Italy: Coffee, Granita
Over the course of several visits and with Alexia as my guide, I have learned how to do coffee in Rome. I write this on the morning of the day I will head to Italy ― and I don’t know what I’ll do about coffee: I think it has begun to disagree with my inner workings.
But I have yet to celebrate Italian coffee on Pizzacentric and ― seeing as it’s summer in New York and Rome ― my thoughts have turned to granita, a coffee-, almond-, pistachio-, or fruit-flavored frozen drink Sicilians often have for breakfast with a brioche roll. I did not think decent granita exists in New York, but it does at Grom, a chain of Italian gelato stores that have opened here and elsewhere around the world. More on Grom below.
Imagine you are in Rome and already amped up on caffeine. You began the day, as is proper, with a cappuccino ― or a doppio cappuccino ― and cornetto. Then while touristing around you stopped in at a few different bars for espresso. Thus, you have had more coffee than you should have had, but in Rome perfect cups announce their presence through the doors of bars all over: the clinking of porcelain on porcelain and the hum of compressors forcing hot water through filter and ground coffee into little cups, the motorized crunching of beans, the megaphoned whisper of steam as it explodes milk against the inside walls of metal pitchers, and the chit-chatting Italians who hold these drinks for less than a minute before downing their contents in one or two quick tips.
(Coffee as tasty as good coffee in Rome costs more in New York. At Café Pedlar, a good place up the street from my apartment in Brooklyn, an espresso is $2.50. In Rome, good espresso ― which is commonplace ― costs about € 0.70, or roughly US $0.90.)
During my first visit to Rome in 1996, Alexia brought me to Caffé Tazza d’Oro, an espresso bar near the Pantheon, where I tried granita for the first time. Imagine a plastic cup filled with thousands of square specks of coffee-ice topped with a heap of panna, a thick whipped cream. The result, when mixed, is a sticky-yet-granular, icy, more-bitter-than-sweet afternoon pick-me-up-again best consumed with a spoon.
When I walk out of Tazza d’Oro and into the hot sunshine, brain aloft and body abuzz, the heat does not bug me in quite the way it seems to bug so many of the tourists who look fatigued as they stand without shade next to flag-bearing guides who tell them things about ancient Rome: they listen, they mop molto sweat off of their brows, and then they walk off toward the next point of interest ― perhaps Piazza Navona. I feel superior because I know about granita and because I’m dangerously wired.
Last April, when I described Tazzo d’Oro’s granita to Nick ― the man known to Pizzacentric readers as the Sicilian Critic ― I sensed disdain. He said, “This is not granita. This is grattachecca ― ice mashed into little pieces and mixed with a syrup of processed flavors.” Because he is from Sicily, the birthplace of granita ― and because he is the Sicilian Critic ― he would not try it.
When we went to his hometown I had a granita at Bar Castello, an espresso bar near his parents’ house. At Nick’s urging I had almond, not coffee: it’s made from actual ground almonds, not manufactured flavorings. (I had an espresso to go with it.)
This granita was smoother in texture than Tazzo d’Oro’s and more naturally almond than anything almond I’ve ever had (excluding almonds, of course). Even though the granita was frozen and wet I could still sense the nut-meat within. I ate it with brioche ― what a great combination!
(I did not try Castello’s coffee granita and so do not know how it would compare to Tazzo d’Oro’s. I have, however, discovered a post by a person named “Jill,” who along with “John,” has a blog called “Vegan Backpacker.” Her post about granita substantiates Nick’s claim that for the best granita, you have to go to Sicily. Check it out her yummy photos!)
Anyone in New York (or Malibu, Osaka, Paris, Tokyo ― or any of several Italian cities) can find decent granita at Grom, an chain of Italian gelaterias with roots in Turin.
Grom’s almond granita tastes natural like the one I had in Sicily. The only difference is that the almonds are ground a little coarser than they were in my Sicilian granita. I also tried Grom’s coffee granita. Its flavor is good ― a little bitter and not too sweet ― but a little too wet. If you have granita at Grom ― which is not a cheap place ― be sure to splurge extra on panna: it’s a luscious addition.