When in Rome By Joe Brancatelli
No. 9: Coffee Culture
Before we even start with the coffee, let's talk about the process of buying coffee in a Roman coffee bar, which is nothing like wandering into a Starbucks.
When in Rome for coffee, you absolutely must do as the Romans do. You walk in and go immediately to the cassa, the cashier's desk. You order your drink, pay and receive in return the all-important scontrino (receipt). You then take the scontrino to the counter and place a small coin (say 20 Euro cents) on top. When the barista reaches you, call out your order. He'll make your drink, bring it to you, then scoop up the coin and place a little rip on the scontrino to indicate that you have gotten yours.
This, of course, is all done standing up, and it is how the Italians prefer to do their coffee. Most patrons of coffee bars do not linger. They order, pay, drink and go. After all, espresso does mean fast.
If you prefer to sit and linger, well, that's a different process. You go in, take a table, then wait for a waiter to come and take your order. He brings your drink and il conto (the bill, literally "the count"), which you are expected to pay immediately. There is no such thing as running a tab. You'll pay and he'll make change on the spot from his pouch. Oh, by the way: If you sit at a coffee bar, you pay about double for your beverages.
And never, ever buy a coffee via the standing route and bring it to a table. You'll not only break a sacred code of Roman coffee bars, you'll have to fend off a horrified, agitated waiter. He guards his tables ferociously.
CAFFEINE. STRAIGHT. NO FROU-FROU.
Now that the process is out of the way, let's talk coffee. Italians, bless their caffeine-soaked hearts, do not believe in frou-frou drinks. They don't flavor coffee. They basically have just two sizes: the small demitasse cup and the larger cup used for cappuccino. And coffee "to go" is largely unknown.
What can you order at a Roman coffee bar, which will range from a humble little family-owned place to a huge and slick emporium that serves thousands of cups a day?
The basic drink is what Italian-Americans call "black coffee" or espresso. To Italians, of course, it is just caffe. Order un caffe and you'll get a small shot of handmade espresso. It will be unadorned by lemon peel. (A lemon peel is an early Italian-American invention to mask the poor quality of coffee they were drinking.) It'll be steaming hot and judged by the quality of its crema, the lovely brownish-white foam atop the drink. If you like your coffee with sugar, there will be a communal sifter on the counter. If you're at a table, two sugar packets will accompany your cup.
A SUGARY DIVERSION
A short diversion here: Sugar packets are both an art object and advertising medium in Italy. You'll see them in all shapes and adorned with creative advertising that plugs either the sugar maker or shop's coffee-bean provider. And they will be gigantic, about two teaspoons to a packet. Romans who use sugar seem to plop an entire packet into an espresso cup. Me, I use a half-packet for a double espresso and then take the second packet home.
The second most popular drink at a coffee bar is cappuccino. It was once considered a woman's drink, but is now drunk freely by men, too. In Italy, cappuccino is served warm, not hot. (If you want it hot, you must ask for cappuccino ben caldo.) While it is no longer gender-specific, cappuccino is still considered a morning drink by Italians. They rarely order it after 11 a.m. Given the high volume of tourists in Italy, however, baristas no longer flinch when asked to make a cappuccino after 11. But it still strikes Italians as odd that people would drink it later in the day.
ON THE MENU
Next in popularity is the huge variation of espresso styles. I rarely see them ordered, but always see them on the menu sign that must, by law, appear over the cassa.
Caffe ristretto (restricted) is extra strong espresso. The barista accomplishes this by adding less water when he's making your coffee.
Caffe lungo (long) is the reverse: a weaker espresso made with extra water.
Caffe macchiato (stained) is an espresso "stained" with a shot of milk.
Caffe correcto (corrected) is espresso strengthened with a dash of grappa or other alcohol.
THE PASSING SAUCER SCENE
Which brings me to two related concepts: The caffeine in Italian coffee and the concept of coffee to go. Italians can drink so many espressi throughout the day because, despite its potency, the coffee is lower in caffeine than American coffee. But as with any kind of stimulant, it becomes a little addictive. Hence the need to drink 10 or 12 of them. So Romans, especially, duck out of their shop or office regularly to grab a quick caffe at the local bar. With bars so ubiquitous in Rome, it's never more than a few steps away.
Or you may see this scene: You are sitting outdoors at a coffee bar or restaurant and you suddenly see a waiter duck out carrying a tray with two or three cups on it. The cups will be covered with their saucers. What, you logically wonder, is going on? The answer: The waiter is making a delivery to a nearby shop or office. He's gotten a call from a regular asking to send over coffee. So the barista will prepare as per usual and the waiter will place them on the tray, cover the cup with the saucer to keep the coffee warm, then dash over to the shop or office.
In a desperate attempt to keep productivity up and stop workers from the espresso duck-out, many Italian offices have installed self-serve espresso machines. These Nespresso-like devices are remarkable bits of technology, but make inferior coffee. Their ability to keep office workers in-house has been mixed.
WHAT THE H?
We should also address the issue of decaffeinated coffee. The Italians have it, but it isn't very popular. If you want a decaffeinated drink, you ask for a caffe Hag or cappuccino Hag. (The H is silent.) Hag is a brand of coffee. Consider it the European Sanka--or, more accurately, Sanka is the Americanized Hag. In any case, Hag made inroads in Italy because for decades the huge Italian coffee roasters were not interested in making decaffeinated versions of their own brand. Now it's different. The best-selling decaffeinated coffee in Italy is branded by Lavazza, one of the country's best-known coffee houses.
In short if you order a decaffeinato these days, most Roman waiters and baristas will understand what you want. In fact, dedicated decaffeinated drinkers in Rome make the case that the term decaffeinato is more prevalent than caffe Hag.
Speaking of coffee brands, Italian coffee bars (much like British pubs) are bespoke. They serve just one brand. There are an estimated 600 roasters operating in Italy. The names you will see most frequently in Rome are Lavazza and Segafredo Zanetti. (Zanetti now owns Chock Full O'Nuts and other U.S. brands.) Illy, a Trieste-based family house that can rightly claim to have invented Italy's coffee culture--not to mention the espresso machine--is third. (Other competitors include Jolly, Motta, Kimbo and dozens more.) This differs from Southern Italy, where the Naples-based Cafe do Brasil brand dominates.
FUN FACTS ABOUT COFFEE CULTURE
In restaurants, coffee is a course. It is nearly impossible to convince Italian waiters to bring you coffee with your dessert, for example. Coffee comes last--and alone.
Roman coffee bars tend to operate between 8 a.m. and 9 p.m. Very few open earlier. Some will stay open until around midnight. In small towns around Italy, the coffee bar is the hub of village life. In Rome, the local coffee bar is the equivalent of the British pub: It's the hub of the neighborhood.
Romans in specific and Italians in general aren't much for breakfast. So Romans make do with a coffee and cornetto (a smaller croissant) for breakfast. Small coffee bars will have a spread of cornetti at breakfast time. Some will have other snacks during lunch. Many will serve alcoholic beverages in the evening. But, mostly, they believe their job is serving coffee. Yet after two decades of economic stagnation, Roman coffee bars have branched into complete luncheon offerings. For an example of a great local coffee bar turned into nifty casual lunch spot, try the Bar Amore at the back of the Largo Argentina (Via Florida, 17). It serves wonderful (and cheap for Rome) coffee. Then, around noon, out come trays of pasta and other lunch items.
An Italian barista must have a degree and a license to make coffee. They are almost always men, although that is changing slowly.
I have my own favorites, but historically Rome's two best coffee bars are Antigua Tazzadoro and Gran Cafe Sant' Eustachio. The latter is quirkier: It disdains serving anything but coffee. The baristas don't even like it when you order cappuccino. Sant' Eustachio espresso comes with sugar added unless you specifically tell the barista senza zucchero. Both bars are located near the Pantheon and are always packed.
The trendiest coffee bar in Rome is Roscioli between the Campo dei Fiori and the Ghetto. It's another enterprise from the very creative sons of the family that runs Rome's best-known bakery. Roscioli does great coffee, but also fabulous pastries and extremely creative panini.
Rome's most famous coffee bar is at the foot of the Spanish Steps on the Via Condotti. It is called Antico Caffe Greco. It's smoky, grimy, packed, overpriced and the coffee is iffy. But Goethe, Lord Byron, and Franz Liszt hung out here and it has a wonderful mural and lots of velour.
The influx of American, British and Australian visitors to Rome is having an impact on the coffee culture. Most of it for ill, too. You can read about coffee culture among the Anglos here. (11-30-17)
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