Coffee Culture Al Bar
An Italian Ritual in Rome
|A clock in a Roman cafe.
One of the first sentences you will learn in almost any Italian course--right after basic greetings—is: “Andiamo al bar prendere un caffè (Let’s go to the bar for a coffee).” Caffè—meaning coffee bar, espresso, in particular and coffee generally—is your passport to humankind. How else do people commune, other than over tiny espresso cups? Mah! (meaning “Who knows? I haven’t a clue.”) And why can’t you just brew your own coffee at home? Mah! (this time, meaning “No rhetorical questions.”) For those who are not familiar with Italian 1-word expressions with multiple meanings, allow me to explain: It is simply not the same as andiamo al bar.
Observations of a Local Bar in Rome
In my case, the local bar happens to be right below my bedroom window. In the quartiere of Monte Mario, on the highest hill of Rome, husband-and-wife team Clementina and Giorgio run Bar Claudia. The bar, named after their daughter, facilitated my primary bar observations. Il bar is governed by unspoken rituals practiced with your chosen pick-me-up. Upon close scrutiny, bar-based assumptions divulge all manner of national bias pertaining to coffee, class, communication, customs, connection, and culture.
The Many Roles of the Bar in Italy
A bar by any name is not a bar. The ubiquitous Italian bar, found in any tiny village and on every other corner in large towns, is neither fish nor fowl – neither a bar nor a coffee shop – but a blend thereof. Il bar serves coffee, soft drinks, alcohol and snacks, with fare typically consumed al bar (at the bar counter). The beverage of your choice is to be drunk standing, often elbow-to-elbow with others, at the counter.
To Stand or to Sit? An Important Decision
If you really wish to sit--if your feet have been trodden to a pulp by the cobblestone streets of Rome and are screeching for relief--then you can. Even a tiny bar usually has a couple of tables. However you will be charged more to be seated, sometimes substantially more. That is unless, by some factor only discernable to locals, the bar is deemed a “local” bar--in which case the price is the same and you can sit to your caffeinated heart’s content. If you are at a bar located near the “center” of town, but you yourself are regarded as a local, the tariff might be dropped accordingly, just for you. Such unspoken rules are confusing and obscure, to say the least.
| Map of Rome and coffee al bar.
But for starters, one must master the matter of lo scontrino (the receipt), as the Italians have a baffling system of purchasing one’s sustenance. Instead of sitting down and waiting to be served (as is the case in coffee shops around the world) and later requesting the bill, you must first place your order alla cassa (at the cash register). After paying, you receive lo scontrino and, doing your best not to drop this flyaway slip of paper while you stuff your change in your wallet, make your way over to the counter. This applies in most bars, but not all. Counter-intuitive habits can be acquired, with tenacity – I would say that no fewer than three coffee stops a day would be a good place to start.
The Barista as Artist
At this stage, you deal directly with the barista (coffeemaking barman). Making your receipt visible, repeat your order and it will be concocted before your eyes: the beans ground, the coffee tamped into the porta-filter which is snapped into place, through which steam whistles at a house-secret combination of temperature and pressure and a steam wand shoots steam into your milk to froth it. The schiuma (froth) is swirled into an artistic pattern and may get a sprinkle of cocoa on top. It takes a year’s training to qualify as a barista in Italy and a skilled barista is worth his weight in gold-coated coffee beans.
A Ceremony for the Senses and Spirit
This multi-sensory treat (fragrance to the nostril, pomp and ceremony to the eye, dramatic hisses to the ear, paradise to the palate) is covered by one single verb in Italian. Sentire means to taste, smell, hear and feel. Impossible but true, one word does all that. Imbibing coffee becomes a metaphysical experience, sending one’s ears, nose, mouth and heart into transports of palpitating delight. Thus transported and propped up at the bar, you can finally drink your coffee. Clearly, the only way to knock back a strong, bitter espresso is with a spoonful of sugar.
The Breakfast Ritual
A standard Italian colazione (breakfast) is the nutritionally-dubious duo of a cappuccino and pasta (pastry). No fruit, all-bran flakes or natural yoghurt, no toast or boiled eggs. No, breakfast is a cornetto (croissant), often filled with crema (custard), nutella, honey or marmellata (jam, not marmalade), which you dunk in your cappuccino. This is the only time of day when locals consume cappuccini, later than which milky coffee is generally ordered only by foreigners. Every Italian knows that you cannot digest warm milk after eating.
Adapting to the Rituals
The matter of not sitting unsettles me. For years, I have been meeting friends “for coffee,” which means we are going to sit down for a good, long chat and probably drink coffee--but maybe not. How can this staple to friendship be conducted standing up, not facing one another? Coffee and sitting go hand-in-hand, do they not?
Admittedly, if you are drinking an espresso, it is rarely bigger than two sips and does not justify sitting. A cappuccino is more generous in size, although nothing like what the English-speaking world is accustomed to. Usually it is served on the tepid side, so you might request un cappuccino ben caldo (a hot cappuccino). A caffè latte is larger, but pale. Therefore, if you need a decent-sized cup of hot coffee with milk, like you might have back home, try asking for a caffè latte scuro (a dark coffee.) It takes weeks to hone the exact turn of phrase to fit your palate. By now, at Bar Claudia, they know my order: a hot cappuccino with low-fat milk.
The bar aspect of the bar/coffee shop-fusion usually starts after midday, although not exclusively. A few rosy-cheeked neighborhood characters can be found sipping their first aperitivo as early as 10 a.m. One of them dons a John Wayne hat and cowboy boots. The aperitivo is usually served with a generous spread: olives, crisps, pizzette and sometimes even delicious little sandwiches.
Aside from John Wayne and company, Italians are generally not heavy drinkers. Rather, they are partial to a single campari soda or glass of prosecco (dry white bubbly wine) towards dusk, a ritual which serves to update them on all matters of concern to the quartiere, that is, anything that may have transpired since they popped in for colazione (breakfast) that morning.
Sharing News, Conversation, and Community
After all, bar culture is not just about what you drink. It is about who you will bump into, and the advice and opinions you can impose upon them. It is about skim reading the newspapers and remarking gloomily regarding the news of the day. For the socially bereft, the bar provides a venue to interact with others, without having to actually construct a relationship of any substance. For those with grand dreams, there are slot machines that intermittently spit out tinkles of 1-euro coins.
For the elderly--with 20% of Italy’s population being older than 65--the bar is a godsend. For the price of an espresso (about €0.90 or US$1.40) you can engage in hours of conversation. And for one glass of wine (about €3.50 or US$5.00), you can eat your way through four or five bowls of snacks. Mostly, you will be kept standing-- but nobody seems to mind.
Regulars at Bar Claudia include Signora Ferdinanda and the man with the border collie. The border collie is adept at catching a deflated soccer ball mid-air when it is tossed for him and if it is not, he barks and barks until it is. Signora Ferdinanda, in her early eighties, wears a fur coat, blue eye shadow, and pearl earrings the size of gumdrops. She is always immaculately coiffed.
I can barely sniff without Mr Grossicolli, my septuagenarian neighbour, noticing and offering consolation. Now and then, he offers to pay for my cappuccino ben caldo, at which he dispenses advice: “Jogging is all very well, but don’t overdo it. Your blood pressure will drop!”
One wintry morning, he commented in conspiratorial tones, “I saw you out looking with your backpack the other day... Have you found it yet?” His thick Roman accent forces me to second-guess.
“Was I looking for something?” I asked blankly.
“A job!” he cried earnestly. “Have you found a job yet?”
A job?! The very thing I have just run away from! Gently, I explained that for now, I am settling into my new life in Rome. Should the situation change, however, my neighbor will surely be the first to know. Come to think of it, he might even know before I do! Either way, I need not worry, because the news will reach me within hours as I stop in at Bar Claudia.
I will be heading down there right now, as it is just about time for a late afternoon coffee. I could drink my own coffee seated at home, I suppose, but it would not quite be the same as being al bar, now would it?
For More on Daily Living in Rome
www.wantedinrome.com is available on newsstands and online. It provides details about cultural events as well as a classified section.
www.friendsinrome.com provides a social and cultural meeting point for Italians and ex-pats in Rome.
www.romereview.com has a wonderfully useful listing of movies in the "original language," i.e. in English (or other foreign language), with Italian subtitles.
www.theamericanmag.com is an online monthly publication.