Italians didn’t invent coffee, but they did perfect how we drink it, socialize around it and make it an essential part of our daily routine. That’s why when I visit any part of Italy, I make sure to scope out the old school cafes, classic haunts and even the hip joints that university kids go.
Even city has their own classic cafes, but Rome has an overwhelming number of places that you can categorize as “must-see.” I tell people who go to Italy to skip the crappy continental breakfast. When you have one of the best breakfast rituals in the world around you at every corner, it’s just something you have to be a part of. Same goes for gelatto cafes.
Coffee is a great representation of Rome itself. It’s ritual and chaos incarnate. The way you drink your cappuccino (which is an Italian invention thanks to the Capuchin Monks) standing up at a bar, eat a freshy-baked cornetto, chit-chat with others and thank your barista has been going on for decades. The chaos comes in getting a spot at the morning rush hour, figuring out the proper way to order and trying to get somebody’s attention.
This brings me to Castroni, one of those old school cafes and groceries that’s old school before old school was old school. You go there once to soak in the atmosphere. By the second time, you already feel like a regular. I’ve been there five times.
Located within a 15-minute walk from the Vatican at Via Cola di Rienzo 196/198, the main Castroni store has it’s fair share of locals who are grabbing their coffee before heading into the many upscale clothing shops in the Prati. I’m willing to concede that Castroni may not have the best coffee in terms of quality. Sant’Eustachio and Tazza D’Oro are the ones more centrally located, but go there and you’ll have to fight for space with tour groups.
The Formica counters, the crusty cashier when you pay and the genial, greying staff in bow ties makes for an experience that’s truly Italian. The pastries are cream or chocolate filled little flakey pillows of goodness. It’s one of those places where the surroundings enhances the flavor of the coffee. The last time there, I wore my suit just to blend in.
The wooden shelves stock international and local foods. It’s a who’s who of Italian pasta, olive oil, sauces, jams, chocolates, sweets and everyday food needs. Yes, they have groceries you can get anywhere, even in America, but it’s a place for locals. They eat ramen like any other country.
The best thing to buy there are their own brand of coffee, chocolate covered espresso beans or little bottles of coffee liquor which are easy to take home with you.