We at Lunch for Two are thrilled to our marrow to be able to share with you a report from the cafés of Rome by Matt Tyrnauer, Vanity Fair's Editor at Large. Matt, who has a profound love for Italy, has recently been working in Rome on his documentary about the designer Valentino. If you are lucky enough to have a trip to Italy in your future (or even if you don't) Matt's guide will enrich your life...
An American friend who has lived in Italy for 45 years explained to me one of the simple truths about the Italians. “They have a good quality of life.They know it, and they don’t want to lose it,” he said. This blanket statement accounts for a lot about the Italian people, especially inhabitants the south, which is slower and slower to change than the north.
My friend and I had this discussion while sitting at a café in the piazza of Ravello, the most beautiful town on the Amalfi coast, which is, arguably,the most beautiful part of Italy.
What makes the quality of the average Italian’s life good is a complex sociopolitical equation, which I will not begin to analyze here. But what inspired this comment was the fact that were sitting in a very pleasant little bar in a beautiful village, and observing the life of the village life pass by, at a very slow pace. Every few minutes, friends of my friend would come up to greet him, and exchange pleasantries and local gossip, or talk politics. The whole scenario was also unlike anything that could happen in any part of the United States. We were in the Italian Campania. We were among county people whose families were rooted in the village for generations. The mayor of Ravello came over to pay his respects. A group of young men in their 20s pulled up chairs for a drink. A boy on a donkey passed by. All in the space of an hour. There was a certain magic to this very civilized interlude. And part of the civility came from the venue: a typical Italian bar—a brilliant institution that is almost unknown in this country.
In Italy “bar” and “caffè” are interchangeable words. In Rome alone there are 8,000 bars, and every major street and piazza has a few of them. Venice was the first Italian city to have a coffee culture. According to the Lavazza Coffee history of coffee in Italy, G. Francesco Morosini, high judge of the doges’ city, Venice, and ambassador of the Venetian Republic to the Sultan, in 1582, in his report from Constantinople, related that in the East there were numbers of public businesses where people were used to meeting each other several times a day over a dark and boiling hot beverage.
“Coffee,” according to the Lavazza experts, “became thus the object of trade and commerce…. In 1640, the first ‘coffee shop’ opened in Venice. Others followed in many Italian towns, among them Turin, Genoa, Milan, Florence, Rome and Naples. By 1763 Venice numbered no less than 218 outlets.” Today, Naples is the city in Italy most famous for its coffee. Venice, in my experience, can not compete. And, for the most part, the farther south you go towards Naples, the better the espresso. It is said that the water in Naples makes the difference. They also take it very seriously in the Neapolitan bars.
The main function of a bar in any Italian city is to serve espresso, or caffè, which is what Italians call a single espresso. One thing that you can be sure of is that any espresso or cappuccino in any part of Italy will be better than any espresso or cappuccino at any café in the U.S. or probably in the world. It is also the case that some Italians drink a half dozen espressos a day. If they don’t take their coffee in their office, they will often go out to bar to have an espresso standing up, “al banco.” The ritual takes about 2 minutes from start to finish, and costs less than $2.00. Until about three years ago, the concept of espresso to take away in a paper or plastic cup was unknown in Italy. This was a great leveling force. Most everyone went to the bar and took their coffee, often with a friend. Times change, however, and some Italians are now demanding coffee delivery. The solution, to avoid the horror of the to-go cup, involves a waiter carrying a tray of demitasses filled with espresso across a street and into an office building. He waits for the coffee to be drunk, and then dashes back across the street to get behind the bar again. Some bars will make an espresso in a small plastic cup and cover it with a carefully arranged paper napkin. The specially made coffee to-go lid is not in mass-production in Italy. Whomever is the first to start manufacturing these lids might be tried for treason.
The Italian bar is not just for espresso. It is also a place to get a drink—they all have fully stocked shelves of liquor—or a soft drink. Or a glass of mineral water. Last year, a French company began marketing the concept of the small plastic water bottle to Italians—the kind that many Americans like to carry with them on the street. This idea was also unknown to Italy, and, by and large, Italians still take a glass of water standing at a bar. The sight of mini plastic bottles in bar windows and in new glass-front refrigerators near the door of some bars is a sad one. Another thing that sometimes comes in a glass at a bar is the espresso itself. You can order your caffè “al vetro.” Instead of a demitasse, you get a shot glass on a saucer. For years, I observed this variant, and, for years, I wondered what was being sipped out of the tiny glass. Just espresso, or something slightly different? More men than women, it seems, have their caffè al vetro. Finally, I broke down and asked my friends Mariella Ferrari and Luigi Macchione to explain the difference to me. We were standing at the bar of Antico Caffè Greco, the oldest in Rome (it opened in the 18th century), on the Via Condotti. Luigi told me that he thought caffè al vetro was a working-class custom, but he could not say why. One could speculate that the demitasse was once too expensive an item to have in a common man’s espresso bar. There is, other than the cup it comes in, no difference between caffè al vetro and caffè normale.
The ritual of ordering water at a bar in Italy, for me, took on an added pleasure when I noticed that the barista does not just take a glass off the shelf and pour the water into it. (Ice is never used.) You must specify if you want water with or with out gas (there are about ten ways to say this in Italian). Then, once your pleasure is understood, the barista takes the dry glass and holds it under the tap to rinse it off. Then, he pours the water into the wet glass. This is because the glass could possibly have detergent residue on it and that would spoil the taste of the water. (If there is another reason for this, which there may be, I do not yet know it.)
Bars also have food. At some you can sit at a table and order pasta.(Sitting and standing at an Italian bar are very different things. You pay more if you sit. Italians would absolutely never sit just to have a cup of coffee. Sometimes, if there is seating outdoors, they will sit to have a drink in the evening or on the weekend.) Often, the pasta at bars is good. I have often seen Italians eating pasta in bars, rarely tourists. It is hard for a tourist (especially an American tourist) to imagine that any kind of good food could come from the back of one of these bars, which, often have not been redecorated since the 1950s. I have a rule of thumb for Italian dining establishments. The more brightly lit and simple the décor, the better the food. (Soccer posters from the 80s can be a good sign.) Until about 2000, it seemed to me that there was a national fetish for fluorescent lighting. You get used to it. Sadly, the lighting is getting softer in the new millennium. As a Roman friend said to me the other week, while we were having dinner at al Moro, a famous and somewhat haphazardly decorated restaurant near the Trevi Fountain, “Italians can’t do fancy.”
Bars also serve sandwiches, pizza (though almost never freshly baked pizza, which comes from a pizzeria, not a bar), pastries and, sometimes, gelato.
Some bars have better sandwiches than others. The Italians, I gather, have a deep aversion to whole wheat bread, and a strong desire to have things toasted on an industrial-style George Foreman grill. So, when you order a sandwich in a bar, you will be asked “caldo?”—“hot?” There can be a big problem here if the sandwich has mayonnaise in it (they love their mayonnaise much as the French do, if not more). In fact, when I first went to Rome, I soon figured out that the baristas—rightly–did not want to put the sandwiches with mayonnaise in the grills. I was frequently warned, “No, non caldo! Ha maionese!” They were correct to warn me. Now, I never notice such kindness. I think in the last ten years they have given up on heathens want who things toasted with hot mayonnaise inside.
The tramezzini, large tea sandwiches on crustless white bread, are different than a panini. Mussolini ordered the creation of the tramezzino because he did not want the Italians to adopt the word sandwich. Tramezzino roughly means between the layers, or between the bread. Italians love their tramezzini, which, at first, look, to the untrained American eye, like they are made of Wonder Bread. They are not, and should not be shunned. Often bars present them in a lighted glass case. The tramezzini are usually covered in damp cloth napkins, which keep them fresh. A grilled ham and cheese tramezzino is always called toast. It is possible that “bar” and “toast” are two of the most-used English words in Italy.
“Spremuta” is another key word for a bar. It means juice, which is almost always freshly squeezed to order. Spremuta d’arancia is fresh-squeezed orange juice. Succo also means juice, but not necessarily fresh squeezed. Ask for spremuta.
In Rome different bars are known for different things. Some are renown for their espresso. Others have great pastries. Some specialize in regional pastries. Some are known more for their location than their coffee or food.
I sometimes wish that New York would adopt the Italian bar culture. It would make sense for such a face-paced city to have places where you can stand and have a coffee or a drink. Instead we have Starbucks, which is a horrible perversion of the idea, and would be unrecognizable to a native of Italy as even a distant relation to the common Italian bar. (I brought an Italian friend a grande latte the other month, and he became very confused and tried to stick the coffee stirrer into the little sip hole on the lid. “This is so vulgar,” he said.)
About a half dozen places exist in Manhattan that are attempting to be true Italian bars. The most successful is the oldest, Sant Ambroeus, which is owned by Italians. Defectors from Sant Ambroeus started Via Quadronno. (Both the former and the latter have a Northern Italian bent.) Then there is the new Tarallucci e Vino on East 18th Street, near Union Square, a good attempt at the bar concept, but too much of a restaurant to really be authentic. An owner of Sant Ambroeus told me that one reason the Italian bar can not take off in New York is that the rent is too high. You can not make a big enough profit on coffee, sandwiches and gelato to keep the doors open. Sant Ambroeus and Tarallucci e Vino are welcome, but New York isn’t Rome, and there is only so much you can do to tame the savage consumer here. Rome, luckily, is eternal, and the Italian quest for the good life is as well. So the bars of Italy seem to be a safe institution.
Here are a few good bars in Rome, by area:
Caffè Sant’ Eustachio
Piazza Sant’ Eustachio, 82
Said to be the best espresso in Rome.
Via degli Orfani, 84
Also said to be the best espresso in Rome.
Via Ufficio del Vicario, 40
Piazza della Rotonda, 67
In the piazza of the Pantheon. There is a restaurant owned by the same family next door. You can sit at an outdoor table and look at the best preserved monument from the ancient world while you have your coffee or food.
Campo dei Fiori
Pasticceria bella Napoli
Corso Vittorio Emanuele, 246
Where you can get Neopolitan baked goods in Rome.
Via dei Condotti
Piazza de San Lorenzo Lucina, 29
Outdoor tables in the elegant piazza of San Lorenzo Luccina.
Via dei Condotti, 86
Oldest cafe in Rome.
Piazza del Popolo
Piazza del Popolo, 5
In Piazza del Popolo, across from Canova, the other grand bar in the Piazza.
Via Sardegna, 19
Near the Via Veneto
a 1927 sketch of Ravello by M.C. Escher