Places and Faces

Snow, Rome, and a bitter aftertaste.

Whiteout

Whiteout. This is not flying weather.

February was not a good month for flying in or out of Dublin airport. My planned two leg trip of Venice and Rome was at the mercy of one of the heaviest snowfalls in Dublin in about 20 years. We spent almost 2 hours on the tarmac on Monday before our flight to Venice was cancelled, and we were hauled back inside the terminal. Hoping to get out of Dublin the following day, we ditched the Venice leg, and my much anticipated visit to Cafe Del Doge, and instead opted for attempting to get to Rome. We spent another 90 minutes on the tarmac on Tuesday as the plane was de-iced several times, not knowing whether we would be allowed to take off or not.

Of course, this trip, as my wife will attest was not merely a coffee excursion, but I hoped to squeeze in as much as possible whilst there. Most coffee forums have a thread or two about where to go in Rome for great coffee, and nearly all of them mention two places, Tazza D’Oro, and Caffe Sant Eustachio, both within a short walk of each other either side of the Pantheon. Of course you can barely walk 20 yards in Rome without passing a cafe, they’re kind of like pubs in Irish villages, their

Typical shot

A typical shot. We didn't have a bad looking shot per se.

numbers seem far in excess of what you might think was necessary or even sustainable.
Our plane finally did take off. The coffee crawl started out with some neighborhood spots out east of the city centre, near where we were staying with my co-conspirator Fergus, and his Italian wife (and their 6-week old daughter). At the base of their apartment building was a cafe serving Illy. We ordered an espresso and a cappuccino. The espresso, without being hugely memorable was competent, dark crema, correct volume, the flavour was fine, more bitter and less sweet than I was expecting with Illy, but if I was given something similar in a random Irish cafe I would have been pleasantly relieved. The cappuccino was quite different from what you would be typically served here, or even what we would like cafes to aspire to. Temperature-wise it was bang on, but the quantity of foam greatly exceeded what I would expect, and the foam was much less dense, airier, with bigger bubbles. A spoon was required to dig the remaining foam out of the cup at the end. This would prove to be the norm for the cappas I had in Rome.

L'allegra Tazzina - a very modest spot, but it proved to be the clear highlight. [Via Presentina, 278]

L'allegra Tazzina - a very modest spot, but it proved to be the clear highlight. (Via Presentina, 278)

Our second stop was another cafe serving Illy. This time, however, the result was miles better, sweet, clean, with a pleasing acidity. I can’t explain what factors contributed to the big difference in the espressos of these two cafes, my gut would say the temperature was too high on the first, but in reality it could have been anything from a dirty machine, to a poor pull or even to not “really” selling Illy. In any case this cafe delivered a shot I would be happy to drink at any time, and both the espresso and the cappa were served in Illy Collection cups, which struck me as somewhat flamboyant. The cappa was more or less the same as the first, bubbly, tonnes of foam, good temp though, and importantly it tasted good. I’d still just wish a greater emphasis was placed on the texture of the foam.

Foamy cappa. This was fairly representative of what we had.

Foamy cappa. This was fairly representative of what we had.

There was one more stop before we headed into central Rome, a Mondicaffe cafe. The cafe had a choice of 4 or 5 Mondicaffe blends for sale as beans, there was little info as to the constituents of the blends, nor could I really discern why one would choose one over another (apart from decaf for obvious reasons), in any case it was moot, as they only served up the standard blend. After the nice Illy, this was a u-turn. Despite looking reasonable in the cup, the taste was harsh and bitter, practically devoid of any sweetness, and dominated by a heavy spice from, I presume, some sort of Indian / Indonesian component.
Nevertheless I was still optimistic that these 3 cafes were merely “average” neighbourhood cafes and they would be bested by the big boys. Tazza D’Oro was first up. The inside is strangely laid out in a long stepped manner, if you enter at the “wrong” end you have to walk past a number of connected yet seemingly distinct bar areas till you reach a solitary till in the back where you purchase your chosen drink. For your money you are given a receipt, which you must hand over at the aforementioned bar area. To my great disappointment the espresso had more in common with the Mondicaffe one, than the nice Illy. Again, visually the espresso looked fine, but whether the blend, or a dirty machine (the steam wands were in need of a scrub), the taste was harsh and bitter, and something Malabar-y was exerting a heavy presence. I didn’t finish this one.
Sant Eustachio, on the other side of the Pantheon, was a smaller, single space cafe. The walls were

Tazza D'Oro (top) and Sant Eustachio (bottom). These were the "must see" cafes in Rome according to many a forum post.

Tazza D'Oro (top) and Sant Eustachio (bottom). These were the "must see" cafes in Rome according to many a forum post.

lined with old hand-grinders (and even a Peppina lever machine). I knew in advance that they serve normally “with sugar”, so I asked the cashier for una caffee normale e una caffee amaro (bitter). She nodded a knowing nod, and gave me my receipt for two espressos. A quick glance at the receipt revealed that there was no written distinction between the two coffees, so I was going to have to renegotiate at the bar. So I went for the same speech again, but this time the barista looked blankly at me. I attempt to fumble through it again, before the barista picked up some sugar and said “with or without”. I fumbled various permutations of “si” and “no” for about 30 seconds before the barista impatiently said, “one yes, one no”, I nodded silently, and we moved on from the torrid affair. Apart from the sugar thing, I also knew that Sant Eustachio were famous for a secret technique to create a unique crema. The barista side of the machine is completely obscured during drink prep. My two coffees emerged, and true to the reputation the crema seemed somewhat strange. The consistency  was like that of beaten egg whites, light and fluffy, volumous yet resilient. I tasted the sugared espresso first – it tasted… sweet. The non-sugared one tasted of… very little in fact, watery, lacking much in the way of body. The crema remained in the bottom of the cup. No tilting or contorting of my body could retrieve it, so I dug it out with a spoon. It also tasted of practically nothing, the whole thing struck me as some sort of ridiculous gimmick, and the sugar served as standard must surely be an effort to engage the tastebuds in some manner.

Suffering for his art.

Suffering for his art.

I had one final coffee before I left, a Danesi on Piazza Venezia. By now I knew the drill – harsh, bitter, this one had a kind of burnt-rubbery taste, and only served to send the overall average down even further. I think I now understand why most Italians put sugar in their espresso. I also understand why they think the moka pot produces something comparable to espresso – burnt and bitter are easy to do on the moka pot. My opinion of Illy has risen, in a land of quite rough tasting espresso they are producing something with a delicate touch, that, if handled correctly results in a very pleasing cup, I’m still not going to start buying stale cans off the supermarket shelf, but if it was possible to buy some fresh roast-date certain Illy beans I would. There are of course so many other Italian roasters, that I didn’t, and couldn’t have if I was in Rome for a forthnight, tasted offerings from, I don’t expect all of the dissapointments either were solely down to the blends, no doubt other factors may have contributed. So this only sums up a narrow experience: It is very easy to get a crap coffee in Rome.

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4 thoughts on “Snow, Rome, and a bitter aftertaste.

  1. I was there the weekend of the Ireland game and had a similar experience. A lot is down to the basics; not flushing, not wiping baskets, no accurate dose control, no tamping and no real attention to detail. What I did love however was the amazing atmosphere in a busy cafe as you queue for your (crap) espresso with ticket in hand. Its like queueing at a bookies when everyone’s backed a winner

  2. Joe says:

    One of the best coffee’s I had in Italy the last trip I made was in the cafe in Turin Airport. There was at least 5 barisatas working with illy and I couldn’t get enough. All espresso mind!

  3. Nice review. I also noticed the same about my cappas in Rome. Although sadly the same is true in Venice. I was at the Caffe Del Doge at the Rialto Bridge, I found their espressos to be good, but I noticed a lot of the Italians around me where putting sugar into theirs regardless. The cafes around Piazza San Marco are a complete waste of money imo, never have I seen such sub-standard coffee charged at such a tourist-trap premium.

    On a side, I found getting to Venice early in the morning will give you the opportunity to get photos, which at any other time of day would be impossible (i.e. an empty Piazzo San Marco or a picture of the bridge of sighs from Ponte della Paglia) but also allow you to see where the Venetians go to drink their morning coffee. From this we stumbled upon a great little cafe at around 7am down some backalley that served a really excellent espresso. Don’t ask me to tell you where it is, because if you’ve been to Venice you’ll know, you are perpetually in a state of being lost.

    Further, in regards to the site. It might be an idea to start up a google maps page for this site something like “TheOtherBlackStuff recommends…” and then have links to all of the coffee shops around the world that you’ve visited and are willing to vouch for on it with a small review. Just a thought.

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