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
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.
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
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.
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.