The Place: Sant’Eustachio,
On a Wednesday morning in late June, Caffè Sant’Eustachio is bustling. At its outdoor tables overlooking Piazza Sant’Eustachio, patrons – a mix of Romans and jet-lagged travellers, retirees and office people – sip cappuccinos and scarf down cornetti while uniformed waiters zig zag past them, delivering one order after the other. Inside, customers make a beeline for the till, then head to the counter, where espressos are doled out with exacting precision.
At first glance, the scene isn’t much different from other bars in Rome. Except the place is: Caffè Sant’Eustachio is the Eternal City’s most iconic caffè (coffee shop). Stopping for a cup here is like visiting a time-honoured vineyard in Chianti: an experience – and the best way to witness Italian excellence first-hand.
“It’s a destination,” says Raimondo Ricci, who co-owns the bar with his brother, as we sit down over coffee (obviously). “Not just somewhere you come for a quick shot of caffeine, but a place that’s both steeped in the city’s history and centred around serving you the best cup of coffee you might have ever had.”
Established in 1938 – though the venue already existed in the 18th century, when it was simply called ‘Caffè e Latte’ (‘Coffee and Milk’), Ricci tells us – Sant’Eustachio has indeed long been tied to Rome’s cultural and social fabric.
“Back in the days, this was the heart of the city,” Ricci says. “There were theatres and cinemas nearby, offices and governmental buildings. The first university was just around the corner, as was – and still is today – Palazzo Madama, the seat of the Senate. Sant’Eustachio was at the centre of it all.”
Becoming an institution of sorts didn’t take long. From actors to politicians, anyone who was anyone would pop by Sant’Eustachio for an espresso – all the more so after 1948, when the bar started roasting its own beans (in 1999, when Ricci and his brother took over the business, Sant’Eustachio began importing directly from small cooperatives in Brazil, Guatemala, the Dominican Republic, Ethiopia, and the islands of St. Elena and the Galapagos, to further ensure quality control).
The cafe’s interiors also contributed to its ‘It’ status. “While most bars back then used to be built in wood, Sant’Eustachio had curved, white masonry walls,” Ricci says. “It was very innovative, which made it trendy. For a lot of people, it was a place to see and be seen.”
The design is still the same today, making the venue a time capsule evocative of a bygone era. On the walls, black-and-white photos of decades past further add an element of nostalgia to the whole space. Even the menu hasn’t changed since 1938 (“if a customer asks for a ginseng or a sandwich, we have to tell them no, because we don’t make them,” Ricci tells us).
“It definitely doesn’t feel ‘new’, but I think keeping the original mood makes sense, given its legacy,” Ricci says. “The old-fashioned atmosphere is part of its soul.”
So is the bright yellow colour palette of its branding and the stag with a cross between its horns that makes its logo. Show them to any Roman, and they’ll immediately recognise them as Sant’Eustachio’s.
And then, of course, there’s the coffee itself. Rich and creamy, made from 100% premium Arabica and sweetened with sugar unless you specifically request it without (a typical Sant’Eustachio trait), the potent potion is the real essence of this unassuming bar.
Not that you get to see how it’s made: Sant’ Eustachio’s coffee machines are hidden by perfectly positioned aluminium plates, so that the baristas can concoct their brews out of sight. “We’ve always followed a secret recipe, and that hasn’t changed to this date,” Ricci explains. “Hence the plates.”
Regardless, the result is fantastic. And, luckily, no longer something you can only taste in Rome.
Over the past few years, Sant’Eustachio has in fact branched out into packaged blends, tins, and coffee capsules – Eric Favre, who invented the Nespresso coffee maker, is said to have had the idea for it while drinking a coffee at Sant’Eustachio – all of which you can get on ISSIMO and get delivered straight to your door.
“It’s the best of the best,” Ricci says. And the closest thing to starting the day like in-the-know Romans (and Italians in general) do.
Hot tip: After you’ve stopped by the original, make sure to also check out Emporio Sant’Eustachio, the bar’s younger sibling. Opened in 2021 in Via della Maddalena, near the Pantheon, it has a cool, hip vibe, design-forward interiors, and equally great coffee.