Tag Archives: italian 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

http://www.facebook.com/pages/Carbonara-by-Joshua-Lawrence/291542554139?ref=ts

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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

http://www.facebook.com/pages/Carbonara-by-Joshua-Lawrence/291542554139?ref=ts

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

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