One of the joys of Italian life is the coffee bar. Even though we have a lovely espresso machine at the farm, Italian coffee bar culture is probably the thing I miss most about Italy when I’m not there. One orders at the cash register, takes the receipt to the bar, watches the barista make up to four or five coffees at a time with care (hopefully), and enjoys the drink quickly at the bar. It’s possible to sit down at an Italian coffee bar for an additional charge, but it’s stopping in for a quick coffee at the bar itself which is, to me, the most delightful thing to do.
I’ve very rarely had bad coffee in Italy. Some places are certainly much better than others. Some take pride in the drinks they’re making. Some are just going through the motions. Some properly clean their equipment, while others are sloppy. Some source beans with attention to quality. Others just use industrial beans.
But even at their most average, coffee in Italy is usually delightful. Milk is properly frothed and served at the right temperature (not 1000 degrees). Cups are properly pre-warmed.
Not as successful are the pastries at coffee bars. Although they are wonderful compared to the dreadful pastries one often finds at coffee shops in the US, the harsh truth is that 90% or more of coffee bars sell industrial pastries, as Katie Parla thoroughly detailed in an article in Eater.com last year.
In a development which has significant improved my life, the historic and respected Roscioli bakery has recently open a coffee bar a mere 5-minute walk from the property in Rome where I teach and live a few weeks a year. Not only do they make their coffee with care, they are one of the few bars which produces their own pastries from quality ingredients and eschews industrial shortcuts. The difference is immediately obvious both by sight and taste.
It’s easy to romanticize Italy and assume that quality is more common than it is. Sadly, there is not enough demand for quality from tourists or even Romans to ensure it. Nonetheless, the few who do produce exceptional products of excellence are diamonds in the rough, and I for one am deeply grateful for them.
A horrific example of a cappuccino from a bar in Venice, one of the few Italian cities where it is in fact very hard to find a well-made coffee. Note the “soap suds” type frothing, the mark of an amateur. It was also about 1000 degrees and impossible to drink. Terrible.