Given that the purpose of this blog is to explore Rome’s coffee scene and see if we can find artisan roasters following the Third Wave coffee roasting ideas, it is only fair to actually capitulate to the old saying, ‘When in Rome, do as the Romans”. Thus, to pay respects to those cafes who are purposefully brewing the ‘local’ coffee recipe, here’s a short primer on what Rome’s traditional coffee is all about. Do write to me if you want to know something I leave out. I’ll be updating this periodically.
So what is Roman Coffee?
Let me start by saying that Roman coffee is indeed not Third Wave coffee. This page will not to trying to convince you that Rome’s coffee is the best coffee in the world, nor anything hyper-touristy (aka, hyper uninformed) to convince you that the black crud you sometimes get is actually ‘quality’ Roman coffee. All on the contrary. This page is to give you an idea of what to expect, what might be classified as the ‘traditional Roman espresso’, and then, maybe if you’re up to it, how you can appreciate and differentiate one of those rare, and actually good Roman espressos from the sea of bad coffee being served.
To begin, Rome is considered by many in Italy as part of the ‘south’. I make this distinction because in the ‘north’ you usually get more subtle coffee experiences. In Venice, for example, you have lots of light roasters, lots of colorful and extremely flavorful coffee, more akin to what any good Scandinavian roaster will give you. But in the south of Europe, the farther you go, the coffee and climate get stronger. And so be it, by the time you get to Istanbul you have the wonderful thick sludge of Turkish coffee (which I absolutely love).
And you also have to take into account that here in Rome, we experience the stereotypical conservative attitude to everything ‘Italian’. If it’s done in the past, then you don’t change it; if it’s Italian (Roman, etc.) than it’s de facto good and can’t be damned changed. Add an ingredient to a plate of pasta and it’s a different plate, simple as that. Most restaurant owners will argue with you to death about how damned good their crappy plate of pasta is, even if they know its utter junk. It’s a not so nice part of the touristy restaurant/cafe industry “culture” here, like or not, take or leave it, for an outsider like me, it is what it is. However, trying to pass ignorance as ‘culture’ or straight out rudeness (as I see so often here in Rome) is not part of any “culture” in my book, whatever language/country you’re in. So with this caveat, which speaks from experience here, let’s delve into the world of Roman coffee.
So what is indeed a Roman espresso?
Let’s start with the beans, and the roast.
First, we rarely talk about micro roasters, but indeed they’re there and actually more present than one might, think (see the reviews in the ‘Roasters In Rome’ Category). But most of the cafes serve coffee that’s roasted by (relatively) large distribution roasters. They are indeed local roasters, but they have rather large distribution channels, of maybe 50 to 100 or at times a few hundred cafes (I’m thinking of Caffè Gran Santos which seems to be really prevalent in Rome). The local roasters (torrefazione) places I’ve found and I know that exist tend to roast for their local home-based clients or directly for the coffee they serve in their store. But, they don’t experiment really, they stick to the formula of ‘Roman tradition’.
So what is that?
The Beans: The beans are usually some type of Arabica mix. The norm is either 100% Arabica or a 80% Arabica and 20% Robusta blend.
The single origin factor, so precious to good Third Wave coffee rosters and mixers is present at times, but nothing to the degree of narrowing down the crop, grower, etc. Usually it’s the coffee type, or a ‘region’ in a country.
The roasts are usually very dark, yet sometimes light like this:
But they are not French roast where the beans is charred to death, but rather, quite dark, like this:
Resulting in this:
However, what is typical, as seen from at least 6 different local roasters is that the raw beans are left in bags for months in non-controlled environments. So when it is finally roasted, what happens? The beans are left in the open air, and start to decay immediately. This can be part of the ‘special’ charm of the coffee here, you have to be the judge.
Raw bean bags are kept like this (who knows how many months and years this has been like this):
And once roasted, they are kept for customers like this... yeah totally in open air bins!
And served in paper bags like this (air-tightness?? Its not only the special Roman water that does the trick, but the Roman ‘air’):
The espresso itself.
Two things first: When ordering a coffee, all you do is ask for a ‘caffè’. If you order this in the morning, you have to say it with conviction, as most people drink caffè latte or caffè macchiato. In the afternoon, is more normal to people automatically understand you’re referring to an ‘espresso’.
Second: When ordering an espresso (caffè), I’ve heard a lot of people say ‘al vetro’. This is because, I assume, you’re able to see the quality of the shot you’re given. But essentially, this practice mirrors what I’m used to from Spain, where espressos are nearly by rule always served almost exclusively in glass cups (shot-like glasses). Some people think that the glass cup lets the espresso cool down faster, or that its somehow more hygienic … not sure what the bottom of this custom here in Rome is but when I do, I’ll update this here. However, if you just ask for a ‘caffè’, you’ll get it in the regular ceramic cup that’s used for macchiatos, or espressos in more traditional places. If you ask it ‘al vetro’ you get to enjoy the crema from a diagonal and see the color of coffee.
Next, in a good traditional Roman café, you’re supposed to get a complimentary cup of water. This is almost a defacto rule stemming from the fact that you order an ‘espresso’. This is the real custom. And nobody will flinch if you aren’t served water, and then ask for ‘un bicchiere di acqua’. At some stupid touristy places they actually charge you for it (in this case, just walk out in protest!). With this cup it is expected that you will need to first clean your palate with water, and then wash down the strength of the coffee with some additional water. Since the coffee you’re getting is essentially an energy ‘fix’, you’re helped in the enterprise. Also a lot of times people drink espressos in the mid-afternoon, when it’s usually over 40 degrees in downtown Rome. A glass of water comes really handy.
Quantity: Usually it’s a rather short shot, about 1 inch to 1.5 inches deep in an espresso cup (2.5-3.5 cm).
I won’t use ounces because it doesn’t matter in this context. Anything over this is usually a ‘doppio’. Some places, the good ones, or the Neapolitan ones, tend to serve more towards a ristretto (which is very southern Italian).
The main of Roman cafes serve a traditional ‘espresso’ of 1 inch deep coffee in the normal bowled cup.
Temperature of Cup / Temperature of espresso:
This is a thing of contention here in Rome. I’ve spoken to baristas and drinkers alike, and most people here agree that unless the cup is very hot, it’s defective. But as we know, too hot a cup and it ruins the coffee… But in general, you get java served in very, almost scalding, hot coffee cups.
Then, espresso is usually extracted over very high temperatures, burning the coffee’s taste potential. Giving you very dark (when held at ristretto), to very blond espresso crema.
Thus to the Crema:
Then, because of this high temperature and the Arabica blends which tend to give lots of crema, you get a very light crema, sometimes thicker, sometimes thinner. And it is very deeply pungent and bitter. At its best, it creates an intense taste blast to start the espresso, at it’s worst, its rancidness doesn’t let you even swallow the rest of the coffee.