A few years ago, as we were driving along Circonvallazione Ostiense, the aroma of freshly roasted coffee drifted into the car through the open window. It was morning in a district teeming with bars, which was normal, except for the odor, which was peculiar: thick, like toast, beef, coal, and toffee. Our noses twitched and we speculated as to where the odor originated. We were also tardy.
A few months later, Corrado, the proprietor of a stall in the Testaccio market, received new coffee: gold packets from Torrefazione San Salvador di Luigi Pinci. Not only was it my type, but it was also the solution to the mystery of what had entered through the window. A few days later, we returned to Garbatella in search of Luigi Pinci.
In 1901, Luigi’s grandfather, also named Luigi Pinci, began working as a caretaker at Torrefazione La Pallavicini in via Benzoni, the “most beautiful coffee roaster in Rome” at the time. One of the children, Luigi, was born in 1934 “practically on the coffee bean sacks” (practically on the coffee bean sacks), and he has lived there ever since.
Luigi, who was married and had children in the early 1970s, leased the shop on Piazza Attilio Pecile. It was a general alimentari for forty years, selling bread, cheese, salami, and dried goods. But above all, a torrefazione, a wood-fired coffee roaster, provided swirling euphoria, according to a fortunate neighbor who grew up nearby. In 2015, three generations decided to concentrate even more on what they did best, namely the torrefazione, and transform the store into the nicest cafeteria in Rome.
Now 84 years old, Luigi sleeps, dreams, and awakens with thoughts of roasting. When I inquire as to what coffee means to him, he responds, “everything.” With the assistance of his wife Rita, children Elisabetta and Claudio, and granddaughter Martina, he still dons his brown jacket and roasts three times per week. The miscela, or mixture of beans, is the combination taught to him by his grandfather and father and shaped by a lifetime of purchasing beans from reputable vendors and roasting them.
The roaster resembles a stream train; it is a cylinder atop a base that contains a small wood oven. A vacuum-like tube shoots from the top of the cylinders, curves across the room, and terminates at the mouth of the vat, where the coffee beans are tipped. The beans are then sucked into the rotating roaster cylinder, which ensures uniform roasting. It takes about 22 minutes (as opposed to four in industrial roasting). Occasionally, Luigi inserts an apple-corer-like implement into the side of the cylinder to extract a few beans and observes their transformation from green to dark brown. Once the coffee beans have been roasted, they fall onto a large plate, where a metal arm pushes them into a funnel. But only after Luigi has inspected them. On demand, beans are ground at the bar.
I am writing this on a sweltering city day. The answer is cold coffee – sadly not served at Torrefazione SS, but inspired by it. Unlike most bars, Torrefazione SS does not have a bottle of espresso, possibly sweetened, in the refrigerator. They are neither rude nor dismissive of places or individuals that serve subpar coffee; they are simply adamant that it does not meet their standards.
There are three types of caffè freddo available. The first drink is caffè in ghiaccio, for which you are given a small jug of espresso and a glass with five or six ice cubes so that you can control the contrast.
The second is caffè leccese, a coffee brewed in the style of Lecce, Puglia. Again, you are given a jug of espresso and a glass with ice and a centimetre of almond syrup, which clouds the coffee to a dark tan color – perhaps not for coffee connoisseurs, but definitely for me (if you can’t find the syrup, almond milk is nearly as good).
The third option is caffè shakerato, which consists of hot coffee, sugar to taste, and ice blended into a two-toned froth. Claudio suggests making it at home in a jam jar: one espresso, one teaspoon of sugar, and five ice cubes, with a tight lid and vigorous shaking. This is served in a martini glass, so I do the same for glamour, and then I toast the Pinci family.