Standing in line at a café, it can be awfully confusing to discern one coffee drink from another. What exactly is the difference between a café latte and a latte macchiato? The classic drink to order is a cappuccino: a shot of espresso into which foamed milk is poured, with more foam than hot milk (a café latte is just hot milk without foam, and a latte macchiato is a tall glass of hot milk with a tiny drop of espresso added).
The name “cappuccino” is the diminutive form of “cappuccio,” or “hood,” as the color of a cappuccino, a toasty brown, matched the color of the robes worn by Capuchin monks. These robes were adapted in the 16th century, based on the Franciscan monastic robes, so the term cappuccino has historical roots. It was first noted in print in 18th century Austria, where café culture bloomed, long before it took hold in Italy. A popular drink called a kapuziner combined coffee with sugar, cream, and whipped egg yolks. That most Italian of coffee drinks is actually Austrian. Another drink from the same place and period, called a franziskaner, featured more milk, resulting in a lighter brown to match the robes of Franciscan monks.
Coffee was first introduced to Europe via the Ottoman Turks, who boiled ground coffee beans and served the drink with sugar—south-eastern Europeans still favors “Turkish coffee” as their breakfast beverage of choice. But Turkish coffee is really strong and grainy, not to everyone’s taste. Even straight espresso can be harsh and bitter to a palate more used to sweet things. By mixing coffee with naturally-sweet milk, a beverage was created that would appeal to a broader clientele. But cappuccinos as we know them today did not rise until the 1950s, when Italian manufacturers produced the sort of high-pressure espresso machines that are still in use today, capable of infusing steam into milk to produce miniature air bubbles and the lovely textured foam that is now enjoyed worldwide.
Rome boasts a large number of fine cafes, many of which are torrefazione, meaning that they roast their own coffee beans. One of my favorite things to do in the Eternal City is to go on a “cappuccino crawl,” winding my way through my favorite Roman cafes and sampling a cappuccino at each establishment. This is the best way to decide for yourself which is “the best cappuccino in Rome,” and it also makes for a nice excuse to meander through the wondrous streets of a city that brims with culinary and plastic arts. Alternative visits to Caravaggio paintings with your cappuccino hunt, and you’ve got an ideal day on your Roman holiday. Here is my recommended route, with a few notes on each café:
Bar del Cappuccino
50 via Arenula
We begin our tour in the tiny, standing-room-only Bar del Cappuccino, where you can order up a decorated cappuccino made by a moustachioed barista who has represented Italy as a cappuccino ambassador abroad: the walls are covered with photographs and clippings about his appearances around the world. The decorated cappuccino is a cute flourish—skilled baristas can “draw” a heart, apple, or flower atop your drink by manipulating how the foam is poured, doing so without the aid of a template. This bar, oddly enough, has excellent pastrami panninis, too.
Cafffe Camerino (Cafffe con Tre Effe)
Largo Arenula 30
In a corner of Largo Argentina, this bar roasts their own beans and sells bags to take home. Alternately known as Cafffe Camerino or Cafffe con Tre Effe (Café with Three Fs), this is a good place for a light lunch as well as a caffeine fix. It’s also just a stone’s throw from Bar del Cappuccino, so you’ll be drinking two excellent examples in quick succession.
Piazza di Sant’Eustachio 82
One of the two most famous cafes in Rome, and the world, Sant’Eustachio has a trick up their sleeve. Unless you order otherwise, their standard cappuccino is spoon-whipped with a tiny bit of sugar before being served. The result is slightly sweeter, and with more air in the foam, than any other unadulterated cappuccino in the city. Folks who add sugar to their coffees tend to love Sant’Eustachio, while purists find this technique unappealing. It’s up to you to decide. Don’t be dissuaded by the line outside the door!
Via degli Orfani 84
The king of coffee houses in Rome, and a world-renowned brand, Tazza d’Oro (the Golden Cup) watches over the Pantheon and welcomes in coffee lovers with open arms. Theirs is my personal favorite, bitter and incredible. They also have an excellent iced summer drink, granita di caffe con panna, a sort of crushed ice espresso drink mixed with sweet cream that is the proto-mocha frappuccino.
Gran Caffe La Caffettiera
Piazza di Pietra 65
This elegant, upscale café is decorated with antique coffee makers in a variety of styles, from mochas to Neapolitans to espresso machines. The jet-set hang out here (or in Bar della Pace, Robert De Niro’s favorite haunt in Rome), so you can drink cappuccinos and watch the stars come and go.
Via dei Condotti 86
The oldest café in Rome, founded in 1760, this is the literary grand café of Rome, located on the most famous high-end shopping street in the city. The walls are decorated with top notch art, and everyone from Byron toWagner, Stendhal to Goethe, Keats to Casanova has sipped coffee here. It is rich with atmosphere, and the cappuccinos are excellent, too. But be sure to drink standing at the bar! Sit down and you’ll be treated to an 8 euro cappuccino, while the cost to stand at the bar is only 1.50! That rule applies everywhere in Italy. Order a drink “al bar,” standing at the bar as most locals do, and the cost of a cappuccino, no matter where you are, runs from 1-1.50. Order seated at a table and the cost can triple or worse! It’s okay to sit down, especially if you plan to relax and enjoy your seat for a good hour or more, but keep in mind that you are paying to rent the table, and the same beverage can be enjoyed for a sliver of the price.
Via del Babuino 150
Housed in the former sculpture studio of Canova and, later, Tadolini, this café is filled with large and dramatic plaster casts of famous sculptures. It also has a delicious cappuccino that is about 50% larger than most in the city, yet the price is the same as others. You even get to stir your cappuccino with a gold-plated spoon, which I’ve always been tempted to abscond with, but have thus far resisted the temptation.
The traditional way to take this tour would be in the morning, but that is a lot of cappuccino to ingest in one go. You might subdivide the crawl into sections, with Bar del Cappuccino and Cafffe Camerino a good pairing; Sant’Eustachio, Tazza d’Oro and La Caffettiera nested together; and Café Greco and Café Canova-Tadolini within an easy walk of each other. Or just accept the massive caffeine buzz and do them all at once!
Order a cappuccino after lunchtime, and you will be roundly mocked by Italians, who labor under the misapprehension, now turned tradition, that consuming a milky beverage after a meal will give you indigestion. For Italians, cappuccino is a breakfast drink, and espresso is what you take to finish a meal. But cappuccinos are so darn good that it is worth being snickered at by the locals to drink them whenever you like. Enjoy!