A few years ago we rented a flat in Rome near the Spanish Steps. We were just a few cobblestoned feet from Chanel, Dior, Prada, Max Mara and the like on the Via Condita. Shopping was of course a splendid (and I did my fair share) but in Rome you are there to immerse yourself in the culture. We drank in all of the art we could. We gasped at the perfection of ancient architecture. We listened to string quartets in spectacular chapels on chilly nights. We took more photos than I can count. We lost ourselves on meandering streets and fully embraced the Roman experience.
Our days were varied, that's certain, but there was one constant: coffee. There are cafes to be found everywhere you look, but where's the fun in being one of a dozen tourists waiting in line? That wasn't our approach to Rome. We were focused on exploration and the discovery of hidden treasures. The purpose of renting the flat was to live like locals for a few weeks. We bought meat from the butchers. We purchased frruits and veggies from the stands. We cooked in our little kitchen in our second story flat overlooking the street.
Between museums and touring the city we'd discover family-owned hideaways offering up aromatic cups of rich espresso. At night we'd admire the Fontana di Trevi while enjoying world-class gelato. Our goal was simple: sink in and enjoy Rome. We visited hidden boutiques locals seemed surprised we'd entered. We grabbed lunch at fantastic restaurants with not an English-speaking person in sight. This was our quest. And through it all we sipped some of the finest espresso we've ever enjoyed.
Each morning we would take a long walk and end at a different cafe. The charming dark haired baristas would wink as they passed you a morning cappuccino with a heart on top. When we found one we loved, we made it a point to come back again.
The next part of the story begins with a cautionary note. When making declarations about "the best espresso in Rome," you must come prepared to back up your claim. For many years, a caffeine-fueled competition has been raging between two now famous Roman cafes. There are those who stake their reputation on the belief that espresso from revered Sant’ Eustachio is in fact il meglio. Contender Tazza d'Oro near the Pantheon has earned an equally dedicated a cult following, some going so far to assert that the water itself contains sugar - lending the espresso its hallmark sweetness.
Throughout our stay, we repeatedly put the two cafes to the test. In the end, we determined that it is impossible to call a winner due to their significant differences.
Sant' Eustachio wins hands down for ambiance and romance. It is an experience worth having. You order at the high-gloss bar from handsomely dressed staff, have a seat and enjoy yourself. This is the kind of cafe where you linger and enjoy the morning at a leisurely pace. You pay a handsome bill for the priviledge to do so, but you leave satisfied in knowing that you created lasting memories with a special someone with solicitous waitstaff buzzing around.
Tazza d'Oro on the other hand, had energy only a city cafe can offer. Always filled with eager patrons awaiting their turn at the bar, this cafe was less about sitting and more about competing to get your spot in line. Black leather clad women carrying helmets for their Vespas rushed in to get their cup of caffeinated perfection. While I'm inclined to say this spot had better coffee, you had little time to savor it. It was all about the hustle and bustle of Romans speeding about on their way to someplace seemingly far more important. There was no "La Dolce Vita" vibe here. It was get in, get your amazing cup of perfect espresso and get on with your fabulous day.
Like the great city of Rome itself, we found joy and beauty in the variety. There were so many great characteristics of each cafe, each drink and their requisite charming baristas that to consider one to be the victor would be robbing ourselves of great memories of both.
Fast forward to today and we still dislike drinking coffee from paper cups. Blame it on the weeks long experience of drinking it as God intended it: seconds after the shot was pulled into a crisp white ceramic cup. And although I'm not too proud to sip my cappuccinos in the afternoon too (a major faux pas abroad), I consider my coffee palate to be refined.
So what's a coffee-lover to do? I have a two pronged approach. Starbucks will indulge me with a doppio macchiatto affogato style (or at least a close approximation). At home, however, I turn to Nespresso. Until my next trip to Roma... sip slowly and savor the moments, friends!