When it comes to espresso, varying opinions and descriptions of flavor are as numerous as the number of espresso bars in Rome. It is claimed that espresso contains hundreds of individual flavor elements, even more than wine. Descriptions such as intense, acidic, toasted bread, flowers, bursting nuttiness, tart, full-bodied, caramel, smooth, etcetera are regularly used without agreement. However, the one thing everyone agrees on is that espresso is a cultural necessity of daily life for the Romans.
In Italy, espresso bars are a place for socialization and initially, coffee prices were controlled by the local authorities as long as the coffee was consumed standing up. This gave rise to the “bar” culture. Espresso bars were popular with Italian “diaspora”, poor Italians who migrated out of Italy mostly to Europe and North America. Outside of Italy, expatriate Italian espresso bars were down-market venues, serving working class Italians. As espresso bars grew in popularity with tourism to Italy, espresso bars provided a means of expression for Europe and North America’s counterculture. In the 1980’s, with the mass marketing of specialty coffees and a developing artisan coffee culture, espresso was branded as an up-market drink.
They say that “Rome wasn’t built in a day”, but after a couple of “Doppios”, it could have been. Now I know why Italians speak so quickly. Remember, most espresso bars require you to pay that the “cassa” (cash register) and getting your order ticket, before going to the bar to order. You’ll be standing a long time if you don’t.
Where is the best espresso in Rome? Well, not only is the coffee to be considered, but also the ambience and if the Roman experience is heightened. When in Rome, these espresso bars are must do’s to really experience Roman culture; whether walking to the Pantheon, the Coliseum or stopping in one of the numerous “piazzas” (city squares) for a break, you will not be disappointed. Here is a list of great Roman café’s, from the famous to not so famous and where the locals go:
GPS (Good Place to Sip)
Piazza in Lucina, 29 (www.ciampini.net) - 41° 54’ 13.17” N, 12° 28’ 40.53” E
Ciampini is located in a pedestrian only area in the centre of Rome. Surrounded by up-market shops, this piazza is a great place to relax and people watch and enjoy the Roman lunch “hour”. The Espresso is smooth, deep and rich and the Gelato is FANTASTIC! Order the “Coppa Ciampini”, with its mix of deep rich chocolate and chestnut flavored gelato, all in one glorious cup of heavenliness. It’s the perfect compliment for your espresso. This is truly a great espresso bar.
Il Caffé Sant Eustachio
Piazza Sant Eustachio, 81 (www.santeustachioilcaffe.it) - 41° 53’ 54.30” N, 12° 28’ 31.76” E
Sant Eustachio is truly an institution in Rome and operated for over 70 years. It does have the reputation of having the best espresso in Rome. The unique creamy frothy top of their espresso is a fiercely guarded secret and is certainly eye catching. Being so close to the Pantheon, this café has become a pilgrimage for caffeine aficionados for decades. In turn, being so close to major tourist spots, during peak season it caters less to Italians than to tourists. The espressos are not as strong as other places and the creamy top gives the espressos a creamy cappuccino consistency. A cautionary note, if you sit at one of the outside tables instead of standing at the bar, you will be charged a steep 5-euro service charge on top of the 1-euro espresso. So, save a few euros and do what the locals do: stand, sip, and be Italian!
Via Marsala, 44, (near the train station) - 41° 54’ 06.39” N, 12° 30’ 10.85” E
This is the essence of an Italian espresso bar. The white marble surroundings mixed with Italian style, the rapid chitchat of the locals and horns honking outside, give you a sense that you really are in the center of the universe, known as Rome. It is a busy bar so you must be assertive about getting in line to order. Espressos wait for no man. The espresso is strong and forceful and after a doppio, the hair on the back of your neck starts standing up. It is a fun place to sit outdoors and watch pedestrians avoid motor scooter traffic. It is like watching a mechanical version of a Spanish bullfight. It is hectic, but real.
La Bottega del Caffe
Piazza Madonna dei Monti, 5 - 41° 53’ 41.51” N, 12° 29’ 27.41” E
This espresso bar is a great place to sit and relax, away from the craziness of the city. The cafe and vive covered terrace overlooks the beautiful fountain and square of the “Madonna dei Monti”. The ambience and espressos makes this cafe definitely worth a visit even if no discernable name is displayed, which may account for high number of local Romans and no tourists. It is unmistakable as locals gather around the fountain, drink espressos or wine and smoke cigarettes. The espressos are strong without being sour, the locals extremely friendly and the service courteous. It is truly a hidden gem.
Piazza del Viminale, 18 - 41° 53’ 59.22” N, 12° 29’ 40.38” E
This little busy bar is located just across the street from the Italian Ministry of Interior, and is a meeting place for businessmen and politicians. The staff is smartly dressed in green uniforms, which give them a hotel bellmen appearance. Coffee is excellent and very strong. The service is professional and very polite. This is the perfect place to start your day of exploring, as the coffee is like adding premium fuel to your gas tank.
Antico Caffe Greco
Via Condotti, 86 (www.anticocaffegreco.eu) - 41° 54’ 20.20” N, 12° 28’ 53.19” E
Operating since 1760, the interior is opulent but the atmosphere is somewhat pretentious. The servers wear black coats with tails and bowties; the marble interior is exquisite and the antique oil paintings on the wall, a testament to a different time. However, given its long-standing operation, it is worth a visit to see and have an espresso since it is only a few meters from the famous “Spanish Steps”. The espressos are a bit pricy, strong with a touch of nutty bitterness.
Tazza D’Oro - La Casa del Caffe
Via Degli Orfani, 84 (www.tazzadorocoffeeshop.com) - 41° 53’ 39.45” N, 12° 28’ 39.45” E
Translated as the “Cup of Gold”, this caffe has a long-standing rivalry with the Sant Eustachio, just a block away. Next to the Pantheon, the Tazza D’Oro has been operating since 1946 and is a frequent stop for tourists visiting the nearby sights. The inside is crowded, frantic and warm, while outside; school groups clog the nearby streets. However, it is a notable spot to stop for a quick shot of nutty caffeine goodness before visiting the next ruin.
Caffè della Pace
Piazza della Pace, 4 - 41° 53’ 57.52” N, 12° 28’ 16.43” E
Located in a beautiful small square Piazza della Pace, just a block away from the fabulous Piazza Navona. The espressos are mild and closer to what the North American palate is accustomed to. Inside, the café is opulently decorated with beautiful wooden and brass art deco surroundings and outside the seating in nicely shaded away from the Roman sun. Here you will find a mix of both tourists and locals.
Via Agostino Depretis, 71 - 41° 53’ 57.54” N, 12° 29’ 44.94” E
This little caffe is notable because it is next to a local flea market that sells everything from designer jeans to cheese, kitchenwares and cheap Chinese electronics. The clientele is a mix of Italians and tourists. The specialties of the house are macchiatos, paninis, pastries and muffins. The espresso is a little less strong than normally but the flea market is a good place to practice your Italian and get a sense of daily life.
The Coles Notes of Espresso
The uniqueness of espresso is that it is the only coffee that relies on technology, including a steam generator, to extract the flavour from coffee beans. The interaction between the machine and artisan (barista) still ensures that having an espresso provides a unique experience. From the moment the first Italian patent for an espresso machine was applied for by Angelo Moriondo in 1884, followed by further improvements by Luigi Bezzera in 1901, Italians have been pressing steamed water through coffee grounds. The extracted coffee bean nectar delivered on demand, and expressly for each customer, was given the name “espresso”.
The Italians take their espresso coffee so seriously; a regulatory organization called “The Italian Espresso National Institute” regulates the types of machines, barista training, coffee beans and grinders to be used, to protect the original espresso drink. The temperature must be between 90-96 degrees Celsius to extract the flavour and oils of the roasted coffee beans, without cooking or burning the grounds, and ensures creation of the thick dark rich coffee with the lighter “crema” on top, which is the trademark of espresso.
Although many drinks have been derived from the espresso process, when in Italy, these are the staples to daily living:
Ristretto - (restricted) a small shot so only the best qualities of the coffee are extracted. This is the preferred straight shot in Europe.
Espresso - A shot extracted to 1 ounce.
Doppio - (Double) A 2 ounce shot using twice as much coffee.
Macchiato - (means “marked” in Italian) is a shot of espresso marked with a small amount of foamed milk on top (usually drunk by women)
Many guide books and travel writers say that the locals, or your Italian waiter, will frown on having a Cappuccino after your meal, or in the evening. The truth is having a cappuccino after your meal bears no response from anyone, as we tested this theory out. Your waiter doesn’t care and no one will point fingers or laugh in hysterics. The important thing is, if you drink espressos or cappuccinos, enjoy your coffee in Rome. Where better than Italy to have a coffee beverage that gives you a lift, overlooking a piazza in Rome.
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"The harder it is to get to, that's where I want to be." As a former commerical pilot, a certified professional photographer, and now owner of Industrial Pixel Visual Effects (www.ipvfx.com), travel and photography has always been my passion. My stories and photographs have been published in newspapers, inflight magazines, outdoors and travelers magazines.
Located: Vancouver Canada
Likes: Culture, Food, Adventure, Unique experiences, the hidden gems.