By Francis Kuttner
[Editor’s Note: Violin maker Francis Kuttner, who passed away on June 3, 2023, wrote this recollection of his student days in the early 1970s at the Scuola Internazionale di Cremona for the Fall 1987 issue of Strings magazine, part of a special issue celebrating the 250th anniversary of the death of Antonio Stradivari. Kuttner returned to live in San Francisco, California, in 1978, but spent much of his time traveling to and from Cremona, eventually settling there permanently in 2003. In the 36 years since the writing of this memoir, much has changed. Sadly, Trattoria Cerri has closed. But you can still stop for espresso at Bar Tubino or grope your way through the Po River fog. And the Cremonese violin making community continues to thrive.]
CAFFE TUBINO, situated strategically at the busy corner of Corso Mazzini and Via Mercatello, serves countless cups of espresso and cappuccino and various brioche every morning to hordes of students, shopkeepers, and local gentry who stop by for their habitual jolt. As a violin making student in the early 1970s, I, too, would usually start my day here, downing a tiny cup of Franco’s rich thick espresso while perusing the local paper, La Provincia. By sheer coincidence, this is the very spot where Guarneri del Gesu once lived, at least by my reading of a map provided in the Hill book on the Guarneri family. At any rate, the espresso is so good that my friend Andrea, while searching for a new apartment, made its proximity to Tubino a foremost requirement. At midmorning, we would frequent the cafes again. Maybe this time I would have a sbrisalosa, a type of sweetened cornbread, to go with my coffee, or one might have his first bianco of the day. Most Cremonese have acquired a taste for a slightly fizzy white wine, usually a Riesling, Pinot, Malvasia, or Oltrepo Pavese. I would invariably be joined by some friend I had encountered on the street, perhaps a shop owner or another violin maker. This could happen midmorning, just before lunch or in early evening – any time would do.
I can recall one afternoon when I was selecting some wood for forms at D’Adda, a local lumberyard. After making a nuisance of myself for an hour or so, choosing four or five pieces, I retreated to the office to pay my bill. Even though we engaged in the customary haggling, Signor D’Adda would then insist I pay the lower figure. Our deal was struck and I was ready to cycle home with my small purchase. Instead, I was ushered across the courtyard, through some hidden doorway and down into the cantina. It seems as though everyone in Cremona has a cantina. There, amidst the countless dusty bottles and dank surroundings, we tasted glass after glass of his vino bianco. After several toasts to life, women, and il Grigio Rosso, the Cremonese soccer squad, I was ready to leave. I wobbled home on my bicycle, light-headed and empty-handed, the wood to be delivered at no charge later in the day.
I found this type of exchange to be the norm. Wherever and whenever I had business to do, a feeling of congeniality prevailed. Discounts and credit were freely given. The Cremonese are anxious to please, very proud of what they have, and most willing to let you share in their good fortune.
While living in a spacious, if slightly run-down, flat on Via Robolotti, I did my own cooking for the most part, and in later years shared my kitchen with a group of fellow makers who had their workshop upstairs. This was the source of a lot of fun – going out into the neighborhood to do the shopping and subjecting myself to the good-natured bantering of the owners of the produce, meat, and cheese stores. Most shopkeepers seemed to get a kick out of a male foreigner’s attempts at food shopping, and it wasn’t unusual to be goaded into trying all sorts of unfamiliar, yet delicious, products. In the corner latteria I would be overpowered by the pungent aromas of sharp caccio, creamy stracchino, and noble parmigiano. No matter how small a purchase I made, a chunk of parmesan or smear of gorgonzola was proffered by knife tip for me to taste. Lugging my parcels back to my apartment, I’d be stopped every ten paces or so by some neighbor curious to see how things were going or what I was eating, or just offering a friendly salutation.
While last minute shopping was being done, and pots started simmering on the stove, the local bars filled up once more. I would walk past Caffe Artisti and into Piazza Giovanni XXIII. Here, across the square from where the Triennale is held, one finds Cerri, certainly among the best-known locale, both for its vino bianco and cucina nostrana. The bar is packed with shop owners, retirees, and workmen, all of them chatting, arguing, and holding court in their native Cremonese dialect. Here I’d grab a hot polpetta and a glass of Cerri’s famed bianco. This wine is a cloudy, somewhat fruity sparkling drink. Once it is well-aged, three or four months, it loses its turbidity yet remains frizzante.
The kitchen of Cerri’s serves simple yet delicious meals. The prosciutto and salame melt in your mouth. The risotti are thick with mushrooms. The paste are creamy and they serve the best carpaccio I’ve ever tasted: Really thin slices of raw beef are covered with shavings of parmesan, then drizzled with green olive oil. Unbelievable. You eat in a state of gustatory bliss, sipping from a never-ending supply of their wine while, through the sliding doors that lead to the bar, shouts of approval, condemnation, and dismay are heard as the TV blasts the latest soccer scores.
There are countless caffe and trattorie in the area surrounding Cremona. Usually a group of five or six makers and friends, sometimes twice that many, would gather at some small town like Zanengo, Tor di Picenardi, Casal Pusterlengo, Spinadesco, or Croce S. Spirito. Each of these places had a specialty, and we would consume vast quantities of pumpkin-filled ravioli, torte fritte, spalla cotto and various risotti. Strange fish and amphibians, such as eels, smelt, and whole frogs were dipped in batter and fried. Delicious stews of rabbit, asino, and other meats were served with the ever-present polenta. We washed down these delectables with appropriate wines, sometimes a dry Lambrusco that was favored here. We often brought instruments along, so that afterwards, while sipping home-made grappa, we would play and sing.
The return trip to Cremona was also an event, especially if the customary fog had fallen. Even though the roads were fairly straight on the Lombard Plain, it is easy to get lost in this lowland cloud. Creeping along, I often had to open the car door and look down onto the pavement to find the road. But we always made it back to Cremona, rolling into the Piazza del Duomo for a gelato and one last caffe.
From all of this, one might think that very little violin making was being done. On the contrary, most of my fellow makers, while enjoying the rich offerings of Cremona, spent a great deal of time at their benches. Apart from the school workshops where we spent a few hours every day, we all had our own projects at home. We came from such diverse places as Singapore, England, Mexico, Switzerland, the Soviet Union, France, Germany, Japan, New Zealand, and the United States, and within our international subculture we often shared workshops, information, and a general excitement about what we were learning. Since none of us had telephones and the town was self-contained, we were constantly visiting each other, sharing meals, discussing theories, or having impromptu musical gatherings.
Today, there are some 60 professional violin makers registered with the Chamber of Commerce. Another 50 or so are working on their own, and there are over 100 students, foreign and Italian, at the International School of Violin Making. So unlike in most places, here I say I’m a violin maker without eliciting the usual surprised response. Absent is the romantic notion that a liutaio is some quaint figure, a Geppetto in a leather smock, covered with woodshavings and exuding some secret varnish-like smell. Instead, the violin maker is just another participant in the everyday affairs of the city.
Which may be why it is the everyday things I remember most about Cremona: The food, the drink, the songs and festas. The strolling through fog-laden streets. The silent misty nights. I hear the clanging of church bells that penetrate that fog. But I especially remember the Cremonese people who welcomed me so openly, with grace, good humor, and dignity. While we offered a link to the rest of the world, they made us always aware of their own distinctive way of life. That willingness to accept us, to welcome me back, makes returning to Cremona so satisfying, so familiar.
This article was originally published in the Fall 1987 issue of Strings magazine.