERICA: When ordering PLEASE SPEAK ENGLISH.” The Italian Market is home to a number of non–English-speaking immigrants, whom this sign is presumably aimed at. It’d be a safe guess that as an immigrant, René probably has quite a bit to say on this subject.
He pauses. “I could write a book this big about this kind of topic,” he says as he gestures about eight inches thick with his hands. “When you speak with an accent here, people look at you. When you speak with an accent in Europe, people ignore you,” he says. He continues, “but if you have an accent and money in Europe, don’t worry.” He chuckles at his last comment, demonstrating no bitterness toward the sign. Then he says “I don’t want to talk about this bullshit stuff anymore. It’s not what I’m about.” He smiles. I know he’s using “bullshit” in the most loving sense of the word and doesn’t intend to insult me or Geno with it. As a part–time American, immigration and nationalism are clearly topics that René has spent a good deal of time dwelling on. In the end, though, René is above the politics of establishing in–groups and out–groups — this makes sense given how welcoming he is. The sign doesn’t rouse him.
Surprisingly, he doesn’t have a favorite between the two establishments. “Both are good in their own ways,” he responds. How un–Philadelphian! A requirement for belonging here is passing a verdict on which legendary cheesesteak joint is superior. As he reveals his lack of a favorite, I recall something he said when talking about being presented with a Best of Philly award for Best Hot Chocolate a few years back. He mentioned that in Europe, they don’t have awards like that. It was a side comment, and conversation went in another direction at the time, but it’s becoming clear that René doesn’t feel compelled to rank or compete. His assessments aren’t grounded in how products compare to each other, but rather how much they are enjoyable on their own. RIM Café is doing so well because — not despite — its focus isn’t on getting awards.
The essence of René–ism, then, is that if you build it based on quality, they will come. And they have: RIM is packed on Samedi nights. Those who show up on weekends are often a mix of regulars and first–timers. The first–timers are usually people who have heard about René and his antics, and want to see, taste and laugh for themselves. But the group of regulars who are at RIM from three to five times per week demonstrates the substantial underlying pull of René’s food as a uniting force.
One regular is Dan, who has been coming to RIM for about a year and half. He’s a self–proclaimed coffee and tea enthusiast, often seeking out drinks with flavor accents capable of transforming a mere American cafe into a full–fledged slice of Europe. Ever since he came back from a trip to Rome, he’d been craving European–style coffee in the U.S. and soon found, after a chance trip to 9th and Federal, that RIM had what he needed. Dan went on and on about how RIM’s espresso was on par with his coffee worship, but it’s clearly not just about the coffee. “The first time I went into RIM, René greeted me like I had already known him a long time,” Dan says. To Dan, RIM regulars are “like members of René’s extended family.” The effects of the one–two punch of coffee and companionship are astounding: Dan comes to RIM three or four times per week after work and commutes almost two hours round trip each time.
If the RIM faithful aren’t indicators enough, Facebook shows off René’s prowess as a networker. One thing René taught me while I was at RIM was that Facebook has a 5,000–friend limit on all of its profiles. He has learned from experience, maxing out three profiles and recently moving onto his fourth. His Facebook status updates are written the same way he speaks; he’s frenetic, spontaneous, energetic and, above all, excited. One of his profiles proclaims, “I said yesterday that this week gonna [sic] be a “EGGNOG” week, that mean [sic] any drinks you want could be with EGGNOG, like hot chocolate, Latté, Cappuccino, Macchiato & & & & & & & make it happennnnnnnnnn.” Every status he publishes compels René–ites to comment on or “like” it. René documents nearly every cannoli consumed, every drink drunk, with his iPhone. Then, he promptly uploads the pictures to his profile, encouraging people to tag themselves in the pictures after they friend him. Facebook facilitates his networking and the result is Old World word–of–mouth advertising on Internet steroids.
As René finishes telling me about his online presence, I savor the last few bites of my Lover’s Cannoli. I take in my surroundings once again, inspecting the pamphlets and placards scattered all over the wall. Ads for Mac Mania, René’s Apple store in France, overlap with portraits of cappuccinos, truffles and decadent drinks. Pictures of happy customers are mixed in as well. But the biggest wall–mounted items are the posters that have René’s head spliced onto Don Corleone’s body. Perhaps René picked up his nickname for his Don–like wisdom. More likely, it’s derived from his quintessentially Godfatherly generosity. I take my final bite. My cannoli is gone, my plate now a chocolate–sauce–and–powdered–sugar Pollock that’s been sadly trampled on by a cannoli–shaped shoe.
As I thank him for talking to me, René gives me the same grandfatherly smile he gives to everyone who passes through RIM Café. As I walk toward the door, I can’t tell if it’s the café’s central heating or the sincerity René exudes that makes me feel warm inside. Either way, the dark Philadelphian night is harshly cold. René has made it abundantly clear, however, that I have an open invitation to an older, warmer world.
On the sidewalks of the Italian Market, I think about the impression that “The Godfather” has left on me. René isn’t The Godfather so much as Marlon Brando himself, in the sense that he is, above all, a performer.