Great Roman Coffee

Created: November 1, 2010
Updated: October 9, 2011

I love espresso.  This started by happenstance at the beginning of college (I will pay homage to my espresso machine another day) and paid off during a  month-long visit to Rome over July, 2010.  This post is most relevant to those who see themselves traveling to Rome in the future.  There are many espresso bars littered throughout the city, obviously.  Most of them, however, will make espresso straight from the same type of machine that you can get espresso from in most U.S. coffee shops.  I.E. there is nothing special about them.  This post is about the two great Roman espresso factories, and what you should order from each.

The two towers

The two great espresso bars in Rome are Sant'Eustachio and Tazza D'Oro, shown left and right, respectively:

The two compete against one another, and the competition is brutal and well known.  My first encounter with Sant'Eustachio captures the tension.   My studies abroad group was shown where to find Tazza D'Oro  but  Sant'Eustachio's location was still a mystery.  Upon navigating side streets for ten to fifteen minutes, we gave up and asked a local in broken English/Spanish: "Where is Tazza D'Oro's rival?"  Without missing a beat, he pointed us to exactly where Sant'Eustachio was situated.

Making a truly good espresso is all about timing and proper ingredients.  As I mentioned above, most Roman espresso baristas will use a stock end-to-end machine with no additional preparation.  Both of the above venues, however, take great pride in both timing and proper ingredients.  From roasting beans on site, using proper grinders, water (with the correct mineral content and at the right temperature), pressure, and (in the case of Sant'Eustachio) sugar, these venues make the process difficult to replicate at home.

Each of Sant'Eustachio and Tazza D'Oro stand out in making different espresso laden delicacies.  One of my fondest memories of Rome was hopping between (while becoming all the more caffeine buzzed as I went) the two venues, trying to find which one surpassed the other in the two hallmark specialties: Gran Caffe and Granita di Caffe con Panna (Granita for short), shown here (respectively):

Gran Caffe is another term for ``double espresso'' while the Granita is iced coffee with cream below and above.  Let it be known that:

  1. There is a real difference between decent (yet regular) espresso and great espresso.
  2. The Granita is one part of Italy that I will never forget (that is, it stood out even over the food and gelato).

But who makes the best of each?  I have concluded that Sant'Eustachio clearly makes the best Gran Caffe and that Tazza D'Oro has the better Granita di Caffe con Panna.  It is worth noting that by extension, Sant'Eustachio makes the best regular espresso I have ever had.  The difference between Sant'Eustachio is not only their use of first rate ingredients, but their use of sugar.  Purists might be turned off by this as I initially was.  Let it be known that there is an art to combining sugar and espresso.  Is it easy to add the perfect amount of sugar for just the right amount of time before serving?  Of course not—that is why nobody else can do it and why Sant'Eustachio can charge 2x the going rate for espresso and still be the most crowded venue in Rome.  Aside from just adding flavor, sugar unlocks the elusive and so-desired crema.  In the picture I have included, roughly 33% of the espresso by height is crema.  Sant'Eustachio guards their use of sugar very carefully.  The below picture shows the barista shield that they use to prevent onlookers from seeing how much, for how long, etc one should add sugar.

By contrast, Tazza D'Oro does not add sugar, nor does its espresso have any crema.  To be fair, you can request for Tazza to add sugar.  Still, Sant'Eustachio outperforms.

Not to be outdone,  Tazza D'Oro's Granita is quite possibly the best dessert (in general) I have ever had.  The iced coffee is rich with a pure coffee bean, not sugared, flavor.  The cream is prepared fresh, and given in multiple layers.  This is in contrast to Sant'Eustachio's Granita, which is more expensive, features sugared & iced coffee, and has more frothy cream.

Who wins?

Across both venues and both espresso-laden items: the Granita di Caffe con Panna is truly something to write home about, and takes the cake as the best espresso-based treat I have ever partaken in consuming.  Does this mean that one should spend their caffeine budget at Tazza without visiting Sant'Eustachio?  Definitely not.  In fact, here is the schedule that I found works best (based around either lunch or dinner):

  1. Buy a Gran Caffe at Sant'Eustachio.
  2. Eat the meal.
  3. Buy a Granita from Tazza.

I stand by this order because the Granita is a surprisingly heavy dessert given that it is mostly iced coffee.  I have eaten two Granitas back to back multiple times and it has knocked out my appetite for hours.  Others in my study abroad group report similar experiences.  Gran Caffe, on the other hand, doesn't have cream and is smaller by volume.