Italy Inside the Caffe Greco by Dan Morey
Two different shades of grappa. Photo by Flickr/Italy in SF
Two different shades of grappa. Photo by Flickr/Italy in SF

Visit to the Keats-Shelley Memorial House

Dead poets put my mother in a melancholy mood, so after our visit to the Keats-Shelley Memorial House, I took her shopping across the Piazza di Spagna on the Via Condotti, Rome’s most fashionable street.

I thought this would cheer her up, but my plan backfired when she saw the prices. In addition to being sad, she now felt terribly poor. Luckily, the Caffé Greco was close at hand.

The Greco has been in business since 1760, and is the second oldest bar in Italy, after Florian’s in Venice. Casanova drank there, as did Byron and Keats and Shelley.

Inside, convivial Romans lined the bar, decked out in tweedy jackets and scarves. Everyone was having a good time, but Mother continued to look glum.

I prescribed a shot of grappa, which is enough to bring even the most funereal depressive around to a brighter way of thinking.

“Uh-uh,” she said. “I’m not drinking that rocket fuel.”

What Is Grappa? 

Grappa is a high-proof brandy distilled from pomace, the sludge left over after pressing grapes for wine. I’d wanted to try it since reading Ernest Hemingway’s “A Farewell to Arms.”

Thanks to Hemingway, I always thought I’d take my first sip of grappa from a goatskin, high in a mountain cave, with a naughty peasant girl on my lap.

As caves and peasant girls are somewhat hard to come by on the Via Condotti, the Caffé Greco would have to do.

I elbowed my way to the counter and hailed a barman in a white jacket. I told him I wanted grappa, and he asked me for tickets.

My response was a clueless stare, one that apparently mimicked the aftereffects of a debilitating stroke. He snapped his fingers and told me to see the cashier.

Mother joined me in line at the register. When we reached the cashier (same white jacket, ultra-thin mustache) he scrutinized us and hissed, “Yes-s-s?”

Finally Ordering A Grappa 

I ordered a grappa.

Caffe Greco, Italy Via Condotti, Rome by Dan Morey
Caffe Greco, Via Condotti, Rome by Dan Morey

“What kind of grappa, s-s-sir?”

“I don’t know. The regular kind.”

He sighed and scribbled something on a ticket.

“Give me a coffee,” said Mother. “I don’t want any of that grappa stuff.”

The cashier closed his eyes. “What kind of coffee, s-s-signora?”

“The regular kind.”

“Caffe Americano,” he said, dashing off another ticket.

I paid him and returned to the bar, where the barman took my tickets and threw them under the counter without even looking at them.

Before I could speak, he spun around, filled two glasses with clear alcohol, and presented them to me with a flourish.

“Your grappas, sir. Enjoy!”

He seemed so pleased, and the line behind me was so long, that I couldn’t bear to tell him he’d made a mistake. I took the grappa to Mother and she said, “What the hell is that?”

“Your grappa, s-s-signora,” I said.

“Where’s my coffee?”

“The bartender screwed up. You’re actually getting a deal — grappa costs twice as much as coffee.”

“Yeah,” she said. “But I don’t want it.”

“C’mon. You know what Rick Steves says in these situations.”

“No, what does Rick Steves say?”

“Good travel means give it a go!”

Italy Inside the Caffe Greco by Dan Morey
Inside the Caffe Greco by Dan Morey

Mother lifted her glass and eyed its contents skeptically. Then, with a burst of resolution, she chirped out a game “salud!” and took a nip.

Her scrunched face indicated the strength of the spirit, so I proceeded with caution.

Tasting Grappa 

Since grappa is made from the seeds, stems, skin and pulp of grapes, I expected it to taste something like grapes. Maybe it did, but it’s hard to discern flavor when your esophagus is burning.

I was convinced I’d permanently impaired my taste buds, but they slowly began to function again. There was a slight grapey aftertaste.

“It does taste like grapes,” I said.

“I’ll have to take your word for it,” said Mother.

She took a drink, made another face, and forgot all about the dead poets.

If You Go

Antico Caffe Greco

Address: Via dei Condotti, 86, 00187 Roma, Italy

Phone: +39 06 679 1700

Dan Morey is a freelance writer in Erie, PA. He’s worked as a book critic, nightlife columnist, travel correspondent and outdoor journalist. His travel writing has appeared in many publications, including Roads & Kingdoms, Coldnoon: Travel Poetics, GoMad Nomad and the Lowestoft Chronicle. Find him at

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