TORO Magazine

Espresso Expressionist

“Spezzatino,” says my lunch host, Toronto artist Francesco Gallé, pointing to the menu with a sigh. “That’s what we used to have every Domenica a la casa.” That is, a big plate of spaghetti and tomato sauce with hunks of veal, sausage and meat balls. Hm, tempting. But maybe not for lunch on a Friday. 

I’ve joined Gallé at Black Skirt, his sister Rosa’s restaurant on Charles Street East in downtown Toronto, determined to savour some “genuine Italian southern cuisine” as prepared by chef Aggie Decina, and pick Gallé´s brain a bit about his work and his upcoming exhibit at the Bata Shoe Museum. I’ve been a fan of his delicate and whimsical drawings for over a decade and found much to smile about at his recent Expressing Espresso exhibition. He´s made a name for himself creating unique works of art using watercolour in combination with espresso. No misprint. Gallé – and I hope he’s not offended by this epithet – maybe the world’s one and only Espresso Expressionist. 

Gallé was born in southern Italy but has lived in Canada a long time. Still, his work has a decidedly Mediterranean, or Italian, feel, in terms of line and tone, and often very direct Italian themes. When I ask him to comment on this, the sandy-haired, lightly bearded artist shrugs and says, “What can I say? It’s part of me. And I couldn’t tell you specifically how I am influenced except that I am. Though, after 20-or-so years of doing it, I notice that visually the influence is greater than ever. I mean, I’m actually drawing these nonnas and trying to go back to that time and place in the village.”

The nonna, or grandmother, is a very deep image for most Italians, and I’d hazard to guess especially southerners. I can remember even as late as the ’70s many Calabrese and Sicilian women wearing mourning black as a matter of course. Some of Gallé’s images, especially the one he inked for the Black Skirt’s logo, truly resonates. “My own grandmother wore black for most of her life,” I tell Gallé, “and died wearing black, so it’s very deep.” 

Gallé smiles. “How’s the salad?” My tuna and arugula salad, in a very light and tangy vinaigrette, reminds me of sitting by the sea in Agrigento, not far from the Valle dei Templi. 

“Exquisite,” I say, and then: “So the subject matter – clearly you’re harkening back to your roots – but talk a little about the technique as well.” 

Gallé rests his fork. “You’re absolutely right – Italian and southern Italian, more so,” he continues. “I notice a delicacy of line and a tone that strikes me as very southern Italian – that delicate line; and a real simplicity. I mean like the fashion, like the art. Clean, simple lines. Where I’m from in the south – Serra San Bruno – a little town, it’s a simple town. Everything matters; it’s very sparse. And I think my art is very much like that. It’s very simple but each line tells a huge story in its simplicity, and I think that’s where the influence is. And also they say your first six or seven years of life really influence you and I grew up in a small mountain town during those formative years so I accept that they’ve had a deep influence on me and my work.”

Steaming arancini di riso arrive: rice croquettes with ground meat filling and tomato sauce, as Sicilian as it gets. Few dishes tell as much about Sicily’s history: canestrato fresco from the Greeks, rice and saffron from the Arabs, ragout from French, tomato sauce from the Spanish … I fork it open and am stunned by the fragrance. A forkful transports me to Palermo. 

“Aggie is a real artist,” I say, trying to restrain my rapture. Gallé smiles and nods. Yes, he knows.

Gallé came to Canada in 1972, part of the last wave of Italians to immigrate here, and landed not far from College Street and Toronto’s Little Italy. And what was it like growing up there, did you miss the homeland? “Well,” he laughs, “I was surrounded by Italians, and Italian culture, I mean even people who speak my dialect, and I watched Italian programs on television, so the transition was pretty easy.” 

This, as the “white Sicilian” comes: Sicilian sardines marinated in lemon oil with tomatoes, garlic and basil on toasted bread … We eat in silence for a few moments. I’m salivating like a dog as I gobble the sardines, and feeling extreme pangs of nostalgia. I regain my composure and ask Gallé to talk a little about espresso as a medium for his work. 

“Actually, funny enough, it came from Bar Italia down on College Street,” he says. “I had some friends there who were getting married. So they met at Bar Italia and they were going to get married there and they asked me to make their thank you cards. Anyway I thought what better way than to actually make the cards from the espresso that they had met over, so I got myself a nice big espresso, about seven or eight shots, and let it sit for a while to thicken up, and then I did a delicate little illustration of them with a little espresso. So from that particular card I went on to do some work for another friend who was opening a small bar and I did a Fellini face and I had a bit of espresso left and I loved the color so I threw it on the canvas and I spread it a bit and then … the rest is history. But that’s really the beginning of that whole story.”

A wedge of muffaletta appears before me. “Try it,” says Gallé. “Aggie marinates it for a full 24 hours before she serves it. No fucking around here.” My teeth penetrate the crispy muffaletta crust, releasing treasure: salami, capicollo, mortadella, giardiniera, provolone, black olives. A mouthful of paradise perhaps, or a least my idea of it. Gallé concurs. 

When I ask him what it feels like to have the distinction of being the only, or one of the few (I know of no others) espresso artists in the world today, he laughs. “Why aren’t there any to-go cups in Italy?” he says. “If you go to Italy and go to a bar and ask for an espresso to take out – they’ll think you’re an idiot. Of course there’s a difference if someone from a work site does an espresso run … they might do that but they would never put the coffee in a paper cup; they’d give you a real cup.” 

I ask him to talk a little about his upcoming exhibition at the Bata Shoe museum. 

“I did about 12 special edition cards for them,” he explains. “And I’m showing the originals. I decided to do a Canadian thing with the Italian stuff. If you look at my art there’s a lot of white space. I knew this Korean brush-painter, his name is Chung Gong Ha, and I never brush-painted but I was always around him and really fell under his influence. He was amazing. Taking it back to the art I think a lot of what´s going on today in the art world is totally nonsensical and I want to – like this show at the Bata – it’s all about illustrating by hand, by an illustrator and not by computer-generated anything … it’s actually the hand, the pencil, and it’s really hard because how can you have delicate taste … there’s no bells.” Gallé pauses. “You look like you need an espresso, Sal. Yes? A little anisette with it? Sal?”

Art of Francesco Gallé Presented by:
Bata Shoe Museum
Runs Apr 2, 2009, 5-7 p.m. Free Admission.
Bata Shoe Museum, 327 Bloor St W, Toronto

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