Getting a thrill from the daily grind

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The Independent Culture
I DID A thorough check at the office of births, marriages and deaths - and found nothing.

When I asked the nice young woman at the counter if there couldn't be some mistake with my birth certificate and could she run it through the computer again, she stared at me edgily. She then began fumbling about under the bench for what I could only assume was some sort of panic button for use in situations involving unstable, unbalanced or unreasonable members of the public.

So, in a very reasonable, stable and balanced manner I ran for the door. But I still didn't believe there wasn't a conspiracy going on to hide my real identity. I talked to all my relations, which did no good at all, and eventually hit the Internet to contact one of those obsessive family- tree-type people who spend their lives chasing family crests. They were very sorry, too, but could not confirm there was any Italian blood in my veins.

This I cannot believe. Because every time I walk into an Italian cafe, I feel as if I am coming back home. In a good cafe, I feel like Mastroianni. Words like ciao and bella emerge from my lips as naturally as please and thank you. I constantly search for Isabella Rossellini and Laura San Giacomo in the crowd.

My own particular problem aside, there is no denying the power of the cafe. It could be the wood panelling, the intriguing company, the endearing inevitability of the biscotti, panini and tiramisu. But the engine room of this power is the espresso machine. A cafe's heart and soul is poured daily into a small china cup, and given over to this cup are hundreds of years of precision, ritual and formality.

There is no point trying to make decent coffee at home: you're not Italian, and you're making coffee for one or two and not 300. I have tried using those ridiculously expensive baby espresso machines. I've even bought one. I've tried the new breed of cheap domestic machines. I've even bought one. But there is little point. You don't have the power, the experience, the atmosphere of the cafe equivalent, so there's no body, no aroma and no crema. Just nice, warm, coffee-flavoured fluff.

Those two precious cups of coffee which you finally tweaked out of the machine for breakfast would be tossed into the sink at the start of the day in any self-respecting cafe.

At my local, they turn on la macchina at 5.30am and run 20 to 30 espresso coffees through it to warm it up, while the boys play with the grind and the pressure. The rejects go to the kitchen to make tiramisu.

Of course Mecca, not to be confused with mocha, for true cafe lovers is Rome. There recently, searching for long-lost relatives, I decided to concentrate my search in Rome's finest cafes. After all, that's where any relative of mine would surely turn up.

I traipsed through Trastevere, veered into the Via Vittorio Veneto and sipped my way around the Spanish Steps, finally narrowing my selection down to 20 cafes. One or two stand out.

The cafe in which I would most like to be discovered by the paparazzi is Caffe Greco, a 200-year-old bastion of red velvet, refinement and fine manners, where the dour waiters wear tails, and open their wallets to give you change with the same action as a priest opening a prayer book. If you sit still long enough, some starving artist will probably draw you, to be added to the framed works on the walls. The coffee is very, very good, and comes in fine china on a tray, always with an accompanying glass of water.

A much cheaper, and marginally better, coffee comes from the busy machines at the torrefazione (coffee roasting house) Tazza d'Oro, Natalia Fiocchetto's most Roman of cafes near the Pantheon.

It's hard to explain, but an espresso coffee tastes so much better when you're standing at an elbow-height bar wedged in between a nun on one side and three extravagantly uniformed carabinieri on the other. But then, if you're not Italian, you wouldn't understand.

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