The Sunday New York Times Travel section featured an article on Rome and the flavors of Rome in particular: The Bounty of Rome – New York Times. Its author, Mimi Sheraton, opens the article with the thoughts that first come to her mind when someone says “Rome”: Sant’Eustachio il caffè (but of course!). It’s worth pausing a moment to discuss arguably one of my favorite examples of espresso the world over. (That and I am envious of friends who are travelling to Rome next month.)

Entrance to Sant'Eustachio il caffè When you see this atop a church, you've come to the right place

In a city where espresso takes on a level of social importance that Seattlites could only dream of, this café has been pulling some of Rome’s finest espresso shots since 1938. Although I’ve been travelling to Rome since 1995, I didn’t have my first espresso at this café until 2002 — and it was something of a life changer. Sant’Eustachio il caffè was a seminal influence on this site and on my espresso obsession in general.

Its co-owner, Roberto Ricci (the other co-owner is his brother, Raimondo), can be cold and aloof to stranieri (foreigners). His café is accustomed to well-heeled locals coming in for the customary Italian two-minute social/business exchange that I like to call the “Ti offro un caffè” (i.e., “Let me offer you a coffee”). Roberto’s many patrons include the nearby staff of the Italian Parliament and the Headquarters of the Carabinieiri (a national Italian police force that, despite their Armani uniforms, suffers a national pasttime of making them the butt of many a joke).

It took almost a week of ordering the Gran Caffè (espresso) at Bar Sant’Eustachio before Roberto warmed up to me (a tourista!). (It also took me a few attempts at ordering to finally get the espresso I wanted without the customary sugar.) While the baristas at Sant’Eustachio shield their handiwork behind their large espresso machines as if guarding an industry secret to their world-renowned crema, Roberto ultimately shared with me his philosophy on coffee production and espresso preparation — some of which can be found in a booklet titled Io sono caffè, or the truly modest, “I am coffee”.

After a week in Rome with daily visits to Roberto’s café (OK, several times a day), I left with a much greater knowledge about quality espresso … plus a nice gift of his chocolate-covered espresso beans. (Roberto does seem to possess a softer side that he will never confess to having.)

Inside Sant'Eustachio il caffè Sant'Eustachio il caffè's infamous concoction

Of course, Sant’Eustachio il caffè is not the only place for fantastic espresso in town. One legendary nearby example being Tazza d’Oro, which has its own loyal followers who frequently balk at the parliamentary prices Sant’Eustachio charges. One of these days I hope to explore more of Rome’s seven hills and beyond for the great espresso in town — though the challenge will be forgoing the temptation of something as great as Sant’Eustachio or Tazza d’Oro.

However, friends on the outskirts of Rome — beyond the walls of the Centro Storico — tell me that Lavazza Blue is all the rage these days at “yuppie” cafés everywhere. Apparently even Italians can’t escape the marketing hype of large chains.

UPDATE: May 30. 2009
TIME magazine online published a short photo series from Sant’Eustachio il caffè: Espresso Italiano – Photo Essays – TIME. Unfortunately, they published it in association with another ridiculous piece on Starbucks and McDonald’s — where they regurgitate the bogus conventional wisdom that Starbucks’ ills are purely based on macroeconomics.

That said, the Visigoths are slowly invading and burning down Rome again in their own way. Some Rome cafés today now advertise “caffè to go” in door etchings, along with images of coffee served in lidded paper cups. Perhaps it’s time that Rome needs its own modern Savonarola to root out the coffee infidels.