Tag Archives: olive oil

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.

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Bread & Olive Oil, Not Just an Antipasto.

Light things can come in heavy packages

One of my favorite things that I remember Italian or Mediterranean fusion restaurants in the US serve was a plate bread and a few select olive oils as you were waiting for the antipasti (starters). I still love to watch the oil form a small puddle on a small white saucers, dip in the bread and taste different oils.

A puddle of tasty apulia olive oil - finger dipping good

The only curious thing about this good idea is that I’ve never seen it in restaurants in Italy. Well, once. But that was about ten years ago in an olive-oil themed place that had just opened in Milan. The owner got the idea after a few years working in restaurants in the US.
That is probably the only way Olive oil is not commonly served in restaurants here. But dripping good oil on good bread is still a passion of mine.
So when my friend Edoardo gave me what looked like a designer thermos and asked me to try the olive oil within, the first thing that came to mind was to soaking some freshly sliced bread with it and giving it a try.
Climate and variety does have a strong impact on the characteristics of olive oil, so when he told me it was Puglia, I had my doubts. Puglia (known as “Apulia” in English) is the heel of Italy’s boot and a major olive producer with a reputation for dense, rich, strong olive oils. Eduardo must have noticed what I was thinking because he added – “It’s not like you expect.”

A bottle of Bio Leave olive oil and an original statue by Alik Cavaliere

So last night, when I pulled it out to try with a slice of bread before dinner, I was pleased to learn he was right. This is a delicate, yellowish, lighter oil, and its low acidity made it roll smoothly over my tongue.
The name – Bio Leaf – and the packaging are unusual. I might even say courageous. But they both have a reason. “Bio” is because, as you would expect, the olives are grown and the oil is pressed using strict environmentally friendly methods. And the form and color of the bottle are to protect the oil from temperatures and the light.  It should should be available in parts of the US (for more information, try http://www.bioleafgroup.com).

By the by the way, Italians do love olive oil on bread. Silvia tells me that her after school or snack was often a slice of the rustic, dense bread L’Aquila is famous with the light, low-acidity oil from Navelli soaked in. And Sofia and I love both cleaning our salad bowl with a slice of bread. What better way to taste an excellent oil than on a great Italian bread – even the unsalted Tuscan loaf.
Much more fun than sucking it out of little cups as olive oil tasters do.

– Joshua Lawrence

Bread and Olive Oil

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Bio Leaf Olive Oil on Bread - Fresh

Bread and Olive Oil - Sunny Side Up

Olive Oil on FoodistaOlive Oil

Turtle Salad Between Boxes

After four scattered sweltering days of opening boxes in our new, and hopefully temporary appartment here in Pescara a home is beginning to take shape. The kitchen is functional now, but with no food and dust from our home in l’Aquila everywhere we’re eating out.
At the end of the residential dead-end street we will be living in this year is the Bar del Parco, a cute little coffee bar with ice cream with lots of outside tables and a dirty little secret; they also make pizza on demand almost any time of day. And even with the humidity and uncertain yeast rising time, it’s good pizza. The crust is just doughy enough and the mozzarella is great.
Silvia had a caprese salad, tomatoes and mozzarella slices with a bit of oregano and olive oil. The pizzaiolo has fun making shapes out of the pizzas and this time the salad was a turtle. Mozzarella and tomatoes for a head back and tail, soncino lettuce to fill out the shell, and pizza dough flippers.
But with good fresh milky mozzarella from Abruzzo, fresh August tomatoes, and great olive oil, it was magic.

Caprese Turtle Salad

Caprese Turtle Salad

No turtles were injured for the preparation of this salad.

The Master (Turtle) and Margheria (Pizza)

The (Turtle) Master and Margheria (Pizza)


Rosemary’s nose

The quick basics of Italian cooking: keep it simple and care intensely about the ingredients. Try to get them fresh and in season unless the preservation method makes them something better (sun dried tomatoes, for example, or spicy artichoke hearts or salt cod, the list a mouth watering few). I learned my first year here as a college exchange student in Bologna that one of the easiest ways to impress dinner guests is is baked potatoes and rosemary.
But you need fresh rosemary. Rosemary is a brush-like wooden herb that grows well even in cold corners of walls and outside windowsill pots. It’s a compulsory ingredient in Easter roast lamb and other early Spring dishes all over Italy, but especially in the mountains and the hills. Here around L’Aquila many people have a bush growing in a corner of their yard.
Cut the potatoes thin – whatever potatoes you like. I like them razor thin but have been known to cut them into thicker disks with the skins still on.  Spread it out over oven paper or a pan slightly greased with olive oil. Sprinkle more olive oil, salt and a couple handfuls of fresh rosemary twigs. Bake away until they look as crispy as you like them. Open the oven a crack occasionally to free up the aroma of baked rosemary to fill the kitchen and tease the the dinner guests who are keeping you company. Bring them to the table warm, making sure that the plate gets passed around under everyone’s nose.
And if it smells good, it tastes good.