Tag Archives: espresso

Drinking With the Enemy – Could Starbucks Make it in Italy?

Beware of Yanks Bearing Pastries (and Free Wi-fi)

Emily loves Starbucks, which is not easy for her because we live in a country without a single Starbucks: Italy.  She was 11 when she first tried a Mocha Frappuccino.  We were at the Louvre in Paris resting between visiting exhibits and the line was short so I grabbed their largest size, a Venti, and we passed it around the whole family.  It didnt seem like I was acting against my love of Italian coffee, because I wasn’t thinking of it as a coffee drink at all.  It was a light dessert drink (light because there were four of us).

Emily in Geneva (Starbucks?)

Starbucks has since become one of her minor fixations – and she forced us to take her to one in both Chicago and Geneva. Like many adolescent Italians she has her favorite bits of american popular culture and where in the 80s and 90’s she might have chosen Levi’s and McDonalds, she likes Abercombie & Fitch and Starbucks.

She was therefore quite let down when she found out that the advertising poster announcing the imminent arrival of a Starbucks store last week in Milan was just a prank by a design student (who, by his youtube video, seems to really want a Starbucks to come to Italy).  Thousands of Italians and Italy-lovers fell for the provocation, and virtually no-one had a mild opinion on it. What was also striking that a store that does not even exist in Italy is so well known – even hated or loved – here.

Emily in Chicago (Starbucks?)

Although Starbucks is inspired by Italian coffee culture, it is in essence an American model – from the sizes of the drinks to the recognizability of their stores throughout the world. Entering into one of their stores is however an experience light years away from what would happen most coffee joints in Rome or Milan.  The Italian relationship with coffee is different as defenders of true espressos and cappuccinos claim very different, and it has nothing to do with drinking out of disposable cups.  Most of it boils down to image and price.

But all need not be lost for the Seattle-based chain. If they do decide one day to break into Italy the price of failure for a company that says it draws inspiration from Italy would be high.  It can be done, if the corporation is willing to turn its business model on its head.

Sofia in Chicago (Starbucks?)

Three reasons why Starbucks would fail in Italy with its current model and two ways it could succeed.

Why it could fail: 

1) Cost. Not that Italians are cheap. At home or abroad they will go out of their well to spend a fortune on quality food and drink, especially if it familiar to them. But staple foods – pasta, olive oil, bread, coffee, and others are a more delicate matter. They will pay for high quality pasta made from the perfect mix of grains that is cut with bronze-edged tools and then slowly dried in the cool micro-climes found in the mountains in Abruzzo (De Cecco and others) or in the rising lands near Vesuvius, the volcano overlooking Naples that destroyed Pompei (Gragnano), but the everyday pasta found on every corner store also has to be excellent AND affordable. It’s the same with espresso and other traditional italian ways of drinking coffee – they will pay for the right mix of caffè bar real estate and selected beans, but even in the best parts of Rome an excellent espresso will rarely go over 1,10 a shot at the bar.

2) Size.  At most java shops in the US, not just at Starbucks, the small espressos are too big and watered out.  Of course it you are paying three to five times as much as they are used to back on the Boot, the temptation to get a lot bang for your buck is strong for Italians too.  Most Europeans, however, don’t binge their favorite poison.  (A glass of wine or a beer with lunch on a workday is still considered as normal as drinking water).

3) Simplicity.  Drinking coffee is an essential experience, a simple excuse for a break in the day to recharge both physically and mentally, either through a moment alone, or a quick pause to shoot the breeze with a friend or coworker. Not that there are not choices –  ceramic or glass, sweetened naturally, synthetically or bitter, a touch or milk, etc. – and they can speak volumes about a person.

I had a colleague who’s order – an caffè d’orzo (not really coffee but a roast barley coffee substitute), a small shot in a large cup with extra hot water, warm milk and unrefined sugar on the side… i would get a black unsweetened espresso (“caffé normale”) just to realign the heavens

It’s also usually a short experience (it’s called “espresso” for a reason), unless it’s one of those rare moments when you sit down and hang out with a friend for a while.  Coffee in Italy is simple and elegant, if not sweet.

Christmas edition cup

They could succeed by playing to their strengths:  the desserts and the ambiance.

1) Desserts.   Last time I was with Emily & Sofia in a Starbucks not far from Watertower place in Chicago I chatted with the barista (it was an off-peak hour on an August Saturday.  He confirmed my suspicion that most Italians that came through stayed away from  espresso, cappuccino, and their Starbucks derivatives.  They preferred normal brew coffee if caffeine was their goal. But the loved the pastries (muffins, banana-bread, cookies, scones) and sweeter milk-based concoctions (“Frappuccinos” and their ilk). The solution could be to turn the menu and the marketing upside down. Starbucks in Italy would be an up-market pastry-shop and gelateria that also sold international sandwiches and salads and milkshake-like drinks with coffee, if you really insist, to go with it.

2) Ambiance & comfort.  Although coffee is quick-fire experience, it is one of the few things they like doing in a hurry (driving is the other).  And despite their love for hanging out with friends and strangers there are surprisingly few places that offer a calm, relaxing environment with couches, free wi-fi, and big windows to the street in front of you.  And it goes well beyond hanging out and snacking. Just like the places where Starbucks is strong a working people are always on the lookout for good place to wait between business meetings or eve to hold them, and too many bars in Italy are just not comfortable enought.

Or cool.

For those of you reading this on Facebook or elsewhere, it was first published on carbonara.wordpress.com


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Coffee is King, Especially When He’s Got No Clothes

Coffee Consciousness V – Don’t hide what you love

I am not coffee purist, although I do love my coffee black and unsweetened – be it Neapolitan espresso or good American brew. I feel that if I don’t enjoy it straight up, I’m not fully qualified to comment on coffee that is doctored up with milk, sugar, chocolate or whatever else they are offering.

Espresso a Scaturcchio

It goes the other way around, too. My grandfather would alway say you could tell a good ice cream parlor by it’s coffee ice cream. If it tasted like good coffee, you could trust everything else they made.

Please don’t take this as yet another attack on that giant international coffee bar giant – that’s not my goal here. Even though I am very critical of the whole concept of the place, that did that did not stop my daughter Emily and I from enjoying a chocolate and coffee concoction at atrium to the Louvre this summer. Similarly, my love for locally grown and cooked Italian food does not stop me from getting my Big Mac fix about once a month. It’s benchmarking for research.

Espresso, again

So even though I usually prefer coffee straight up and black, there are times when you want something a little different. Since when in Italy drinking a cappuccino in the afternoon or evening will instantly brand you as American, I suggest ordering a marocchino or veneziano (“moroccan” or “venetian” – the name changes depends on the town or bar) will get you around this. Usually served in little glass mugs and poured so that the coffee, chocolate and foamed milk are layered, it’s the afternoon pick-me-up that won’t buy you amused looks when you order.

Even in the birthplace of espresso, coffee companies and bars are on the lookout for new ways to get you to drink more, and the veneziano has blossomed into scores of other versions. Adding other aromas like cinnamon and liquor like sambuca and grappa have been around for ages, but I believe that the coffee has to stand out. Coffee is still king.
As I write this I have the good fortune of getting to spend a lot of time in Naples for work. Naples is one of Italy’s hardest but most beautiful cities, surrounded by a coastline (Sorrento and the Amalfi coast) and islands (Capri, Ischia) that attract Hollywood movie stars. But tourists often shy away from the city – most recently because its trash collection problem makes the nightly news the world over.

Garbage is a problem, although not enough to keep you away. Same for traffic, inconvenient visiting hours, inefficient public transportation… what holds down the tourist in Italy is the same in Naples, but more so. But it goes the other way around too.

In need of Espresso, Scaturrchio & p.zza San Domenico Maggiore, Naples

This is also part of why so many other things in Naples – from the pizza to desserts to coffee – can be better than in the rest of the Boot. So after an afternoon of running along the Spaccanapoli from the cloister of Santa Chiara to the traditional crèche piece market at San Gregorio Armeno, you can feel a bit woozy. That’s when you can slip into Scaturchio, one of the city’s most famous cafes in piazza San Domenico Maggiore and a nice cup of black, bitter espresso brings you your own little cup of nirvana.

And if you need it sweet or alcoholic, try eating it with a sfogliatella or a babà. But that’s another story.

For those of you reading this on Facebook or elsewhere, it was first published on carbonara.wordpress.com


Scaturchio (Italian only): http://www.scaturchio.it/home.htm

Espresso Coffee on FoodistaEspresso Coffee

Venetian Coffee on FoodistaVenetian Coffee

Coffee on FoodistaCoffee

Baba With Rum on FoodistaBaba With Rum

Espresso in Naples – Great Coffee in a Not So Great Area

Some Things Realy Are Better In the Shadow of Mount Vesuvius (Coffee Consciousness IV)

Italians believe in food, and Neapolitans are the true believers. Naples, as it has been for centuries, is a chaotic, bustling metropolis lining the Italian coastline, climbing over the bluffs above the bay. But, even in this crazy city you can find small corners of tranquility and solace –– almost always tied to something edible or, drinkable, like coffee. Expresso, to be exact.

I normally don’t trust restaurants near a big city’s central train station. These establishments are either soulless, standardized outposts of a branded chain or the sort of place that makes you wonder if you should disinfect the flatware as it’s laid out in front of you. But, last Monday night I was tired, and when the kind, small woman at the reception of my hotel told me that the place across the street was good, I decided to trust her. The kindness of strangers may be something to be wary of in the movies, but in southern Italy it is almost always a good thing. That, and that the place ––Trattoria Ettore –– had a few tables full of railway workers happily eating and laughing told me that I had made the right choice.

The crust of the pizza at Trattoria Ettorre’s was the perfect mix of chewy and tasty that has made Naples famous since Chef Rafaelle Esposito served the first “pizza margherita” to Queen Margherita of Savoy, when she was in town, in 1889. And, the lemon cake I had for dessert was fluffy and tasty. Paper thin slices of lemon skin decorated the chantilly cream on top, ensuring a light citrus scent with each forkful.

I have low expectations for coffee served in restaurants. There’s really nothing wrong with it ––industrial improvements in commercial coffee roasting and home espresso machines have made sure that coffee will usually be satisfactory. And, it is almost impossible to find bad coffee in Italy, but truly excellent coffee is found in bars, not restaurants

Although, not, it appeared, in Naples.

The tiny cup of espresso the tired looking, grey-haired man, in his timeless Italian waiter’s uniform, served me made time stop. Or, at least, move in slow motion. It wasn’t sugared (coffee, in Naples, is often served with the sugar already in the cup). Nor, was it bitter or acidic. It was so full-flavored; you could sense the taste of it with a wider part of the tongue. And, there was a hint of macadamia nut (part of the coffee, not an added spice). How could it be? They must have been cheating. Sure enough, as I left the restaurant, I noticed a small doorway to a very worn but traditional coffee bar next door. Mystery solved.

Coffee, or rather, espresso, is part of the fabric of Neapolitan society. Antonio, a friend from my studies in Venice, and my housemate when I first moved to Milan, was very, very attentive when he filled his Moka espresso pot.

On my way out of town the next day, I decided to test my luck. Across the square from my hotel a big orange sign read “Mexico.” With a sign like that it could only be a cheesy snack bar or a traditional espresso bar. The sun was as aggressively hot as the concrete jungle around the station, and I was feeling a bit too sweaty for coffee, but as I had survived the walk across the road, there was no turning back.

When I stepped inside I knew the bar was a promising place. Young men wearing the same uniforms, haircuts and chiseled expressions that their predecessors wore when the place opened decades before, worked behind the bar. Stainless steel and glass counters (worn but as shiny as when they were new) were probably the originals. Tins and foil blocks of ground coffee and beans lined the back wall ––the labels hadn’t changed for decades.

My espresso was even better than the night before. It was made with sugar, but the sugar was resting at the bottom, and not foamy like at St. Eustacchio’s in Rome. I drank it without mixing, then scooped up the coffee-soaked sugar crystal at the bottom of the cup with the demitasse spoon placed on the saucer for that purpose.
They say that when you go to Rome, if you throw a coin over your shoulder into the Trevi Fountain, you will return some day. When you leave Naples, have a wicked cup of espresso before you get on the train or plane. You’ll soon be dreaming of coming back for another cup. If you’re lucky, you will.

The Restaurant with bar is Bar Ristorante Ettorre, Piazza Garibaldi 95, Naples
Bar Mexico Henry Coffee is also in Piazza Garibaldi, but at 72 on the other side of the square.

For those of you reading this on Facebook or elsewhere, it was first published on carbonara.wordpress.com. We’re also on Facebook at http://www.facebook.com/pages/Carbonara-by-Joshua-Lawrence/291542554139?ref=ts

Coffee on FoodistaCoffee

Helping L’Aquila Soar Again

To everyone who loves Italy,

I grew up in Wisconsin but have been lucky enough to call L’Aquila my home since 2001. My wife, Silvia, teaches Renaissance history at the university here and my daughters, Sofia and Emily are in school. Fortunately all safe after the Earthquake less than two weeks ago although, like thousands of others, we don’t know when, or if, they’ll be able to live again in our apartment. This message isn’t about us – our car wasn’t destroyed and thanks to the hotels on the coast we have shelter and most things we need for the immediate future. I have work to get back to in Rome.

Reconstruction in the long-run and getting people into stable shelter and some normalcy will take time. To date a third of the buildings surveyed are unsafe to live in, and the historical center has not been included in that survey yet. Tens of thousands of people are in the tent communities in and around L’Aquila and many more are guests in hotels like me, or with relatives in Rome and elsewhere.

I have been told that the media in the US and UK have already moved on to other subjects (no Americans like me died or were seriously injured), although many grass roots groups – mostly connected to academia or the Italian-American communities are still very active.

With a few friends, both in the US and England, we noticed that we could help both the people of l’Aquila and the city and region that we love. We started with the first English-language group on the subject on Facebook ( L’Aquila Renaissance – Helping L’Aquila and Abruzzo , http://www.facebook.com/group.php?gid=66535648631&ref=ts)

We have also set up this petition in favour of L’Aquila and the villages and towns around it: http://www.ipetitions.com/petition/laquila-renaissance/signatures.html

For now the group tries to give information on how to donate form the USA (often tax deductible). The list is incomplete.

– NIAF – The National Italian American Foundation have created a Abruzzo Relief Fund & their online donation form is in English. Again here you can make a fast & easy online donation to assist in helping L’Aquila now and rebuild their lives, it’s tax free for those in the US.
Italian Academy Foundation (IAF) has established a L’Aquila relief fund. Additionally, the IAF headquarters in L’Aquila (Bisegna) is open to the victims of the April 6, 2009, earthquake who are seeking shelter. View the IAF website at italianacademyfoundation.org.
Catholic Relief Services http://www.crs.org/emergency/italy-earthquake.cfm
– The Sons of Italy Foundation (SIF) has created an Emergency Relief Fund. View the Order Sons of Italy in America website at http://www.osia.org.
UNICO Announces Initiation of Fund to Aid Abruzzo Italy Earthquake Relief. website at http://www.unico.org-
The American Red Cross https://american.redcross.org/site/Donation2?idb=514161456&df_id=1094&1094.donation=form1&s_subsrc=RCO_link

– Global Giving for Abruzzo – http://www.globalgiving.co.uk/pr/2700/proj2695a.html
– Red Cross UK – http://www.redcross.org.uk/donatesection.asp?id=93852&entrypoint=37220_mainItaly

While no one can argue that the human loss is greater than the cultural loss, I am also worried that during the reconstruction, the beautiful old city will be neglected.  If I had talked to be before the quake, I would have spent half the conversation trying to convince you, especially those living in or visiting Rome, to come look at this jewel that so few Americans see but is an hour and a half drive from the Eternal City. I hope to be able to push the city like that again soon.

As always, to make sure things work in the long term it will be helpful that people keep on experessing, through letters and email, to officials in L’Aquila, in the Italian government, and in the U.S. government, the Press and other “piazze” in favor of rebuilding the city and not expanding it. Many of us have seen the result of the “modern urban suburbs” created, some never finished, after similar events,  In the long term we hope that this group – and what may grow out of it, can contribute to the future of this city just as the world’s love for Assisi and Florence help their rebirth after natural disasters.

Thank you.

L’Aquila, April 16th

Joshua  Lawrence
L’Aquila, Italy / Madison, Wisconsin.

Polar Hot Chocolate

Once again a little break away from the home office and the Rome office. A quick stop to write and think in my little book bar haunt in L’Aquila – Caffè Polar. The music is from Ray Gelato’s most recent album, a current jazz singer who’s sound seems more at place alongside Louis Prima recordings. It’s cold and humid today, my older relatives here would say c’è aria di neve, in other words the air is perfect for it to snow soon.
It’s five-fifteen in the afternoon and it’s pampering time – hot chocolate, almost as dense as pudding, with a little island of crushed coconut in the middle.
You can find excellent hot chocolate all over Italy, and sometimes it’s better. But today I like it best here.


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Don’t forget the chocolate…

Had another Terra e Vento today…forgot one other ingredient…just a touch of liquid chocolate at the botton of the glass. Just a touch. It’s the Earth to the cinnamon wind…the espresso is the world between

mea culpa



Earth and Wind

Today the words “terra e vento” were printed across the chalkboard in my favorite Saturday afternoon bar, just above the names of the CDs that were playing.
“Terra e vento?” I asked the barista as I studied over the pastries.
Espresso with cinnamon. She replied. A bunch of Germans came through last week and they all ordered it. Terra e vento, (earth and wind) was their translation.
There was just a light sprinkle of cinnamon, barely enough to affect the taste of espresso in my little glass cup, but then taste wasn’t the point. It was aroma. The weather was brisk and windy, so a touch of cinnamon became the aroma that ran ahead of the coffee, awakening both senses before the coffee touched my tongue.
A newspaper later I remembered I still hadn’t had my second Saturday morning breakfast. A pane e cioccolato roll and a cappuccino, with a sprinkle of cinnamon on top.
Again the aroma raced ahead….
Neve e vento? Wind and snow?

Earth and Wind

(Cinnamon Fall)

Coffee Consciousness II

Today the words “terra e vento” were printed across the chalkboard in my favorite Saturday afternoon bar, just above the names of the CDs that were playing.
“Terra e vento?” I asked the barista as I studied over the pastries.
Espresso with cinnamon. She replied. A bunch of Germans came through last week and they all ordered it. Terra e vento, (earth and wind) was their translation.
There was just a light sprinkle of cinnamon, barely enough to affect the taste of espresso in my little glass cup, but then taste wasn’t the point. It was aroma. The weather was brisk and windy, so a touch of cinnamon became the aroma that ran ahead of the coffee, awakening both senses before the coffee touched my tongue.
A newspaper later I remembered I still hadn’t had my second Saturday morning breakfast. A pane e cioccolato roll and a cappuccino, with a sprinkle of cinnamon on top.
Again the aroma raced ahead….
Neve e vento? Wind and snow?

Cinnamon on FoodistaCinnamon

Espresso Coffee on FoodistaEspresso Coffee

Cinnamon summer

Coffee Consciousness I

(Author’s note: Caffè Polar, like over 95% of L’Aquila’s huge and beautiful historic center, is still off-limits after last year’s disasterous earthquake that forced me and tens of thousands from their homes. I will keep you updated on the rebirth of both Caffè Polar and L’Aquila. Abruzzo 23 aprile 2010)

Cinnamon is one of those spices that bring back memories. Especially, freshly ground cinnamon. This evening I made a quick stop at the Caffè Polar, the tiny bookshop café, with a free hotspot (still not very common in provincial Italy) here in L’Aquila, the city in the Apennine mountains where I live. My goal was a short cappuccino and a newspaper break, but that change, as I stepped up to the bar to order and caught a whiff of that, oh so familiar spice. The young woman behind the bar was busy grating cinnamon over a small glass cup of espresso.  As she tops it up with panna (dense cream), I ask how she would do espresso and cinnamon cold. It is a warm day, after all. “I would make a

Caffè Shakerato,” is her response.

Caffè shakerato is the hedonistic Italian version of iced espresso. It consists of two shots of espresso straight from the machine, ice and sugar.  The ingredients are mixed in a cocktail shaker then poured into a flute or cocktail glass. In Milan, and a few other parts of northern Italy, Rebarbaro, (a semisweet bitter), or Biancosarti, (a vanilla-based liquor) are added before shaking.   It is great with a touch of freshly ground cinnamon.

What I like about the  best spices is how they can turn on your memories that play on all of your senses.   I’ll tell you how cinnamon transformed evening strolls on the Sicilian island of Panarea last summer, in the next installment how.

Cinnamon on FoodistaCinnamon

Espresso Coffee on FoodistaEspresso Coffee