I wrote this piece a few years ago, but as people are finally traveling back to Italy, it seems of perennial importance answering the question: Where is the best coffee in Rome?
Like prize fighters, two coffee companies have been duking it out for decades.
By Carrie Gress
Coffee has long been a big deal in Italy. The coffee boom in the U.S. owes much to Italian's long love affair with their daily cups of Joe, or rather, Giuseppe. And if you have stood in the piazza of the Pantheon before, you probably didn't know that you were in the vortex of a dueling coffee giants. Like prize fighters on either side of the ring, two companies have been locked in an Eternal-City battle for decades.
Coffee first arrived in Europe in the 17th centuries, although rumors of the unusual black beverage had been spread by travelers who had visited the East prior to its arrival.
According to National National Coffee Association, coffee wasn't given a warm welcome, with some calling it the “bitter invention of Satan.” The clergy in Venice went so far as to condemn it in 1615. Finally, Pope Clement VIII weighed in on the issue. Gratefully, he tried the notorious beverage before making a ruling. Finding it so satisfying, coffee received his papal approval.
When the Battle of Vienna happened in 1683, the Polish General, Jan Sobieski and the Catholic army routed the Turks so quickly that their supply of coffee was abandoned. The bountiful beans ignited the vibrant coffee culture in Vienna that lives on today. The Viennese were the first to add milk to the bitter brew.
Despite Vienna's coffee prestige, few things beat an Italian coffee. The names that seemed so strange to us years back as Starbucks populated America have become household: cappuccino, latte, grande, vente, macchiato. Starbucks, of course, put its own twist on all these names, making them not at all useful when ordering in Italy. If you order a vente, expecting a 20 ounce coffee, all you will get is a quizzical, perhaps disdainful, look, asking: "Twenty of what?" Or if you order a latte, a cup of milk will arrive, sans coffee. As for a grande, every Italian would agree that a grande is exactly that – huge, but much too big for any self-respecting Italian to be seen drinking. As for a cappuccino, it is okay to order one before noon, but after that and especially after dinner, it is considered as odd as ordering an orange juice or pop tart. It's just a breakfast food. And forget walking around the Rome's serpentine streets with a paper cup. Shameless. The pay-first, order-at-the-bar, drink-in-a-few-minutes-while-chatting-with-a-friend style is a mainstay of Italian life. (I recall watching an Italian awkwardly stand at the pick-up area at a Dulles Airport Starbucks and drink his coffee -- not quite getting the idea that Americans don't park there for a twenty minutes as he was bumped and jostled by customers getting their drinks.)
The battle between the two coffee companies that flank the Pantheon started back in the 1940s. Sant'Eustachio was first on the scene in 1938. Originally called "Coffee and Milk" it later changing its name to Sant'Eustachio after the saint/basilica across the road from the roasting company. A few years later, rival Tazza D'oro opened its doors in 1944. Both roast their beans on site. And both have seen many a coffee shop come and go. But the two are still left standing, although Tazza D'oro boasts on their website to be "the only" ancient coffee house left in the old town of Rome. Maybe they never venture to the other side of the Pantheon?
Both companies make amazing coffee, but each has its own character. Tazza D'oro is a bit edgier; its trademark features a not-well-clad woman in Africa gathering beans; it introduced specialty drinks first, like their amazing granita con panna, a frozen coffee delight layered with whipped cream; almost like, dare I say it, a frappucino (but better and smaller). Tazza D'oro also has other locations including one at Terminal A of Rome's Fiumicino, great for getting one last sip before leaving the country (or for purchasing beans for faithful bloggers back home in America).
Sant'Eustachio, on the other hand, seems to be the dear, old grandfather of roasting. Their coffee is organic and fair trade, sourced from South America, but they owe their success to a highly guarded secret roasting recipe. The regular clientele, particularly in the winter when there are few tourists, is older and not in such a rush (although sometimes, you wish they were so you could get your drink made because it is always crowded). It is a company that is like your favorite old sweater or most comfortable pair of jeans. That is not to say that it is stodgy - just reliable.
There is a great story behind Sant'Eustachio's name. The actual saint, Sant'Eustachio (Saint Eustace in English), was a pagan Roman General. While out hunting, he saw an image of Christ Crucified in between a stag's antlers. He was converted on the spot and then led a life much like Job, loosing everything except his faith. Also like Job, later in life, many of his blessing where returned. The coffee company modeled their logo on the vision seen by the Roman saint.
One of the secrets of Roman coffee seems to be in the water. The Eternal-city water has extremely high calcium content; anyone who has lived there knows well the trouble calcium causes to kettles, irons, and pipes. But apparently the calcinated water is not all bad. It provides the right balance for the perfect coffee. The calcium issue has so vexed coffee giants who are trying to replicate the Italian cup in the United States that they have attempted to introduce calcium into the brewing process -- but not with much success. "If the quality assurance guy at Italy's leading coffee maker cannot score a good espresso under direct supervision, what hope is there for the rest of us?" wrote one food critic in the New York Times, despairing of getting the real thing. "My solution is simple," he explained, "When the need for a real espresso becomes overpowering, buy a ticket to Rome, tell the taxi driver to head straight for the Sant'Eustachio cafe. The espresso will be perfect. A little expensive, but surely worth the trouble."
- - -