Virtually everyone has heard the expression “La Dolce Vita”, and little erudition is enough to link these words with Italy. I have never actually seen the old time classic and any ideas I had about living in the land of indulgent food were from my language book and some more recent Hollywood productions. It hadn’t been more than a worn-out phrase until I experienced it on my own skin – as, indeed, La Dolce Vita is a lifestyle, alive and alight as much as it was in those sweet sixties.
This recent trip to Rome was meant to be a self-reward for surviving the busy Edinburgh Festival working in the hospitality sector, as well as somewhat a dream-come true. A visit to Italy was the ultimate goal when I began my coffee-discovering venture. I debated it, chew on it, and then within a matter of hours I booked my flights and accommodation. The stanza was a room in an apartment of a girl I had never met before in my life, and with whom I only exchanged a couple of emails prior to transferring a payment for a seven-night stay-over. Was I worried? Not at all. I had met quite a few Italians in my life beforehand and therefore I kind of new that they could be trusted – or I was just lucky in choosing my friends.
And this I have to stress: I was very lucky. One of those friends, who I had actually met in Valencia earlier this year, was still in Rome and offered to pick me up from the airport as well as to serve as my tour guide for a few days of my stay. This way I learnt that one has to be pretty courageous to drive the streets of Rome, apart from gaining the best informed first-hand, virgin experience of this beautiful, culturally and historically loaded city. I fell in love with it instantly.
In the meantime I got to know my host, a native Roman. It was hard to believe that we hadn’t known each other before, as she treated me like a friend, sometimes even like a sister, such as when she lent me some long clothes so that I could get into the Basilica di San Pietro, with its strict dress code requirements. A treasury of information – a travel agent herself – she was always ready to suggest a place to visit or a thing to do in her home town. One evening, whilst savouring my little Nespresso (it seems every household in Rome has this instant coffee machine – although, to be honest, I had only been to two Italian houses), I asked her, what she thought about living in Rome.
“The life here got harder,” she said, “with the crisis and all. People got more rude, and everyone seems to be counting pennies when it comes to prices of petrol, for example. But then, people always find money to go out and have fun. They will pay 70 euros for a concert ticket, they will go to a bar and pay for all their friends, or dine out most evenings of the week. Times might be tougher than back in the days, but people still enjoy themselves here.”
And although Ambra did not seem to approve of how things were, I couldn’t help to smile, because my experience of Rome was just that: traditional ice cream staring at Fontana di Trevi, half a litre of the most delicious red wine with my gnocchi at an old Peroni destilery, a Spritzer at a river-bank bar during the Lungo il Tevere nights, and, maybe most importantly: a coffee with a pastry every morning for breakfast.
I knew vaguely from people’s stories and my own coffee education – the first coffee houses, the great espresso tradition, and so on – that Rome was the place to go to for the best quality coffee (in Europe at least); but, to be frank, I really didn’t know what to expect – apart from the cut in size. My barista experience got me used to foreign tourists shouting out in surprise upon discovering the size of the British “small” cup, or to their polite complaints that the coffee simply wasn’t strong enough. “Think twice before you order a coffee,” I was advised, and it didn’t take long into my stay in Rome to understand what that meant.
Invited for my first coffee – to the historic Antico Caffe Greco – I heard my friend order un caffe before turning a questioning eye on me. “A mocha?” I asked uncertainly; my friend had no idea what I was talking about, but the barista seemed to understand. “A marocchino then?” the barista asked, and I nodded, not knowing what I was actually consenting to.
Both drinks were served in espresso-sized cups, with that difference, that mine had chocolate in it – and that was pretty much the story everywhere in Rome. The price lists started with the option Caffe at 80 cents up to 1 euro on average, signifying your average espresso. As for, what we learnt to call in the UK, speciality coffee, they were there also: cappucino or caffe latte or even iced chocolate cream. As I was later explained, cappucino – not bigger than double the size of an espresso cup – was an Italian breakfast brew, and was today served after midday only to satisfy the touristic demand.
When it comes to coffee, few of us think about etymology, yet I was struck by a sudden realisation when I ordered my first drink in Rome – the experience that also explained the Starbucks’s model of “pay-first, pick-up-your-drink second”. The same process takes place in Italian bars: upon paying for a chosen coffee the customer receives a receipt, which they take to the baristas by the Espresso bar. When it is your turn in the queue, the barista picks up your reciept and makes your coffee. The bar is usually long, and crowded, because of those who are waiting, as well as for those who are already drinking; but because of the sheer size of the coffee, the drink is finished quickly – espresso – and the customer leaves to make space by the bar for others.
In a way it would seem like mass-production (not much different to Starbucks on a busy afternoon, I guess), and one would question, how much craft could go into an espresso; and yet, within the week that I spent in Rome, I discovered different varieties and flavours of the – now my favourite – marocchino: all different, yet all so much better than the espressos I was be used to back in the Kingdom. Whether it be for the origin of the beans or their roasting, the skill of the barista, or simply for the amazing views and the atmosphere of the sweet Italian life that surrounded me every time I took a sip of my tiny coffee, I cannot tell.
“Where would you like to live most?” I asked Ambra, looking at her collection of souvenirs from around the world.
“There are places I like to go and visit and then return to… But I couldn’t live anywhere else than Rome. I hate the rain, so I couldn’t live in London or Edinburgh, for example. I love the Italian heat! Also, here there’s always things to do, places to go out for a drink or a dance, or somewhere to relax. It’s a beautiful place, and overall, life is good here. It’s my home.”
In my heart, I agreed.
The forthcoming reviews will suggest a few must-see cafes in Rome – stay tuned!