Rome Travel Guide

Rome Architecture, History, Art, Museums, Galleries, Fashion, Music, Photos, Walking and Hiking Itineraries, Neighborhoods, News and Social Commentary, Politics, Things to Do in Rome and Environs. Over 900 posts

Wednesday, July 27, 2022

Finding "Our" Coffee Bar in Rome: the Story of Two Searches

If you're in Rome more than a week, nothing is more important than choosing your coffee bar. The coffee bar is central to Roman--and Italian--life. Mornings begin with coffee and a cornetto (a Danish); then there's the late-morning break for coffee--either at the bar or delivered from the bar on one of those ubiquitous round trays. And so on. 

On a recent trip, we were lucky to stay in two Rome neighborhoods; we got to choose two coffee bars rather than just one.

Our first neighborhood (quartiere) was Aurelia South, a busy, pleasant, middle-class enclave tucked in between the Vatican on one side and the long shoulder of Monte Mario on the other. The area is full of coffee bars. We tried ten! The one closest to the Vatican was nice enough, but the prices were too high--the tourists had reached the area, if only barely. Others were men's bars (the tables outside invariably occupied by long-term, older Roman guys), or the coffee wasn't good enough, or the outside space was limited, or whatever.  

Here's one reject: 

And another reject, a bar called MilkCoffeBurger. Despite the name, we tried this one a couple of times.  

Another was too fancy, although, as you can see in the photo below, the police stopped in for coffee late one day. This was our late-afternoon wine bar. 

We finally settled on Venere Caffe' (Bar Bistrot) a place with a nice outside space, stuck out into the street--and covered, shielded from the sun. Good coffee. The label "bistrot" is widely used these days. We've even seen "ristrot," a combination of bistrot and ristorante. 

After about two weeks in Aurelia South, we moved to an apartment just a short block from Piazza dei Re di Roma.  We tried Pompi, the largest and most famous bar in the area, known for its tiramisu. We found the coffee ordinary at best and the staff impersonal. No. And we tried Cannoleria, a bar that features cannoli. No seating inside, a nice outside space [see photo below, with Piazza dei Re di Roma in the distance] (you carry your coffee and stuff out the door on a tray, and walk around the flower shop). Coffee was good, cornetti excellent. Too expensive. Slow service from a too-busy staff, but good enough that it was our favorite on Sundays and holidays when our otherwise favorite one was closed.

We tried a small corner bar on Via Aosta--too small inside, rather ordinary tables, uncovered, outside. No comfortable space in which to reader the morning paper. And lousy coffee.

Then we found "our" bar. On via Pinerolo, just steps from our apartment. The name is Antica Caffetteria, and on the awning it says "Wine Bar Gastronomia," half of which is true. This is definitely not a wine bar, in the sense in which that term ought to be used, although they serve an afternoon "spritz." But there is a kitchen, which serves a daily lunch that attracts quite a crowd, and the cook is the wife of the owner/manager.

Here's the bar from down the sidewalk. When the sun is shining, as it usually is, the tables on the right, beyond the awning (and nearer the street), are not favored.

Across from the bar there's an old phone booth, now an informal library, decorated with embroidery. We saw lots of folks looking at the books and taking one or two.  

The bar has good outside seating, some of it uncovered (not good) and some of it covered sufficiently to ward off the morning sun. 

Befitting a place where food is served, there were a number of tables inside in back, where we often sat and read the paper. The price was right: E1 for coffee (no additional cost for an Americano), E1 for a cornetto, total E4 for both of us (about $4.20). The cornetti were Roma standard, the coffee uniformly excellent. 

Like many establishments in these days of Covid-19--especially those not in a tourist area--there's no extra charge for sitting at a table, inside or outside. Rather than table service, customers are encouraged to take their coffee and cornetti to their table, on one of those round trays. When finished, we always disposed of our napkins and took the cups back to the bar--not required, but a courtesy. Our bar usually gave us small glasses of tap water with our our coffee (see the glasses on the tray, below). 

Late in our visit we learned that the bar is a family operation. Dad runs the cassa (the cash register), cleans up here and there and buses tables. In the photo below, he shows surprise at being photographed (I didn't expect him to come into the frame).

His two sons are baristi, making coffee and serving customers their cornetti. As noted, their mother is the cook. A young woman, who often made our coffee, was apparently the only non-family member working at the bar. Her head can be seen in the 2nd photo, below. 

Like all good Roma coffee bars, the baristas at "our" bar knew our order by the third day. That's not only a nice touch, it's a form of community that you won't get at Starbucks. 

If you're in the vicinity of Piazza dei Re di Roma, save a few minutes for a stop at Antica Caffeteria, on via Pinerolo. One of our favorites. 



Monday, July 11, 2022

Rome's Industrial Heritage: A Valley's Name, its Remaining Relics


"La Fornace" - the remains today of a 20th-century industrial site, in this case the Veschi Foundry, which operated from the 1920s to 1960, taken from just below the Rome-Viterbo rail line arches - see next photo.

From this simple smokestack that we had seen on earlier treks to this area, and that now was a couple blocks from our apartment, we discovered so many stories - and theories - that it's impossible to relay them all in a blog post. The stories cover wars, names, workers' rights, vistas, government intervention, you name it.

A photo from 1890, when the Rome-Viterbo rail line was being built.

Taken from Monte Vaticano, during the construction of the bridge of the old Rome-Viterbo railroad. Clay quarries and brick-kilns are visible in the background.

Let's just start with the long-time name of the valley in which this relic stands - just behind the Vatican: "Valle dell'Inferno." - Okay, it's the "Valley of Hell" - a name the government would like to erase from memory (current official name "Valle Aurelia") Did that come from the smokestacks?  Local lore would say "yes," because once this valley (this smokestack is at the southern end of it - closest to the Vatican) was home to about 20 foundries, each with at least one smokestack.  (And, unrelated to the name, the bronze for Bernini's Baldacchino in St. Peter's may have been smelted in this area.) The best old photos I could find are the one above and here:

Two smokestacks are easily visible in this 1938 photo. Look closely and you'll see several more behind, in the greyness that no doubt was constant here, and, according to some, gave the valley its name.

Another theory is that the valley was named for the 1527 sack of Rome by German mercenaries, who massacred the Papal troops "with a ferocity to evoke the pains of hell" in this very valley. 

A third theory is that it was here that those who fell ill with the Spanish flu in 1918-1920 were sent to a hospital to die, then buried in a common grave. (A friend recently told us his great-great-grandfather's remains are in that common grave. We could find no confirming historical information on the hospital or the common grave.) Apparently the Valle dell'Inferno name was on a 1548 map, which gives credence to the sack-of-Rome origins.

What is clear is that the Valley was home to the foundries and, closer in, near where the remaining smokestack stands, it was home as well to the foundry workers and those in related professions: makers of bricks and ceramics. They lived near their workplaces, but they also lived outside of the city and outside of the Vatican, apparently (we've learned from more than one source) because the Popes, who ruled the city until 1870, did not want the working class inside the city walls, finding them too radical, having learned lessons from the French Revolution. The area was at one time known as "little Russia" because of its leftist leanings.

The smokestack above, and the walls of the foundry beneath it, were preserved as part of the development of a new shopping mall, called "Aura," that opened in 2018. The developers restored what they could of the foundry, and when we first visited it, it was pristine, at least on the outside (nothing remains inside), but in a few short years, has fallen into disrepair yet again.

The name "La Fornace" is on a number of establishments in the area, including a good, classic Italian restaurant we enjoyed twice while staying in the area. Its symbol is of the smokestack and furnace, and a painting of those is on its walls (photo above).

Above, the foundry - now surrounded by the
ubiquitous (in Rome) orange fencing and graffiti.
There were some plans (dreams, visions)
 of instructing people about this
 continuous cycle "Hoffman" furnace.

The mall, with grand visions of being a new meeting place for the locals, a new "agora," seems to have survived the worst of the Covid years if not in great shape, at least not completely degraded. Below, a wall of signage at the mall.

The steps of the mall also are the scene of a 2021 painting (it's hard to call it "wall art" or "murales" when it's on stairs, not a wall) by the well-known 

Diavù- whom we interviewed at another mall (the Trionfale Market) not too far away. 

Diavù chose as his subject an 18th-century puppet-maker who lived in the Trionfale area nearby, but not exactly a fixture of the Valle dell'Inferno.

Diavù's steps "painting" at the Aura mall of Ghetanaccio,

the nickname of puppet maker Gaetano Santangel (note his puppets to the left and right).

Outside of the Veschi foundry, the hamlet of the foundry workers and brickmakers has only a few remaining markers of its prior existence, mainly street names: Via dei Laterizi, Via dei Mattoni, Via delle Ceramiche, Via degli Embrici - all names of the professions, basically words for bricks, ceramics, and rooftiles. These are similar to the charming streets of Rome's center - via dei Coronari (makers of rosary beads), dei Chiavari (locks and keys), etc., but the Valley's streets are not quite as charming these days as those in the center.

Even less charming is the public housing that sprung up after the last of the small houses inhabited by the descendants of the foundry and brick workers were demolished. Built (poorly, of poor materials, according to some) in the 1980s, the buildings are some of the tallest in Rome, but still compliant with the law that nothing can be higher than the "Cupolone" ("Big Dome" - of St. Peter's). These have as many stories as they do because they were built down in the valley itself. Some locals prize the buildings, with their red trim, and the wall paintings and library - all of which we found, but we also found these locales not exactly prizes. What may be a prize is the view from the top floor apartments, as one friend told us.  We couldn't get those views, but they no doubt are similar to the views from Monte Ciocci - from which we took the photos of the smokestack. (Photos below.)


Public housing, replacing the hamlet of workers' structures.

Wall paintings in the public spaces created as part of 
the public housing; the "prized" library is in here too. It 
was closed when we visited (hours are limited). So the young
people just hang out around here.

The view from Monte Ciocci - the views from the top floors of the public housing in Valle dell'Inferno would be similar.
The writing says: "How many times have you seen the sky over Rome?"
and on the horizon is the radio tower for "Radio Maria," the Vatican radio station, and 
Michelangelo's "Cupolone" - or "Big Dome" of St. Peter's basilica.

Another view from Monte Ciocci - the housing below is upscale, not public housing.
That's the Cupolone and the crenelated Vatican walls, in back of which the workers lived, not being welcome too close to the Vatican (because the Pope did not want workers they perceived as anti-Papacy unionists too near those Papal walls).