Imagine walking into a café where you come for the coffee, stay for the conversation, and return for the connection.
This is not my usual café critique. This is a glimpse into the past, a taste of the habitual, and a step towards new beginnings. I’m returning to the birthplace of espresso: la bella Italia, to a place so traditional that you can’t even find it on Facebook or Google Maps. Until now.
[Via Silvestri, 203, 00164 (Rome, Italy)]
Watching Stefano Cristiani (owner & barman since 1994) work is like watching a perfectly choreographed dance. At Caffè Ficini (est. 1953), this well-experienced barman taps, spins, and glides through the coffee dance with effortless grace. The steps? Customer approaches counter. Saucer, spoon, water placed in front. Espresso ground, dosed, tamped, pulled, served. One, two, three sips then, coins are left next to the empty cup. Besides a conventional “bonjourno”, “grazie” & “ciao”, nothing is said. This is a silent dance and Stefano already knows the piques, pirouettes, and poses of each of his customers. Wash cup, wipe counter, sweep floor, refill sugar; the dance continues.
There is no equation for making coffee Italian style because this is dance class, not math class. However, Stefano does have standards. After all, customers come here because he’s been making damn good coffee for over 20 years. Succeed or get crushed by his disapproval. With one glance, a barista (which until this point in time has only been his comedic uncle, his charming 14-year old son, and myself)’s creation is judged. Fail and he’ll throw it away, making it again himself. Time, coffee, and energy wasted. Even the espressos that pass his inspection, customers can taste the difference. Goes to show that technique is just as important as the quality of ingredients when making coffee.
Stefano gives his instructions in Italian; slow, deliberate, only repeating the most important words, with smatterings of French when I really don’t understand. Honestly, I feel like I learned more Italian in one day than French in the past 3 months I was in Paris. If you want to learn another language, this is the way to do it: full immersion. Like a child learning its first language, you’ll soak up the new language like a sponge because your survival depends on it.
A Day in an Italian Coffee Bar:
4:50 am – last breaths of freedom; the stillness of dawn reciprocates, “Time to start the day”
4:55 am – key turns in the lock, lights flicker on; the first sign of life
5:00 am – first dose of coffee grounded and tasted; Ficini original espresso blend from 1953
5:06 am – fresh pastries emerge from the oven
5:10 am – fresh milk delivered
5:15 am – the first espressos of the day are served; the machine is a 25-year old Fiorenzato Ducale; gleams like it was bought yesterday; a beast of a machine; takes a day to convince it not to bite, but takes years to make it purr
5:30 am – like clockwork, the regulars arrive; same people, same dogs, same time, same order, same conversations; Stefano gives me a quick rundown of each customer before they enter the bar: name, occupation, and a well-meaning & humorous critique of their personality; basically, everyone is pazzo; “I’ve had the same damn conversation with that woman every morning for the past 10 years.”
5:32 am – in two minutes flat, customers enter, are served, and exit; efficiency is key
6:00 am – daily newspaper delivered; today’s front cover: death of a mafia godfather
6:30 am – leftover brioches thrown to the birds
7:30 am – beer delivery
1:00 pm – regulars return for their post-lunch coffee before returning to work
5:30 pm – devout regulars return for their post-work coffee before returning home
7:30 pm – cleaning, restocking, arranging
8:00 pm – lights out, key turns shut; café life has ended for the day
8:01 pm – resume breaths of freedom, the dust taunts “Until tomorrow”
Traditional vs 3rd wave Coffee Shops:
I received my barista training from a pro-3rd wave institution, and after a day in Caffè Ficini, it was light as day to see the philosophical and conventional differences between traditional and 3rd wave coffee shops:
- It’s art while 3rd wave is math
- It’s a feeling while 3rd wave is an equation
- It’s about quality while 3rd wave is about appearance
- It’s about character while 3rd wave is about perfection
- It’s about efficiency while 3rd wave is about performance
- It’s about economy while 3rd wave is about extravagance
- Don’t wipe portafilters between shots; like a well-used tea pot, the buildup of coffee grind adds depth to the espresso; not to mention, it saves time
- No timers, no thermometers, no automatic machines; you must feel when the coffee is ready
A true traditional Italian coffee bar where locals gather to talk weather, politics, and family life. The coffee is delicious, the pastries are fresh, and the owner speaks some English and French. If you’re looking for a genuine Roman experience away from the bustle of tourists, this is the place to go.
Helpful Coffee Tips:
Un Buon Caffè:
Ordering a coffee in Italy can be a nightmare, if you’re not familiar with espresso. You can either be super lax by simply ordering which drink you prefer and leaving the rest up to the barman OR you can be super particular, down to the type of cup you prefer to drink from.
- Caffè Latte
- Caffè Hag/ Decaffeinato
- Corretto / Borghetti
- Brewing Time of Espresso:
- Cordo/ ristretto = short
- Normale = normal
- Longo = long
- Temperature of Espresso:
- Freddo = cold
- Tiepido = warm
- Caldo = hot
- Type of Milk:
- Intero = whole (3.6%)
- Parzialmente = partial (1.6%)
- Amount of Milk:
- Pocco = a little
- Tanto = a lot
- Milk Temp & Texture:
- Schiamato = foamed
- Scremato = steamed
- Freddo = cold
- Type of Cup:
- Vetro = glass
- Tazza = ceramic
Of course, you can’t forget to have a fresh-baked pastry with your espresso, and of course, ordering a brioche is a whole other kettle of fish.
The Italian’s view on the third-wave coffee trend: “When you have to add flowers and other fancy bullshit, it’s because the original ingredients are shit.”
*extra photo fun: I couldn’t help but make a small collection of the adorable pooches that enjoy Caffè Ficini as much as I. Aren’t they woof-tastic!?!