If American coffee is to-go, and Costa Rican is to linger, then Italian coffee is to pause. Pause at the bar, then go; pause at a café with a friend, 15 minutes and then off to start the day. This is Roman life. Rome is a vibrant city — different energy fills each neighborhood as one navigates between modern life and ancient history. On a walk to the market, it’s possible to pass a Borromini Baroque masterpiece, a Caravaggio painting tucked away in a church on the corner, or a piazza designed by Michelangelo. One can roam the ancient ruins of the Roman Forum, or stroll past the Pantheon — that amazing structure built by Hadrian in 120 AD.
The coffee culture teeters between modernity and history as well. Nespresso, the European Starbucks (we have a few in New York, too) has become a large part of the Italian coffee culture; “everyone has one,” my Roman friend tells me over aperitivo, referring to their “instant” espresso machines. Many of the old, traditional bars are slipping in favor to more popular, modern cafes. Regardless, the best place to get espresso or a cappuccino is the corner bar — cheap and good, it will always remain a lovely place to sit amongst the locals.
Yet there are a few historical landmark cafes that have been part of Rome’s history for a long time, and are an essential part of touring this city.
Sant’Eustachio Il Caffè (Piazza di Sant’Eustachio, 82) – It seems like everyone and their mother, upon hearing of my Roman adventures, remarked “have you been to Sant’Eustachio?” It’s famous. Because of this, it remains packed and lines of tourists form outside for a bag of their house-roasted beans or an espresso at the bar. But the locals frequent it too, because when a place is really good, it can be both a tourist attraction and a local spot. It’s extra nice (and an extra fifty cents) to sit outside and people watch as Italians move through the piazza. The coffee is served on silver trays, and they are best known for their “gran caffe:” Perhaps one of the only places you’ll find a double espresso on the menu, it is a special of theirs, served with a thick and creamy crema on top; the true process, I’m told, remains a secret.
Caffe Antico Greco (Via dei Condotti, 86) – One of the oldest cafes in Rome, there is a picture adorning the walls of Buffalo Bill enjoying a spirit there during his European tour (yes, the real Buffalo Bill.) Located near the Spanish Steps, on Via dei Condotti, one of the most premiere shopping streets in all of Rome (Gucci, Prada, Hermes, and Italians drenched in the aforementioned), Caffé Greco’s interior reflects this grandiosity. Plush red velvet seats, marble floors, chandeliers, and golden cases holding sfogliatelle and crostini lure one inside, but the coffee may keep one there. The barista described the espresso as having notes of florals, roasted and blended just for them, as “part of the great Italian tradition, a beautiful tradition.” An ancient Roman site in and of itself, this cafe has been serving coffee for over 250 years — and though it might be overpriced, it’s an experience to sit in a seat where Hans Christian Anderson may have sipped his coffee, perhaps absorb some of that genius.
Tazza d’Oro (Via degli Orfani, 84) – Perhaps the most famous of the bunch is Tazza d’Oro, around the corner from the stunning Pantheon (which gets me emotional every time.) Founded in 1946, everyone from Audrey Hepburn to famous politicians have taken their coffee here. Literally translated to “The Golden Cup,” the aesthetic is rather gilded, and fairly simple inside, with only a bar to rest on. They export “the best coffee available,” from South America (namely Brazil) and Jamaica (Blue Mountain). Locals, tourists, businesswomen (and men) — all come together at Tazza d’Oro for the best espresso or macchiato, usually taken at the bar. It’s one of the cheapest coffees I had in Rome, despite its location behind one of the most heavily visited sites in Rome.
(Art Historical note: on your way to the Pantheon, stop at the Church of San Luigi dei Francesi, sandwiched between the Pantheon and Piazza Navona. Inside are three of Caravaggio’s greatest works in the Chapel of St. Matthews.)
Bar Alberto Pica (Via della Seggiola, 12) – Everyone has their own “best gelato in Rome” pick; this happens to be mine, as recommended by the NY Times. The inside of this more than 40-year-old bar isn’t fancy, and mostly the staff is rather curt (though don’t be fooled, after going in quite often, I saw a softer side). The flavors are seasonal, and if Fico (fig) is available, it would be a sin to pass it up. Riso (rice) is also particularly good — like a frozen, chunky rice pudding. The outside patio is more charming, where one is served gelato and espresso under canopies adorned with greenery. Despite the press, Bar Pica remains cheap and strictly local — I spotted few tourists while there.