There’s clinking and clanging of small ceramic cups. The espresso oozes out from the machine. A dollop of milk is poured, a sprinkle of cocoa added. A drink is thrust onto your saucer.
For a coffee drinker, going to Rome is like a beer connoisseur going to Brussels or a wine lover to Paris. Pure heaven.
But there’s also a bit of a learning curve, trying to integrate into a refined coffee culture in a country whose language you don’t speak.
You’re looked at funny if you stay at the cafes — which are called bars — for more than five minutes. Opening a laptop and finding a free outlet might as well be considered a criminal offense. And the only place in Rome you’ll see a disposable cup is at the airport: People never order a drink to go; it is meant to be consumed at the bar, enjoyed as soon as it is ready.
The cups are going to be smaller than you’re used to — and cheaper. That means you can sample a lot more and go to many more cafes.
The baristas wear crisp white shirts. They have bowties around their necks and some wear vests. It’s all so dignified.
It also seems effortless. Pony up to a bar, yell out your drink, and 30 seconds later it is ready.
Indeed, there is not a Starbucks in all of Italy. The place that most closely approximates a US coffee shop is the Sciascia Caffè, which is in the vicinity of the Vatican. There are seats with small wooden tables in front of them. They have a leather couch, and the newspapers lying around entice you to stay around for a while.
In the States, baristas at upscale coffee shops take pride in their “latte art,” the designs made with milk on the top of the drink. That rarely happens in Rome. The only place I found where that comes close was the Bar del Cappuccino, where I had what could be interpreted as a flower in the milk.
If you just want a shot of espresso, order “un caffè.” If you want a drink that uses a powder, rather than a shot of espresso pulled from the machine, order “orzo” (I don’t know why you’d want this, honestly, but I ordered one because I was experimenting).
A “caffè corretto” is a drink that’s been “corrected” with liquor. A “caffè macchiato” is an espresso “stained” with a little bit of milk on the top. A “caffè latte” is an espresso with steamed milk (but be sure to say “caffè,” because if you just order a latte you’ll just get steamed milk). “Caffè freddo” are drinks served cold.
If you want to drink like a local, order a cappuccino in the morning (Italians rarely drink them later in the day, thinking the milk is too much) and order “un caffè” later in the day.
During my 36-hour blitz of Rome, I sampled 17 espresso drinks. As I made my way to the airport, I began talking with my taxi driver about how I would soon long for the Italian coffees.
“The best part of my day is the morning when I have a cappuccino,” he said. “It is fantastic.”
I couldn’t agree more.
How to order coffee in Rome
ª Find the cashier and
ª Get a receipt.
ª Find a spot at the bar.
ª Make eye contact and
shout your order.
ª Saucer and spoon will
be put in front of you.
ª Your drink will be
placed on your saucer.
ª Drink up.
ª Say “grazie.”
ª A small tip is nice.