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Taste of Travel: Italy : Roman Aromas : Coffeehouses in the Eternal City not only make the perfect cup of espresso or cappuccino, they make the trip a true cultural experience

February 25, 1996|RICH RUBIN | Rubin is a New York-based freelance writer

ROME — I'm standing in Caffe Tazza d'Oro with a cappuccino in front of me. Burlap bags lining the wall are inscribed with the words aroma di Roma and, indeed, the invigorating scent of coffee hangs heavy. Three men behind the counter are in nonstop motion, a human assembly line filling an unending stream of tiny cups from copper espresso makers--the L-shaped room resounding with the clank of china, the hiss of steam and the ceaseless flow of coffee-fed conversation.

It's my favorite spot in Rome. Yes, I know some come to the Eternal City to see the magnificent monuments and I, too, love the perfect interior of the Pantheon and the crumbling glories of the Roman Forum. But I think of them as points of reference from which to locate the city's best coffeehouses. It is the simpler, more elemental pleasure of coffee and the coffeehouse experience that draws me back to Rome, year after year, if not for the taste alone, but for what it represents in the culture.

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To an Italian, coffee is an essential part of life; no meal is complete without a caffe (it's no coincidence that a single word represents both the locale and the brew). The Italians import enough for 33 billion cups a year, according to industry sources, and I can believe it--that's only about 550 cups per person annually. (It's not an exact comparison, but adult Americans drink fewer than two cups per day). The coffeehouse is an important part of Italian culture, a traditional meeting spot where friends gather, acquaintances confer and even strangers share a moment of common purpose.

In my frequent trips to Rome, there are three spots to which I always return for their history, ambience and just plain good coffee. The most revered in town is Caffe Greco, occupying a prime spot on chic Via Condotti, near the Spanish Steps. It's the city's oldest caffe and in 1953 was declared a national monument.

Local archives mention Greco's existence as early as 1760, though the management claims it dates back even further. Founded by Nicola della Maddalena, a Greek man (hence the cafe's name), it has attracted a wide range of artists over the years, including composers Bizet, Berlioz, Liszt and Wagner, and writers Gogol, Goethe, Baudelaire, Byron, Shelley, Hawthorne, Thackeray and Twain. But, I was told, the visit that caused a sensation was the 1906 appearance of Buffalo Bill, an event duly noted today in a photo on the wall showing a jaunty William Cody and rather dour members of his entourage seated at one of the tables.

I've had many a caffe (the Italians use this word to refer to espresso) in the stand-up bar in the front of the building. Of course, I've first made the requisite trip to the cashier; in Italy you pay and then head for the counter, where you put your receipt and a small tip on the bar and place your order. It's a procedure I quickly master to avoid embarrassing myself or, more importantly, to delay my coffee drinking. Taking my place at the dark marble bar, lighted by the soft glow of candles reflecting against the red-flocked wallpaper, I sip my way into caffeinated bliss.

It wasn't until my second visit to Greco several years ago that I realized there are posh salons in the back. I prefer the stand-up bar, where the focus is more on coffee and the atmosphere more casual, but if you're in the mood for a splurge, have a seat in one of the elegant rooms, decorated in a variety of styles. My favorite is the Wedgwood-inspired Omnibus Room, with its statuary, portraits and plaster medallions.

"We're just a little family enterprise," says manager Fabio Valeri. But while the caffe has, indeed, been in the Gubinelli family since 1840, it's anything but a mom-and-pop operation.

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As you sit at a small marble-topped table beneath oil paintings and marble busts, formally attired waiters deliver your requests on small silver trays, with elegant prices to match. Espresso, for instance, costs $4.80 (compared to $1.30 in the stand-up room); a piece of torte will set you back $6.50, a cocktail $10.30. There are more tourists back here than at the front bar, but there is also a representative (if rather upscale) sampling of locals.

It's a true landmark, the coffee lover's equivalent of the Colosseum. But, as I mentioned, to my mind the city's monuments are really there to offer reference points to coffeehouses. I give directions to the Spanish Steps by saying they're near Caffe Greco.

About 15 minutes away, in the heart of old Rome, lies the Pantheon, notable for its location midway between Caffe Sant'Eustachio and Tazza d'Oro. I wonder sometimes whether I love this neighborhood because of its historical and architectural wonders or because there are two wonderful coffeehouses here.

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