If you happened to be in Rome a couple of weeks ago and noticed some jackass running around yelling, “Ciao, Roma!” with his arms in the air, it would’ve been great if you stopped me to say hello. I would have given you a taste of whatever was in my hands—some espresso granita, probably, or maybe a spoonful of walnut gelato. But since you didn’t, I’ll just have to tell you about these things.
Espresso in two forms
Here’s my working theory on Italian versus American espresso: Almost every espresso you’ll have in Italy is lovely, way better than the vast majority of the stuff you can get in the States, but I personally prefer the hyper-technical shots we can get now. We have coffee nerds who source single-origin beans and calibrate the coffee grind to the humidity in the air and train in complex maneuvers to pack the grinds to perfect density. When it comes to espresso, we’re untied by tradition and we have a chip on our shoulder for being made fun of for bad coffee. Also: we are much geekier. Still, one of the great glories of Italian espresso is that it’s really a part of the culture; you can waltz into a coffee bar on any corner, pound a wonderful shot, and be out in 30 seconds. But there are a couple places I came across in Rome of particular note.
For years, I’ve been hearing about the legendary Sant’ Eustachio, a coffee shop so famous… well, so famous that I’ve heard of it in Queens. It’s old, it has a logo that looks like a Jagermeister bottle, and it hides its baristas so that you can’t see whatever witchcraft they do to pull a shot with such unearthly crema. It’s like a circus trick, this head of coffee. Whether achieved through skill, incantations, or baking soda, it’s worth a stop for even the casual crema fetishist.
The other famous place is La Tazza d’Oro, a place of outrageous décor: depictions of scantily-clad African women overflowing with coffee bounty that are, depending on your view, offensive or charmingly old-school. It’s around the block from the Pantheon. Rome is awesome that way. You could be headed for a cup of coffee and pass by the Pantheon to get there. Anyway, their espresso is also perfectly lovely, if a little thin on flavor. But, the real reason to go is the espresso granita, an icy slush served ingeniously in a cup with whipped cream insulating it on the top and bottom. The granita packs the flavor of serious coffee, and the cream, unsweetened but milky-sweet, is whipped so firm it’s got tiny bits like curds. It’s stiff and substantial. That cream is a food. You dig your little spoon in and get a frigid shot of coffee sandwiched between two plush pillows of dairy goodness. Oh gods, to have one now. You know when your friends come home from trips abroad and annoy everyone by moaning that they can’t find something like they had back in LaLa Land? Espresso granita is that thing.
Two philosophies of Gelato (and don’t snooze on the Sorbetto)
Everyone I’ve ever talked to about going to Italy always says, within 3 minutes, “Oh God, I ate so much gelato.” There’s a reason for it: it’s freaking good. Also, it’s everywhere, you can pay for it in coins, and you can get it in small cups, just enough to want a little more.
There is someone on guard at the stunning Fountain of Trevi, all horses and majestic gestures, blowing a whistle whenever a tourist makes like they’re going to jump in the water. She also blows the whistle whenever someone gets too close to the monument with food, which is inevitably some melting thing from the Gelateria San Crispino. My grapefruit and lemon sorbetti from there were wonderful, capturing all the sweet, tart, flowery, vaguely bitter tastes of those fruits. Their gelato is unbelievably smooth and rich, the one flavored with honey complex and wild. “The honey here is so animal,” my friend Winnie said. “It’s like licking a dog’s leg. I mean, in a good way.” (I don’t actually know what that means, but it convinced me.)
San Crispino is the elephant in the room in Roman gelati, with tastemakers proclaiming that the competition has always been for the second-best gelato shop in town. But I actually preferred Gelateria Petrini, located a few metro stops away from the center of the city. I’ve never really understood the difference between gelato and ice cream, but Petrini made me get it. Ice cream—and gelati like San Crispino’s—are all about the dairy: sweet, rich, and beautiful. The flavors complement the milk. But at a place like Petrini, the milk is there as a vehicle for the flavors. It’s rich too, but unobtrusive, letting the pistachios, for instance, be fragrant and almost savory. The walnut is disappointing at first, when you taste only cream, but then the nuts show up out of nowhere, say hello, and sit with you for a while. The flavor is so real—it has a little bitter edge, a little tannic bite, but their soft, blooming sweetness lasts for days. The almond also has a slight bitterness and finishes with a little bit of a grainy mouthfeel, which isn’t necessarily a good thing, but it is a good sign; someone actually ground up nuts into almond milk to make this. Petrini’s gelati and sorbetti all taste like the platonic ideal of their flavors. Almost as a bonus, a gift to mankind, they make a killer espresso granita, plenty strong, with ice crystals that crunch when you bite them.
Next week: pasta, ham, and a deli worth bringing an empty suitcase for