Italians take their coffee very seriously, and none more than Romans. Carmine Manduca is a Roman barista working at a popular coffee bar in the EUR neighborhood. He whips up a delicious soy latte. So we spoke.

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How did you become a barista?

Dumb luck. Fifteen years ago I was a waiter at a resort in my home region of Calabria. The hotshot barista at that joint injured himself and was unable to work one day. And who did they ask to step in? Me. I fell in love with the job and the life that comes with it, within about thirty seconds of making and serving my first espresso. I have never looked back.

What brought you to Rome?

Ten years ago I decide to sow my oats and see where my vocation would take me. And yes, all the roads do lead to Rome. At first I paid my dues in a nondescript bar on the outskirts of the city. In time I was introduced to one of five brothers who run the famous bar I currently work at (Tre Castelli). I came in as a sub-barista before I learned the ropes and now I am one of the two main front men.

What makes for great coffee, theory or practice?

First and foremost, understanding the coffee bean is essential. How to toast it, how to store it, grind it, handle it and brew it. How to love it really. If the raw material is less than perfect, no amount of wizardry at the bar can make good coffee out of bad. When you respect the coffee bean, it respects you back, producing sublime coffee consistently. And that’s the trick in this business, how to be consistent.

And the role of the barista?

No two baristas are alike, but there are some fundamentals we all respect. Above all, to pour coffee in a hot cup. That alone makes a huge difference. If you are mixing in milk, like a caffè latte, the milk needs to be mounted at the right temperature, never exceeding seventy degrees celsius, or you risk the milk caramelizing or over-foaming. And of course the cardinal rules of rations between coffee and milk.

How about working with low-fat dairy milk or even alternative milks like soy, rice and almond?

Each variant requires a totally different procedure. But the bottom line is that full cream milk is the easiest to work with, period. Still, we must keep learning to keep up with the changing tastes of our customers, their dietary requirements, their allergies and intolerances. Ten years ago, the purists amongst us rebuffed these alternative milk types as un-Italian, and some still do. But I call that arrogance. As a barista, my main imperative is that everyone enjoys their breakfast at the bar, not to pass judgement or to appoint myself as the coffee police.

What do you prefer, being behind the coffee machine (machinista), or at the bar taking orders (barista)?

Both are demanding as hell. I have a slight preference of working the machine because you see the satisfaction on your client’s face the minute they take the first sip. But it’s also fun to interact with people, especially the regulars. Both jobs require a solid memory, and the roles are interdependent. If the chemistry between the barista and machinista is less than stellar, all hell can break loose. And you wouldn’t want that to happen at peak hour because you risk being lynched.

Foreigners are rather amused by the vast number of coffee variations available in Italy. Please set the record straight. Exactly how many are there?

Honestly, who’s to say? My unscientific guess is more than fifty, but people are always coming up with new ones. And if they can dream it, we can make it, and if we can make it once, it’s official.

What is the rarest request you’ve ever gotten?

Cold ginseng cappucino with soy milk. And may I never get it again.

Now come clean. How many coffees do you drink per day?

Five or six. Maybe seven. Sometimes eight, okay? With breakfast I have two or three, and the rest throughout the day.

What are the hours like?

The mornings are brutal. We open up and start prepping at the crack of dawn. Our witching hour is 8:30 a.m. and it lasts until 10:30. We pick up again after lunch, but it’s mostly straight espressos rather than all the fun, exotic requests we get in the morning.

How about tourists who stumble in asking for, God forbid, filter coffee?

We don’t discriminate. Personally, I cringe at the thought of filtered coffee, because it’s simply not what coffee is about. But who am I to superimpose my personal likes and dislikes on others? If someone comes in and asks for an “Americano,” I’ll prepare it and serve it in the best possible way I know. That said, most tourists, Americans included, come with an open mind and an eagerness to try our traditional Italian coffees.

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