Q&A with the namesake of Aldo’s in Greenport

GIANNA VOLPE PHOTO | Aldo Maiorana, proprietor of the Greenport café that bears his name, is often mistakenly identified as French because of his accent; however, he was born in Sicily.

Greenporters know Aldo Maiorana as their morning barista, crafting espressos with quick hands, hypnotic eyes and silver cotton candy hair. But how much do you really know about him?

If you think he’s a businessman, think again, because when it comes to making coffee, business is the furthest thing from his mind. Aldo is a welcomer — a lover of life, meeting people and cooking with passion.

What was your childhood like?

I was born in Sicily, near Palermo, and the city was very poor at the time. My parents were doing the best they could after World War II; because my father had this connection, I began hawking shoes and clothes on the street at 6 years old. In the summer we peddled ice cream from a three-wheeled cart.

In 1958, my father had an opportunity to move to France, so I grew up in the Rhone Valley, where I went to school and worked on farms picking tomatoes, string beans, cherries, peaches, grapes, melons — you name it. That was child labor, but nobody said anything back then. When I was 9, my father said to a friend that if something were to happen to him, I was already ready to take charge of the family. Not that I’m bragging or think that’s right to put in a child’s head.

What were your childhood aspirations?

I didn’t have time to think about that because I was already working, but at 12 years old, I dreamed about traveling on a tall ship. I was fascinated with Robinson Crusoe and Christopher Columbus, so at 17, I joined the French Navy. I became first in my class in the food sector and was therefore the first to choose which destination I wanted to go to out of 30. I picked the one farthest from home, 16,000 miles away in New Caledonia. In the following years, I worked for the commander of the Navy and was in charge of all the dinner receptions. If a foreign navy was visiting or there was a captain’s party, I was in charge.

What was your favorite part of your travels?

When I was about 20, I visited a small group of islands north of New Caledonia. These people had nothing — no electric, no telephone, no nothing. I was lucky enough to be present one morning when everyone was dancing on the beach because a merchant ship was arriving. It turned out the ship came once a month to trade with the people. The islanders swapped coconut meat for rice or flour. There was no money involved whatsoever.

One morning I left in a fishing boat and the women of the tribe came out and brought me gifts like chicken for the journey, shells and what have you. It was just like in Robinson Crusoe!

How is America different from France?

In America, the first thing to talk about is money. This is my observation — it’s business. The stock market is up, the stock market is down, we’re in a depression, this, that.

The world goes around with money, but I believe that in the Mediterranean countries, life comes first. Here it’s business first, but for me, it’s about getting some kind of personal satisfaction. Maybe everyone gets that in different ways.

How did you start roasting coffee?

I started roasting in 1987 to please myself because back then, all coffee came in a can. It was very rare to see specialty coffee. I only drink espresso and I tried everything, but nothing would do. I was lucky enough to find that Diedrich Manufacturing Inc. in California was building a small roasting machine. I purchased the very first one they built to use in my specialty food shop.

Then I started manufacturing biscotti and got them into high-end places, but lost it all in my divorce. I’m trying to reinvent myself one more time, which is fine; all I need is me.

I’m still fighting debts from losing my lease across the street four years ago. I’m just taking baby steps and I’m comfortable with that.

Have you ever considered going back to cooking?

Every day someone asks me that, but food, for me, cannot be just a business. It’s not like any other business, in my mind. The way food is now, there’s a lot of noise and presentation, but the substance, the soul, is lacking. We talk about local, organic, baby greens, baby spinach, baby this, baby that, but it’s not about color, presentation or sound. It’s not about having a nice building or a great location. It’s about the soul, the love, the hospitality and the passion that’s put into it.

What is your life’s dream?

I love to meet people, talk to them and understand their feelings. I’ve been very lucky in my life because I have nothing but debt to deal with. I don’t even hope to get through the debt; that’s not what I’m living for.

My dream is to get to a point where I can sit and talk and exchange feelings with people, not just words.

What is your message to the North Fork?

I just hope that Greenport doesn’t become just a business town for tourists. I hope we can preserve the sense of family, community, passion and giving of ourselves, not just knickknacks. I want people that go home from visiting here to say, “I went to Greenport and I was welcomed and I had a good experience” not, “I went to Greenport and ate dinner and it cost $115.”

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