In modern Italian, caffè means coffee, the substance, not the name of a place where one goes to drink the substance, which is called a “bar.” In Rome caffè is truly outstanding. I mean that in an any place you go, consistently, over-the-top-never-been-disappointed-even-in-museum-snack-bars-why-can’t-it-always-be-like-this way. Coffee roasters produce blends that can be found here and nowhere else. And coffee is serious business.

Coffee has a long history in Rome and some coffee roasters, who have been in business since the 18th century, are still within a few hundred yards of the Marcus Aurelius column in Piazza Colonna and Pantheon, not far from our apartment. Part of the history here involves using the water from the ancient Roman aqueducts, reputed to be the best for coffee brewing. This water is surprisingly delicious on its own, too. (Rome’s tap water is actually spring water pooled from many sources, is very pure, low in chlorine, and high in minerals—very refreshing on a hot day). So the relationship between Rome and its coffee is like the relationship between New York and its bagels. People are crazy about their coffee here. . . with good reason: it seems to be universally outstanding across the country. And it has been surprising how different the coffee can be even to Italy’s close neighbors. I found coffee in Paris to be simply bad, and coffee in Spain to be utterly undrinkable.

I just learned that the word espresso is short for “espressamente preparato per chi lo richiede,” which means: “expressly prepared for who requests it.” I’ve been resonating with this little bit of information because it is capturing much of what I find so endearing about life in Rome. That is, the appreciation of quality of life, the savoring of pleasures (especially food), and the value of aesthetics in everyday life. Even a brief java pit-stop is a moment to be treasured in a few delectable sips, not mass produced and squirted from a thermos into a paper cup.

This may not be immediately obvious, but you don’t order an “espresso” here. When you order a coffee, you automatically get an espresso, simply called caffè or caffè normale (normal coffee).

We use a hand-operated coffee machine that came with our apartment. I had never seen a machine like this before. And, embarrassingly, when I was first looking at the apartment, I commented to the owner: “oh, how nice, the kitchen has a juicer.” She gave me a perplexed looked, in response, then realized my mistake and told me that the equipment I was looking at was actually a coffee maker. It took us quite a bit of time to master it. In fact, Jenny got seriously injured by it our first week here—the water is under A LOT of pressure and it’s low-tech. But we’ve become adapt at it now and, in fact, our house guests seem to enjoy challenging themselves by asking for a lesson in how to make a cup of coffee on their own. It does provide a feeling of mastery.

Using the hand-operated coffee machine in our kitchen.

Even excellent coffee purchased at a roaster and brewed at home will not be as amazing as a coffee prepared by a professional barista. The Italians have a saying for why this is true. For an outstanding cup of coffee, you need the four M’s: la miscela, la macchina, il macinino, e la mano del banchista  (the right blend of coffees, a professional espresso machine, the proper grinder, and the skilled hands of the barman).

My very favorite place for coffee is Caffè Sant’Eustachio, which is just a block or so behind the Pantheon. I have no idea how they make the coffee here so spectacular, with a crema that is so thick and foamy. And I never will. They use a secret formula that is protected by a screen at the end of the bar so that customers cannot see the hands of the barista as he brews the coffee! The décor of the room dates to 1938 (seemingly unchanged), including an L-shaped stainless steel bar and mosaic floor. The family that owns the shop roasts their own coffee in a small room in the back, using a manually operated wood-burning roaster—and that is not blocked by a screen and fun to watch. Sant’Eustachio has some detractors—it has become an internationally known “scene” and at peak times of the day tourists are packed deep waiting to get to the bar. (It is particularly chaotic because first timers do not know that in Rome, one first queues at the cashier to pay for the coffee, then queues again at the bar to exchange the receipt for a coffee. . .many wait to get to the bar only to learn that they need to start all over again). Sant’Eustachio also serves the coffee slightly sweet (which is the way to have it) unless otherwise requested. . .but that also causes some confusion for novices. But despite the tourists, I always see and hear Romans there, many of them politicians from the Senate building across the street, drinking their coffee. Few things in life are as consistently great as the coffee here. Often, when Jenny or I have had a particularly productive morning of writing, one of us will say, “How about we swing by Sant’Eustachio on our way to. . . [insert some place that is often not necessarily near Sant’Eustachio]”.  What a reward!

I will dream about the coffee here when I leave Rome.

One of the ways that Europeans make fun of Italians has to do with the complexity of ordering coffee here. The range of options is staggering—but not novel by coffee standards. I have been keeping a list of the various ways that I have ordered coffee so far. I’ve never actually seen anyone order a decaf. Romans do not believe that a coffee after dinner will interfere with sleep, but they do believe that dairy products will. . .so a cappuccino is only appropriate before lunch. There are no flavored coffees here.

So far, here is how I’ve ordered my coffee (sometimes I just want a normale, but these words are so fun to say in Italian):

Caffè (caffè normale) – just a regular espresso, about an inch high with a nice crema, or foam, on top.

Caffè ristretto or Caffè corto – very strong, concentrated espresso, so named because the water is “restricted” or “short”.

Caffè doppio – double espresso.

Caffè lungo or Caffè alto – espresso with more water, to make it less concentrated, also called a “long” or “tall” espresso.

Caffè corretto – “corrected coffee,” served with a shot of liquor such as cognac or Sambuca. . .or Grappa. (This is one of my favorites).

Cappuccino – espresso with frothed milk.

Caffèlatte – Yes, it is spelled as one word! Espresso with warm milk.

Macchiato – espresso with a little dot of frothed milk on top. (My usual, mid-morning treat).

Latte macchiato – lots of milk with a bit of espresso.

Caffè Americano – watery espresso, like an American cup of coffee, but richer.

Caffè amaro – bitter.

Caffè marochino – espresso with foamed milk and chocolate powder.

Caffè freddo – iced coffee.

Freddo shakerato – cold and shaken with ice and sugar, like a cocktail.

Caffè in vetro – espresso served in a small glass instead of a ceramic cup (so it cools very quickly for a fast drink).

— Seth

We have a love-hate relationship with our little Pavoni.