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The Roman barista: a national resource PDF Print E-mail
Dec 15, 2013 at 07:18 PM

Image In New York, we have Starbucks, the chain of coffee shops that made its name with a series of coffee-based drinks flavored with a variety of what to the mind of a transplanted American like me are the most improbable tastes: espresso, cappuccino or frappuccino (a icy shaker drink) with sweet additions such as caramel, hazelnut, chocolate (or white chocolate), eggnog, peppermint and so on. Many Americans find Starbucks a pleasant place to go, not least for its free wifi. The “barista” in his or her obligatory green apron, is generally an obliging soul, willing to accommodate even the most eccentric of clients in his, or her, desire for ever-stranger concoctions.

But these “baristas” can’t hold a candle to the Roman barman, to my mind almost a national treasure. First of all, if you, like me, are a person who starts off the day with an espresso or cappuccino at the bar downstairs, the barista can set the tone for your entire day. For this reason, those who sulk or are unpleasant, must be avoided at any cost.  What you want is one of those Romans who, even when they aren’t talking about soccer, are capable of those witticisms for which the Romans are famous. You want a barman who can tell when you are upset about something and who will ask what’s going on and offer sympathy and even advice. And if you are lucky, your barista will also be one of those unparalleled professionals who somehow can remember what you and everyone else drinks, no easy task in a city where everyone has his or her own specific tastes: caffé lungo, American coffee, espresso corretto, that is with a drop of brandy or some other kind of alcohol, macchiato, caffé al vetro (in a glass rather than a cup) or a cappuccino that is light, dark, without foam etc. etc. etc. Not long ago a barista in Via Giubbonari said to an American girlfriend of mine, “the usual cappuccino, Signorina?” Pretty normal, except for the fact that she’d been away from Rome for over two years. She was so touched she almost wept.

For almost three decades, I went religiously to the same bar at the beginning of Vicolo del Cinque (these days, I am more eclectic and divide my coffee breaks among that same bar, Ombre Rosse in Piazza S. Egidio, and the Caffè della Scala, the closest to my current house.) But at that time, my barman of choice was Giancarlo (now retired) who did not actually come from Rome but who, after decades here, had picked up a lot of Roman characteristics.

Giancarlo often prepared my coffee – lots of extra water, milk on the side – as soon as he saw me come out of my doorway some fifty meters away so it would be waiting for me, steaming on the counter, when I arrived. I can assure you, this doesn’t happen at Starbucks. And I also doubt that a Starbucks barista would say to me on a Friday morning. “What are you doing here

Isn’t this your morning at the hairdresser?”  


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