December 8, 2023 | Rome, Italy

Passing the bar

By |2019-12-18T12:03:11+01:00December 14th, 2019|"In Cucina"|

ar /bɑː(r)/ noun • an establishment where alcohol and sometimes other refreshments are served.

The esteemed Mr. Webster, though rather wise in many things word-related, did not live in Italy, a country in which the word “bar” has infinitely more meanings than anything you’ll find in an English-language dictionary, let alone the English-speaking world.

When Americans go to a bar, they expect a beer or a stiff drink. When Italians go, a stiff drink is low on their list of priorities. In fact, the Italian concept of what a bar should (and can) do has little connection to anything you’ll find in North America or in a British pub.

Typically, an Italian bar opens early in the morning, serving breakfast through late morning, after which it offers lunch, with sandwiches, panini and sometimes pasta available at least until 3 p.m. Later, it serves aperitifs and sometimes even dinner. Alcholic beverages are always available, and some bars even double as licensed tobacco stores, selling cigarettes, bus tickets, and candy.

But the real name of the game is nonstop espresso. While Anglo-Saxon culture distinguishes between a beer-and-drinks bar and a coffee bar (or applies Starbucks in general terms), Italians just stick to the all-inclusive bar. The espresso ritual has been a standard feature of Italian life for nearly 100 years. You order un caffè, pay ahead at the cashier (around €1), walk up to the counter (no bar stools), place a 20 cent tip on your receipt, and down the piping hot, jet black liquid in two or three sips. The counter is an assembly hall of chatter, with customers talking to each other or the barista. If ever a ritual could be considered loud, Italian coffee drinking is just that, but in the most pleasant way.

While Anglo-Saxon culture distinguishes between a beer-and-drinks bar and a coffee bar, Italians just stick to the all-inclusive bar.

But given how picky and demanding Italians can be regarding food, furiously sending back a dish if the carbonara has even a hint of heavy cream, it’s curious how patient they are when it comes to espresso, sometimes settling for pretty awful brews. Why is that?

Are we Italians just impatient?

Have we gone too long without heavy-duty caffeine, so anything will do?

Do we not want to make a fuss, since a bar is far more public and intimate than a restaurant?

Maybe it’s steadfast loyalty to our neighborhood barista — a loyalty that can be deep and wide and sometimes last decades.

Romantic notions aside, no one should ever settle for a bar that fails to cut it, whether because the coffee is mediocre or the morning pastry too dry. A bar holds a crucially important, practical, and cultural role in daily life — in that way at least kin to an American “watering hole.” If your local bartender can’t mix drinks, there’s trouble in Dodge.

But how exactly do you go about rating an Italian bar? What makes a good bar good?

The quality of the espresso?

The barista’s touch?

The mood along the counter?

All of the above? Let’s break down each of these items.

• The espresso is the benchmark. It takes only a handful of seconds to make “express,” and the machine is pretty much standard, but brewing (actually, extracting) a cup of espresso is not as easy as you might think. The reason is that a lot can go wrong in those few seconds (welcome to life). I’ll cut to the chase: nine out of ten bar-made Italian espressos are a disaster.

If the barista is busy arguing about soccer, your espresso may come with own-goals.

Let me start by sharing a few basic extraction ground rules.

Rule 1. Seven grams. That’s the exact quantity of finely ground Arabica variety beans that should be loaded into the professional espresso machine.

Rule 2: The pressure exerted on the filter handle should be the equivalent of 20 kilos.

Rule 3: The machine pressure must be set at 9 atmospheres.

Rule 4: The standard volume of a demitasse should be 20-to-25 milliliters per cup.

Sound technical? That’s because it is, and breaking the rules won’t land you on Mars. Food and beverages are all about precision.

Obviously each region has its own traditions, serving extractions that are lungo or corto, long or short. But to get the perfect cup of espresso, topped with its signature caramel-colored cremina, means following the ratios I’ve just mentioned. The mesmerizing brownish creamy topping reflects the molecular breakdown of the oils present in the coffee. They emerge from the coffee when it’s forced through boiling water and the powder itself is intensely presured. If the beans used are indeed of the Arabica variety (and not the less prized Robusta), the creamy topping should be dense and aromatic. Why? Because Arabica beans contain a higher volume of oils.

• For this reason, the barista is the deciding element. It’s a matter of know-how and experience.

In general, un caffè is a hot cup all but hurled onto a saucer that sits on a long stainless steel or glass counter. As mentioned earlier, most of the time what you get is rancid, bitter, or burnt.

Again, why? Above all, poor coffee is the result of poor roast. If your bar uses the Robusta variety of beans, you already have a handicap. A subpar start doesn’t bode well.

If it’s Arabica, the result is all in the hands of the barista. In an effort to work fast, a careless barista — who may well be dealing with throngs of impatient customers and dishing out five cups a minute — will empty the filter handle by banging it on the side of the trash bin, an all-too-familiar bar sound. The same barista will then load an unspecified amount of ground coffee, jam it tightly into the machine, and start the extraction process by pushing a button. The extraction time will vary in length depending on a number of factors: how many clients are being served; the barista’s mood; the distraction factor, and so on. If the barista is busy arguing with a customer about the outcome of a critical soccer game, your espresso may come with own-goals.

An espresso worthy of its international reputation must be made with the same amount of ground beans, applying the same extent of arm pressure, and consistently maintaining the same extraction duration.

There’s more. In addition to a good roast, properly applied pressure, timing, and the many other variables, the quality of an espresso also depends on the machine itself. Is it being cleaned well and thoroughly after each cup? Is it being well-maintained in more general terms? A clean machine means a clean filter, spout, milk frother, grinder, and so on. The coffee machine is a racing car. Speed demands on the quality of the engine, but also the mechanics. This, too, is the barista’s job.

The making and serving of espresso is an art form with countless details.

In Rome, tapwater is mineral-rich. Over time, limescale deposits clog pipes and faucets. Rome residents depend on special calcium-cleaning products. The same problem burdens a bar. The limescale buildup jams coffee spouts and filters become clogged. Less water seeps through, weakening the extraction. The result is an acidic cup of coffee. Grounds also get stuck in the filter, burning repeatedly and making the liquid unbearably burnt and bitter-tasting. That’s why baristas have a little brush that should be used to wipe the filter clean after every cup extracted.

Pay attention. How many times have you seen a barista use this brush and let hot water flow through the spout before filling the filter handle for the next cup?

One indicator of poor coffee machine maintenance is the condition of the grinder funnel. If it’s grimy and oily, brown and dirty, walk away.

An Italian bar goes through kilos and kilos of coffee beans over the course of a day. They’re usually ground every few hours, on demand. That’s because coffee that sits around tends to lose aroma, oils, and other flavor components. If the roasted beans are poured from an airtight container into a filthy grinder (with bits of old beans, dust and God knows what else insde) quality and flavor are compromised. Always look for a clean filter grinder.

The condition and cleanliness of the coffee machine is a reflection of what you’re sipping.

• It’s hard to quantify, but vibe matters. Points go to bars with newspapers for communal sharing, friendly baristas who avoid loudly banging cups and saucers, and a good mix of music to add to the sports chatter. This is the bar’s soundtrack.

Customers are also part of the equation. Absorbing the life of a bar is a fascinating spectacle that includes lead actors and extras. To me, bar life would be well worth an anthropological study, since the people passing through represent all age groups and walks of life. And they’re all there for a caffeine boost or just some company. Some are in a rush, others linger. Some ask for decaf with a splash of soy milk, others want a shot of sambuca at 8 a.m. And all of it is normal.

Ultimately, it’s all about the pausa caffè: a few minutes to knock back a steaming cup and exchange small talk before returning to reality. In Italy a bar is where you meet colleagues, go on a first date, or take refuge from a sudden downpour. Regulars don’t even need to place their order, and even kids can drink cappuccino. But that’s another story.

About the Author:

Eleonora Baldwin lives in Rome dividing her time between food and lifestyle writing, hosting prime-time TV shows, and designing Italian culinary adventures. She is the author of popular blogs Aglio, Olio e Peperoncino and Casa Mia Italy Food & Wine.