Espresso di Roma: Sant’Eustachio

The famous Italian “30-Second Breakfast” of a espresso and a pastry, consumed quickly at the counter, before sprinting off on your Vespa, is one of the charms of Italy. The coffee is so good no matter where you go, from small corner caffès to trattorias and pizzerias, the end of a good meal is always punctuated with a shot of espresso. Each time I sip a tiny, sweetened ristretto (a very small, or “short” espresso), I can feel the tears welling up in my eyes (yes…really, I’m a romantic).

I stand at the counter while the barista lowers the handle on the powerful espresso machine, watching the thin trickle of aromatic liquid. The bartender loudly clanks the espresso saucer on the counter with a tiny spoon and perhaps a packet of sugar, then moments later presents me with a teensy cup of very hot, toasty and deeply flavorful liquid.

Just a sip or two, then it’s gone; the perfect espresso.

And in Rome, one must make the pilgrimage to the most famous espresso in the world… Sant’Eustachio.

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The espresso at Sant’Eustachio in Rome is so well-regarded that William Grimes of the New York Times advised those in the US seeking the perfect espresso, “…When the need for a real espresso becomes overpowering, buy a ticket to Rome, tell the taxi driver to head straight for the Sant’Eustachio cafe. The espresso will be perfect. A little expensive, but surely worth the trouble.”

The perfect espresso requires a few factors: the pressure of the machine, the quality and grind of the coffee beans, how often the machine is cleaned and serviced, the skill of the machine operator and many feel, most critically, the water used.

(And in spite of what many people think, there is much less caffeine in espresso. Unlike drip or plunger-style coffee, the coffee extraction for espresso is so rapid and powerful, there’s too little time for much caffeine to be extracted from the coffee.)

No one at Sant’Eustachio will reveal their secret for the crema that tops their espresso, which is a thick layer of frothy cream that floats on top of the espresso, which experts claim should float the sugar for exactly 3 seconds before it begins to sink in and dissolve.

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I have to admit, no one at my table was very impressed with the espresso or cappuccino at Sant’Eustachio. The famed crema sat on top of the coffee like a thick, cranky layer of froth that refused to budge, rather than the delicate layer of silky bubbles that beautifully frames the rich brown, steaming liquid pressed into the tiny cup. I tend to agree with those that claim the secret of San’Eustachio’s espresso is a tiny bit of bicarbonate of soda added to their water (since acid neutralizes the taste of bicarbonate of soda, the slightly-bitter espresso would indeed eradicate any trace of that ‘soapy’ flavor). That foam was suspiciously rich and stubborn and I had to press down on the sugar, and stir, to get it into the espresso.

And the coffee was pricey.
Most caffès charge perhaps 80 centimes (about $1) for an espresso at the counter, whereas here it almost three times the price.
But admittedly, no one here seems to stand at the counter…most opt for the tables in the lovely, placid Piazza Sant’Eustachio overlooking the church. An unusually quiet little square in the middle of Rome.

Sant’Eustachio
Piazza Sant’Eustachio 82
Rome
Tel: 06-6880-2048

7 comments

  • Such a nice “postcard”. Can almost pretend I was there.

  • Hi David,
    I completely share your passion for coffee. And you right on with the complexity of making good coffee.
    Regarding coffee in Italy I’m not sure I fully agree though on a general level. Most coffee served there is a combination of arabica (80%)and robusta (20%) beans, which they claim is the secret to their crema (stabilizes it). While that may be partly true, it is also about $$. The robusta beans are much cheaper and unfortunately has more acidity, and therefore tastes more bitter.

    Ask for a 100%, single harvest arabica espresso or cappuccino triestino and you’ll be blown away…

  • In France (and America), some coffee is labeled “100% Arabica”, yet it tastes vile…I don’t know if it’s mislabeled or what, but I tend not to believe what the package says based on my experiences. Your advice about “Single-harvest” I presume means the Arabica will be superior quality.

    In the chocolate world, people always say that ‘forestero’ beans are the bad ones, and only ‘criollo’ or ‘trinitario’ beans are the best (there is only a handful of true ‘criollo’ left on the planet. But my favorite chocolates are often a blend of them (like ScharffenBerger).

    In France, the Molongo coffee is excellent (it’s Free Trade, which I know is not a quality guarantee, but it tastes good and has pictures of happy natives on the packaging) although I stocked up on coffee in Italy at Tazza d’Oro. Next time I will be sure to look for single-harvest Arabica in Italy.

  • Hi David,

    I am such a big coffee lover so reading this week’s posting has been faboulous. I live in England where coffee not only is extremely expensive (2.45 pounds for a large cappuccino cup in most places) but also very rarely one can be guaranteed to get good coffee for such high value.

    Your pictures are also fabulous. I have written down the address so that when I am next in Rome I can check it out.

  • The secret to real crema : a good grinder and coffee roasted no more than 7 days ago. When used within 2 or 3 days, a shot will come out 80% – 90% crema.

    The secret to crema in most coffee shops : adding robusta to their mix … it makes for a longer lasting crema, higher caffeine content … and sadly, worse taste.

  • This is great information on espresso! I didn’t know that robusta made a better ‘crema’ (the coffee in France is said to be Arabica mostly, but I ain’t buying it)…there’s a decent ‘crema’, but most of the coffee here sucks. Pardon my French.

    (And for that matter, some of the coffee in America isn’t any good either.)

    According to the director of Lavazza (as quoted in the NY Times a few years back), “…the water must be heated to 194 to 203 degrees fahrenheit, then forced at 9 bars of pressure (or 135 pounds per square inch), through a quarter ounce of finely ground coffee for 25-30 seconds.” That makes the perfect espresso.
    Also, espresso machines need to keep going, not stop for a while, and the cup-and-handle knob needs to be kept on the machine at all times to keep the machine hot enough. In Italy, coffee-making is an art, not an after-school job (or a way to earn enough money for more piercings.) Most people working in caffes in Italy are well-trained and skilled at what they do. It’s their career.

    There’s also talk about the water. Apparently the water in the US (except in LA and Scottsdale, AZ) has water with enough calcium, which is why experts say the best espresso is in Naples, since there is much volcanic soil from nearby Mt. Vesuvius, some think.

  • Caro David, thank you for your notes about Sant’Eustachio coffee. I will inquire with Roberto Ricci, its owner, about your “thick crema” observations – I never heard of bicarbonate in the coffee, before – and will get back to you. We do Gustiamo in America (we import food from Italy) and just started the importation of Sant’Eustachio coffee http://www.gustiamo.com/pages/sant'eus.shtml, announcing the Grand Opening with a newsletter broadcast (http://www.gustiamo.com/newsletter.shtml) only a day before you posted your comments. What a coincidence. I’m glad you went to see them. Are you still in Rome? I’d like you to meet with Roberto. He is a great passioned guy and a wealth of information.
    Grazie mille,
    B.