valtrex life femur paxil commercial study plavix mobile press citalopram benefits timing lipitor best remand lexapro delivery of lymphoid zoloft desk nurse sc seroquel processing responses


In its planned invasion of Italy, Starbucks is armed with Frappuccinos and Americanos–but will that win over a nation of espresso drinkers?
by Michael Specter

A couple of years ago, after a long dinner in a medieval Tuscan village, I asked my father–who was visiting Italy for the first time–if he wanted a cup of coffee. His eyes went blank. "Not the thimbleful," he said, with dread, as if the waiter were about to deliver a thumbscrew instead of an espresso. "Isn't there any way to get actual coffee in this country?"

At the time, I just shook my head in haughty amazement: asking for "actual" coffee in a country where there are at least a hundred and fifty thousand coffee bars seemed a little like asking where you might possibly find a decent bagel in Brooklyn. I tried to explain that there is no ritual more central to Italian life than quick and frequent visits to the bar. (They are never called cafès; that is for the French.) Most coffee is thrown down rapidly–like a shot of whiskey–and it is rarely possible (thank God!) to walk much farther than forty yards in a major Italian city without hearing the hiss of a giant espresso machine or the brusque cries of the baristi who operate them. Nearly every adult in Italy drinks espresso; thirty-eight million are served each day, and that adds up to almost fourteen billion thimblefuls every year.

My favorite part of Rome is the area around the Pantheon. This is not, I confess, because the two-thousand-year-old temple is the best-preserved, and most striking, monument of the Empire. Rather, it is because the neighborhood has two famous and rival cafès–Sant' Eustachio il Caffè and Tazza d'Oro–which are among the world's finest coffee parlors.

Like most of the great bars in Italy, Sant' Eustachio is really an all-business, standup kind of place. Although it is vaguely permissible to drink a morning cappuccino while seated, espresso must be consumed on your feet. A couple of thousand people wander in every day–and each stays about five minutes. There the baristi— barmen who are something of a cross between short-order cooks and maitre d's–can be so regal and perfunctory that they would have been perfectly suited to work the rope line at Studio 54 during its signature years. Sant' Eustachio is the only place I have ever been where you are expected to tip before you are served.

Yet Sant' Eustachio is probably the most deeply revered bar in Rome. Its house specialty, the gran caffè, comes with a crema–the burnished foam on the surface of the espresso–so thick and rich that the director of Tazza d'Oro, the competing shop just a few hundred yards away, told me in the gravest possible tones that he was certain the coffee was roasted with additives (cream, perhaps, or chocolate). The rivalry between Tazza d'Oro and Sant' Eustachio has all the subtlety of that between Letterman and Leno–and few Romans are agnostic. "Their coffee is good, of course," Silvano Giovannucci, the director of Tazza d'Oro, said to me about his competition. "But it is not pure. If you want pure coffee you would have to come here."

In response to this calumny, Alberto Ottolini, Sant' Eustachio's owner, just laughed. He has heard it all before–many, many times. He won't reveal the secret of preparing his coffee–in the culinary world, perhaps only the formula for Coca-Cola is more closely held–but he insists that he uses only the finest arabica beans and that the coffee is roasted slowly in a wooden oven. "They have to say something over there," Ottolini told me one afternoon, in the crowded back office he has used to direct his business for nearly fifty years. "How else could they explain their inferior coffee?"

There is, of course, nothing inferior about either place, whether you want an espresso, a cappuccino, or even the wonderfully named caffè corretto, which is an espresso that has been "corrected" with a shot of grappa. On certain days, I find myself wandering from Tazza d'Oro to Sant' Eustachio like a caffeinated pinball. Nevertheless, I will concede that my father may have had a point at that dinner in Tuscany: something is missing from Italian coffee culture. Yet that something–"actual" coffee, as he put it, referring to the large mugs of steaming brown fluid which are the American birthright–may not be missing for long.

Starbucks–the evangelical enterprise that has nearly banished the word "swill" from the English language–hopes to have its way with Italian coffee habits, in what will be a sort of return to the promised land for the company's C.E.O. and life-style guru, Howard Schultz. In 1983, the year after Schultz started in the business, he took a revelatory trip to Italy, and there he discovered that coffee "represents the essence of life," and became convinced that Italian coffee culture could be transplanted to Seattle. At the time, there were four Starbucks, all in Seattle, selling whole beans and coffee supplies. The company has since become one of the great marketing successes of the age. After spreading through the United States and Asia almost like a religion, the company has acquired a large chain of coffee shops in Britain that will soon become part of the brand. Starbucks is now like Kleenex (or a McDonald's for the nineties): it is everywhere. A new shop opens each business day, and seven million people walk into a Starbucks every week.

With a beachhead already established in England, the time has come to contemplate the most audacious invasion of all: the company has decided, in Schultz's words, "to climb Mt. Everest." He told me when I called him in Seattle, "Going back to Italy has been my dream since the day I came home from there with the idea for the Starbucks experience. It will be our greatest challenge–a psychological one. But I am convinced we can succeed."

Schultz said that it may be at least a year before he begins his assault; his marketing team has not yet decided how many shops to open in Italy, or where to place them. But it is only a matter of time before pilgrims needing refreshment after a rigorous tour of the Sistine Chapel or a stroll down Milan's Via Montenapoleone will be able to order up a Frappuccino, an iced Americano, or a tall decaf latte. (If they want those lattes with skim milk, though, Starbucks could be in for some trouble: no respectable coffee bar in Italy would serve the stuff.)

As Schultz sees it, the sooner he can get here the better it will be for Starbucks–and for Italy. "There is an aura around America," he said. "When talking to people in the coffee business in Italy there is an underground feeling–they won't say this publicly–that they want us to come. We spur growth. We bring with us a degree of understanding of how to inspire people. And they need that right now."

They need it, Schultz believes, because there is trouble in caffè paradise. "On one hand, although I have tremendous respect for what has been accomplished–the heritage and romance of coffee in Italy is absolutely impossible to overstate–the coffee there is not what it once was," he said. "I go back to Italy once a year, at least. The thing that has surprised me the most is the percentage of robusta beans in high-end Italian coffee. Not everyone does it, of course, but many roasters are hiding them in the blend."

Robusta beans are to arabica what Tiparillos are to Cuban cigars. A respectable coffee roaster would never base an espresso on them (though many roasters in Italy do advocate their judicious use in even the finest blends).

"I don't want to sound arrogant, because the Italians are the best in this business," Schultz continued. "But, at a minimum, the quality and integrity of Starbucks would do well in Italy. I think we may have a chance to bring back a little of what has been lacking."

The decline of Italian coffee comes as news to Andrea Illy. Illy is one of the princes of Italy's coffee heritage–his grandfather, Francesco, is usually given credit for inventing the precursor to the modern espresso machine, which in Italy almost puts him up there with Columbus, Galileo, and Marconi–and he takes his coffee very seriously. He was trained as a chemist, and is now chief executive officer of Illycaffè, which is often regarded as the country's top-quality roaster of espresso. Illy's grandfather founded the company in Trieste in 1933, after arriving as an officer with the Austro-Hungarian Army. (Coffee itself arrived through Venice toward the end of the sixteenth century. Pope Clement VIII was urged to ban the drink; instead he blessed it, wondering why such nectar should be left to the infidels.)

The young Illy enjoys talking about the "fifteen hundred flavors" contained within every bean, about the "volatility" of the beans, and, above all, about the extreme complexity involved in making every cup of espresso. "It's like a symphony," he told me. "There are thirteen variables in preparing every cup–the coffee, the water, the grinding, the exact temperature of the water, the force with which the water is driven through the coffee…. It is almost impossible to do it right." But Illy also has a few things to say about the new American coffee, by which he means mostly Starbucks. "Starbucks wants to come to Italy," he said, over a cup of his company's espresso at the Caffetteria Nazionale–a rare establishment where most people also sit and many eat something to accompany their espresso. "They are very bright people. They found a great territory, an empty niche.

"But really," he continued, in a tone that suggested it was time to return to earth. "This is Italy. They would have to adapt their concept if they came here. People don't drink milk here. They are mostly serving milk–and milk is brutto."He used the Italian word for ugly and coarse, even though he speaks perfect English.

Illy also observed that what works in America may not work in Italy. "You like things big," he told me. "Big steaks, big cars, and a big cup of coffee. We use coffee not to drink but to sip. It's like eating a chocolate–a little burst of flavor. It's subtle. There is this overroasting culture in America," he continued, voicing a fairly common complaint about Starbucks and similar specialty roasters, like Peet's. "It's by far too dark. This is why they feel the need to cover everything with milk and why they have all those syrups." Illy almost gagged. He went on to talk about the volume of beans needed for the perfect espresso (6.8 grams); about what is required to prepare a worthy caffè macchiato ("stained" coffee), an espresso with a tiny dollop of milk; and whether caffè lungo (espresso with extra water) is worth the money.

Then Illy had to catch a plane. As he stood up, he tossed out a final cautionary word. "In the world there are espresso drinkers and there are other people," he said, speaking slowly, to make sure I would get his point. "In Italy, we are espresso drinkers. Americans are the other people."

Post comment