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. Instead, this is a glimpse into the past; a taste of the habitual; a step towards new beginnings. I’m returning to the birthplace of espresso: la bella Italia, to a cafe so traditional that you couldn’t even find it on Facebook or Google Maps. Until now.
203 Via Silvestri (Rome, Italy)
Watching Stefano Cristiani (owner & barman since 1994) work behind the bar is like witnessing a perfectly, choreographed dance. At Caffè Bar Ficini (est. 1953), this aptly-experienced barman taps, spins, and glides through the coffee waltz with effortless grace.
Quality of Service:
What are the steps? 1) A customer approaches the counter. 2) Without missing a beat: saucer, spoon, water are placed in front. Tap! Tap! Tap! 3) Espresso is ground, dosed, tamped, and pulled on a 25-year old Fiorenzato Ducale, takes a day to convince it not to bite, but takes years to make it purr. 4) One, two, three sips. 5) Then, one, two, three coins left next to the empty cup. Besides the conventional: “Bonjourno,” “Grazie,” and “Ciao,” nothing is said. This is a silent dance between barman and client, and Stefano already knows all the piques, pirouettes, and poses of each of his customers. 6) Wash cup, 7) wipe counter, 8) sweep floor, 9) refill sugar, the dance continues.
A Day in an Italian Coffee Bar:
The dawn whispers, “It’s time to start the day!”
- 4:59 am – Last breaths of freedom.
- 5:00 am – Key turns in the lock. Lights flicker on. The first signs of cafe life.
- 5:02 am – First dose of coffee grounded and tasted.
- 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.
- 5:30 am – Like clockwork, the regulars arrive.
- Same people, same dogs, same time, same order. Stefano gave me a quick rundown of each customer before they enter the bar: name, occupation, and a well-meaning yet humorous critique of their personality. Basically, everyone is pazzo (crazy): “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.
- 6:00 am – 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. Cafe life has ended for the day.
- 8:01 pm – Resume breaths of freedom.
The dusk taunts, “Until tomorrow!”
Quality of Product:
A third-wave barista’s worst nightmare, there’s no equation for making Italian-style coffee because this is a dance class, not a math class. Nonetheless, Stefano does have standards, after all, customers come here because he’s been making damn, good coffee for over 20 years. Succeed by meeting his standards or get crushed by his disapproval. Fail and he’ll throw it away, making it again himself. Time, coffee, and energy wasted. This is the deal. However even the espressos that pass his inspection, customers can taste the difference. Goes to show that technique when making coffee is just as important as the quality of ingredients.
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 learned more Italian in one day of working at Caffè Bar Ficini than French in years of studying at high school. If you would like to learn another language, this is the way to do it: full immersion. Like a child learning their first language, you’ll soak up the new language like a sponge considering your survival will depend on it. Would you like to learn how to order a coffee in Italian? Click here to learn essential coffee-related vocabulary.
Quality of Atmosphere:
After a day in Caffè Bar Ficini of Rome, it became as light as day to understand the philosophical and practical differences between
- Traditional coffee is like dance while
- Third-wave coffee is like math.
- Baristas of traditional cafes lead their clients through the cafe experience. No guide or maps needed.
- Baristas of third-wave cafes let the client equate their own cafe experience.
- Traditional cafes are about a feeling while
- Third-wave cafes are about an equation.
- A traditional barista must feel when the coffee is ready. No timers, no thermometers, nor automatic machines.
- A third-wave barista knows when the coffee is ready because the timers, thermometers, and automatic machines tell them so.
- Traditional coffee is about quality while
- Third-wave coffee is about appearance.
- Latte art is an unnecessary distraction if serving traditional coffee.
- Latte art is an added detail if serving third-wave coffee.
- Traditional cafes are about character while
- Third-wave cafes are about perfection.
- When using a traditional machine, no need to wipe the portafilters between shots. Like a well-used Japanese teapot, the buildup of coffee grind adds depth to the espresso.
- When using a third-wave machine, consistency is integral.
- Traditional coffee is about efficiency while
- Third-wave coffee is about sterility.
- Traditionalists have streamlined the coffee-making process.
- Third-wavists have accentuated the coffee-making process.
- Traditional cafes are about economy while
- Third-wave cafes are about extravagance.
- Clients of traditional coffee shops believe that the same, simple coffee is better. Too many choices over-complicates the cafe experience.
- Clients of third-wave coffee shops believe that a variety of choice benefits the cafe experience.
All in all, neither is better than the other. They both offer a unique cafe-going experience.
Caffe Ficini is 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 will gladly speak in English and French if needed. If you’re looking for a genuine Roman experience away from the bustle of tourists, this is the place to go.
As always, thank you for reading and joining me on this #internationalcoffeejourney
The Italian’s view on the third-wave coffee trend: “When you have to add flowers and other fancy bullsh*t, it’s because the original ingredients are probably sh*t.”