Rome

A day in the life of a Roman café

When it comes to coffee, we all speak Italian. But is the traditional café under threat? Rome resident JOSEPHINE MCKENNA spends a day in her local to find out. Photography by ULRICH SPERL

You might call it the art of seduction. The intoxicating aroma of freshly ground coffee beans begins wafting through the streets of Rome soon after the sun rises.

Whether it’s a homemade brew or a pitstop on the street, sipping a coffee is irresistible for most Italians.

But it’s also part of the culture, an essential element of daily life that blithely overcomes demographic differences, class distinctions, age and wealth.

Whether you come from the north or the south of the country, coffee is more than just a kickstart to the day – it’s a social lubricant, a universal language. Perhaps that’s why some Italians can drink up to a dozen cups a day.

Barnum Cafe, Rome

The elegant cafés of Turin and Naples are steeped in tradition and claim to have the best coffee in the country. But the Romans refuse to be outdone.

Down a narrow cobblestoned street, a short stroll from the Italian capital’s Campo dei Fiori flower market, the Romans are lining up inside the Barnum Café for their first coffee of the day just after 9am.

‘Coffee is fundamental, it’s important,’ one customer tells me. ‘Every day a Roman stops for a coffee at least once. It is not about the conversation but the conviviality.’

Beneath the wood-lined ceiling that dates back centuries, the bar at Barnum is laden with fresh croissants and apple cake.

The coffee machine is humming as customers shout their early morning orders. ‘So you are still alive?’ shouts the barista at one regular who hasn’t been seen for a while.

Cafe in Rome
Barnum Cafe, Rome

Lately, there have been shocking stories circulating that the traditional Italian café, while still alive, is not entirely well.

A BBC report headlined The Italians who like to drink American coffee noted the launch of US-style coffee joints selling mega-sized cardboard cups, ‘fun’ flavours and bagels and doughnuts.

‘Italian coffee shop culture is so traditional that it has determinedly ignored modern consumer trends,’ a spokesperson for research firm Mintel told the BBC’s reporters.

But as I settle in for a day’s people watching at Barnum, it soon becomes obvious that this is one traditional café that’s not afraid to give tradition a spin.

There’s a bit of a circus theme here – hence the name. Smartly dressed customers take their seats at quaint, marble-topped tables and chunky velvet sofas. Above the bar, two statues of swimmers dressed in vintage costumes add a touch of whimsy to the rows of liquor bottles.

Barnum Cafe, Rome

Eighty-year-old Vincenzo Zucchi braves the traffic and cycles across Rome for nearly an hour every day to stop by for his morning coffee. ‘The people you meet here you don’t find anywhere else. They are really marvellous.’

The snowy-haired Roman with a matching beard finishes his cappuccino before chatting to other clients and taking a seat outside the door. ‘Look around you,’ he tells me. ‘There’s an atmosphere that you can only find here.’

A bearded man in a tailored suit waits patiently for his coffee, while half a dozen construction workers burst through the door, sweep him aside and shout for their coffees. They’re espressos; you don’t need to spell that out in a proper Italian café.

‘Here you find good coffee, and you can eat well,’ one worker says.

A brawny deliveryman, carrying crates of fresh ruccola, carrots and seasonal fruit on his shoulders, swears loudly as he shoves past the crowd on his way to the kitchen. A waiter takes coloured chalk and scribbles daily lunch specials on the wall.

Customers begin to pull out their laptops as the music cranks up and shifts to retro 1970s hits like Le Freak. A couple of tourists are mapping out their itinerary for the day while an older American is talking local university politics.

In Italy most people drink their coffee on their feet, tossing down an espresso or a caffè macchiato at the bar; but here you can take your coffee at a slower pace. Wherever you go in Rome the barista plays an important role and they can make or break the business.

‘You might meet your friends or take a coffee with work colleagues, but your rapport with the barista is critical,’ says Daniele, a blogger visiting Barnum for the first time.

‘If they are good, they will remember you and also remember the kind of coffee you like. It’s all about social relations.’

For many Italians a coffee can conjure up memories of childhood experiences, romantic encounters or travel adventures. One friend confided that as a child he always woke up to a steaming cup of coffee his mother lovingly left beside his bed, while another admits the coffee machine is the first thing she packs in the suitcase when she goes abroad because she doesn’t trust the coffee or the baristas.

Italians may not have invented coffee. They’re not even the most fervent coffee drinkers in Europe (that’d be the Finns). But somewhere along the way they adopted it as their own and perhaps that’s why they are responsible for the ‘Italianisation’ of the coffee we drink today. How could we order a cappuccino, caffè latte or doppio espresso anywhere in the world without the vocabulary the Italians so kindly provided? (Worth noting: if you order a ‘latte’ in Italy you may well get a glass of milk.)

Maybe a long menu of new-style flavoured American coffees will find favour with Italy’s Instagram generation. But as the best baristas know, the range of coffee they serve is already as diverse as their customers.

Barnum Cafe, Rome

Because Italians love to personalise their order. One customer approaches the bar asking for a cappuccino al vetro (cappuccino in a glass) and another a caffè macchiato con latte freddo (café macchiato with cold milk). ‘It’s all about differentiating yourself,’ says one Barnum customer wryly.

Perhaps it’s also about the theatre – and Romans certainly love that. I’ll never forget the elderly woman who stood in front of me at one Rome café and complained loudly because her Italian doughnut was not pretty enough – brutta and not bella.

Barnum Cafe, Rome

As the early morning coffee hour slips into lunchtime, the laptops at Barnum are replaced with home-style dishes and a glass of wine. Local favourites like tonnarelli all’amatriciana (pasta with a sauce of tomatoes and pork jowl), polpette di manzo (meatballs) and saltimbocca alla Romana (veal wrapped with prosciutto and sage) can be had for a few euros – washed down with yet another coffee.

Hungry customers park their bicycles out the front and stylish young men and women stroll in and out while diners discuss the ingredients of their dish.

At the door, diners spill out onto the street for a cigarette and one last cup of coffee before they head back to the office, the stores nearby or their next appointment – which may include another coffee before the day ends.

Rome, Italy

Because there is always time for just one more. And in this coffee-mad nation, there’s plenty of room for more cafés, including the American-owned one that’s due to open in Milan next year. Its owner says it will enter the Italian market ‘with humility and respect’ and ‘honour the Italian people and their coffee culture’.

Its name? Starbucks.

Cathay Pacific flies to Rome from Hong Kong four times a week.

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