By Mary Van Hollebeke
When climbing the St. Peter’s Basilica Cupola this weekend, I was surprised to find a rooftop cafe above the church.
The door was situated directly in front of the Basilica’s dome. I walked inside and saw a typical Italian bar, except for its lack of alcohol. Servers were making espresso, and there were cases of pastries, gelato, water, and juice. Customers sat on tall bar stools at a counter and at tables arranged in a cluster nearby. I turned to my parents, who were with me, and asked if it had been there when they visited Rome in 1990. They told me that they’d never seen or heard of it before.
Wanting to know more, I chatted with the server, Abi Kha, as he prepared my espresso. There was a language barrier with my less-than-satisfactory Italian, but he was able to tell me that the bar is new, and that it had been open for less than two months. He said it opened on December 30.
The sign above the door says “Ristoro – Refreshment” and when I asked my server for the name of the bar, he said “Risto Bar.” A generic name, but I was sure I could find more information online. I sipped my espresso, a warm and rich energizer for my descent.
I pulled out my phone at the bottom of the Cupola staircase. A brand-new coffee bar on top of St. Peter’s Basilica? The news must be all over the internet. But my quick Google search yielded disappointing results.
I had been told by the server that the bar was new. Many websites followed suit, this independent Vatican tourism website and this travel blog, Delightfully Italy, referring to a “new coffee bar”. But it is unclear when the tourism webpage was published, and the blog post is over two years old.
My Google search finally led me to a 2004 article from the Seattle Times. “The coffee shop is so little-known that Il Giornale newspaper put the discovery on its front page Monday,” it says. Changing my search terms led me to a handful of similar articles from December 2004, claiming that it had opened that year, that the event wasn’t highly publicized, and that Italian newspaper Il Giornale humorously labelled it as the “Holy Apostolic Cafeteria” on their cover.
Whether or not the bar opened in 2004 remains unknown.
“Waiters declined to confirm when the coffee bar opened or give any other information,” the Seattle Times article says. “Il Giornale said it had opened within the past few weeks, while the ANSA news agency said it had been renovated in recent months. Several employees at St. Peter’s said they did not even know it existed.”
I saw a Vatican guard drinking a cappuccino at the bar, and he introduced himself as Luigi Salvatori and said he’d been working at the Vatican for 12 years. When I asked him when the bar opened, he said he didn’t know. This could have been because of our language barrier, but I rephrased the question a few ways and couldn’t find an answer. Salvatori told me, however, that there are about 10,000 visitors to the dome daily in the summer months, and about 5,000 in the winter. With numbers like that, I imagine that business at the coffee bar must be going well.
On the way down from the rooftop, I met a pair of sisters, Mathilde and Marie Masson, who are visiting Rome from the north of France and said they climbed the dome to see the view.
“Rome is a very ancient city, fixed in time, so it’s pretty cool to see a scene like that,” Mathilde Masson told me. And with the mysterious coffee bar, the ancient building and the ancient view now has a modern twist.