April 23, 2014 | Rome, Italy | Partly Cloudy 19°C

The restful pen

Detail from Renato Guttuso's 1975 portrayal of Caffé Greco.
By Corinna Amendola
Published: 2014-04-12

pictured myself writing articles such as this one hunched over my laptop in a cozy corner table of a lovely little Rome café, the steam from my cappuccino caressing my screen for hours on end while I occasionally gazed up at my beautifully Belle Époque surroundings. I did not, however, picture myself wandering the streets of Rome for extended periods of time lugging said laptop in search of said café — one which, incidentally, wouldn't charge me €6 (or more) for that damn cappuccino. Nor was I prepared to make do in one of the ubiquitous bars — unimaginative places where poetry is found only in the delicate manner a heart is crafted in frothy foam.

As a former New Yorker and frequent traveler to European cities, I assumed Rome was a city like most others, certainly not lacking in caffeine-friendly retreats where writers, thinkers, artists and those otherwise occupied with solitary pondering could wile away the day.

I thought of the legendary literary cafes of Paris — traditional centers of chic intellectualism. American coffee house havens — from the bohemian, velvet couch-laden lairs of New York's Greenwich Village to the Starbucks on every corner from Portland to Poughkeepsie — also came to mind. I felt sure I'd find their equivalent alla Romana, with far better coffee and charming Italian waiters.

It hasn't quite turned out that way.

Naturally, there are the guidebook standards: Bar della Pace, Babington's Tea Room, and, of course, the oldest and most illustrious of them all, Caffé Greco. "All the famous artists, poets and writers came here; to meet, to paint, to write," says Andrea Potenza, the maitre d' and designated historian of the café, which opened its doors in the late 18th-century.

Rome's Salotto 42 labels itself a "book bar."

Greco was Rome's first literary café — a place where savvy expatriates such as Stendhal, Byron, Goethe, Hans Christian Andersen, Shelley, and Keats recorded their thoughts. "All of the important people who came to Rome came here, from Wagner to [Giorgio] de Chirico," says Potenza.

But after the halcyon days of Shelley and Keats, the Rome literary café scene once percolating at Caffé Greco gradually lost its steam, never to retrieve its original glory. By the Dolce Vita era, the cognoscenti were commiserating over chic aperitifs on Via Veneto. Caffé Greco's "in crowd" switched from masters of pulp and canvas to stars of the big and small screen. "In that period, and still now, any famous people here are mostly actors, some politicians, but it is not as it used to be," says Potenza, "Not a place for intellectuals, except for a cultural association of professors that meets here every so often."

In fact, the most common books to be found in Caffé Greco today are the guidebooks held by tourists nursing expensive espressos and marveling at the original walls reminiscent of times past. Why is the coffee house culture so engrained in other cosmopolitan cities and once a part of Rome history so hard to find today?

Coffee culture is different in Italy. Coffee is fuel for the body and for the day ahead. The place that serves it is a pit stop — a place to refill both on black gold and on another core element of Italian culture: words. Bars are a central part of the communal aspect of Italian life; a place to catch up on gossip, discuss the day's news, debate the latest politics or to discuss the particular merits of one soccer team over another.

There are tables for those who have the time or inclination to linger a while and extend these conversations, and even the solo patron can pull up a seat and peruse the paper, but only to load up on material for the next conversation he or she will surely start with any willing participant. Words — constantly spoken, not written, and thoughts — constantly expressed, not contemplated, are both antithetical to café table introspection.

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