March 9th, the first official morning of lockdown. My boyfriend’s father who is based just outside the small town of Orte, sixty kilometres from Rome, set out on his usual ten minute walk into town. He made no less than a few steps however before his wife came running after him and asks where in the world he is going? For his coffee, of course. But the bars are closed, she explained. The shock and horror of a life without ‘il café al bar’ hit him then and hit him hard and he was by no means the only one…
Yes, Italians knew, just as everyone, that their lives would have to change, they would have to give up certain comforts; some for the better, others for the worse. But you see, taking one’s morning coffee at the local bar is so ingrained into Italian culture that it almost goes without thinking, as habitual as brushing one’s teeth or, dare I say, as washing our hands has now become in this new phenomenon.
‘Il café al bar’ is a ritual; a way of life, the beauty of which, as with so many things in life, is only properly appreciated when taken away. Bizarre, you may think, as coffee is a household essential- drink it at home and be happy. And Italians do; you’ll scarcely find an Italian household where the Moka machine, weathered away by constant use, is not placed in prime position in the kitchen.
For a coffee lover, home brewed coffee is still a treat – a wonderfully rich aroma circling the house, a much-needed fix of caffeine or a sweet ending to any meal if you are partial to an added spoon of sugar. But drunk at home, coffee is coffee; a pleasurable hot drink for a bit of buzz.
But it’s at the marble-topped counters of Italy’s multitudinous bars, that Italians frequent once or maybe twice a day, where the magic takes place. On entering the bar, you are greeted with the usual ‘Buongiorno!’ ‘Ciao bella’, ‘Come va stamattina?’ both by barman and same-time bar frequenting neighbours. The familiarity has already satisfied a sense of comfort whether or not you chose to embark on a full-on conversation or just return the ‘Ciaos’.
Without requesting, the barista has already placed your coffee on the counter; a feat in itself to remember all those ‘usuals’ but made simpler by the fact that in Italy there are just three options: ‘il caffè’ (a short shot of espresso with a unique Italian taste that comes down to not being over-watered or over-roasted), ‘il cappuccino’, or the happy medium ‘il caffè schiumato’ (literally meaning ‘the frothy coffee’ and equates to an espresso with a small dose of foamed milk). ‘Il caffè corretto’, a direct translation of ‘the correct coffee’ could be questioned by some as the unofficial fourth option, an espresso with a shot of liquor. No need to size request in Italy; small, medium, large or gigantic are replaced with a one-for-all standard portion that will be both satiable and digestible at the same time.
After finishing your coffee, you pay one euro at the counter (that is if you haven’t opted for an Italian cream laden cornetto) and you’re on your way. Simple, delicious, remarkable value and all in all the perfect beginning to any day.
Two months on from lockdown day one and things are looking hopeful in Italy; the virus cases are dropping; restrictions have been eased and businesses are re-opening. I end this coffee extravaganza with one story that touched me very much: in the early hours of Monday morning, preparing for the reopening, the owner of my local bar, (‘my coffee haven’ that I promise to never not fully appreciate again!) got out of his car, parked in front of his bar, his arms laden with great big bags- full of coffee, let’s hope! However, before he could take a step forward, he was greeted with a tremendous applause that reached even my ears, that were at that moment very sleepy, five floors up. People who had clustered all along the street were cheering for his arrival. He placed down his bags and cried.
*I may add that although I speak of my neighbourhood bar, ‘I Monticiani’, situated in the Monti district of Rome and that prizes a seriously good cappuccino and the best ‘Buongiorno’ in town, my eight years of living in Rome and my love of coffee have somewhat increased my personal list of local hangouts. Here are a few of my top recommendations all located in the city centre:
For the coffee connoisseur: Sant’Eustachio il Caffè
Do as the Romans do – the ‘Dolce Vita’ styled coffee: Ciampini Roma
The hidden gem: Caffetteria del Chiostro (positioned inside the 15th century Bramante Cloisters)