A TALE OF TWO COFFEES

The curious story of how transatlantic exchange shaped Italy’s illustrious coffee culture

In 1959, Italian novelist Italo Calvino received a grant to spend six months in the US. Once he arrived in New York City, he discovered a disturbing trend.

“The trend of espresso-places has been thriving for a few years in New York and is expanding to the rest of the country,” he wrote in his journal. “Sure, I’m happy when I can drink a coffee Italian-style, but I struggle to explain to Americans the feeling of uneasiness that this kind of places provoke in me.”

More than 50 years later, Italians are still deeply protective of their country’s reputation as the coffee capital of the world. Italians despise American-style coffee, which they regard as a sort of dull black broth. At the same time, they scoff at Americans’ attempts to replicate espresso, which invariably ends up being too short, too strong, or too slow.

This scorn has only increased with the news that Starbucks will finally open its first Italian outpost in late 2018, in the center of Milan. But the truth is that the US and Italy have traded in coffee products and rituals for nearly a century. Today’s globalized coffee culture is the product of this curious transatlantic exchange.

The invention of espresso

Coffee has a long history in Italy. Venice was one of the first European ports to import coffee beans in the 16th century, and in the 19th century, men in bowler hats met in Turin’s coffee shops to plan for the country’s unification.

Italy truly emerged as the global leader in coffee thanks to Milanese inventor Luigi Bezzera, according to Jonathan Morris, a coffee historian from the University of Hertfordshire in the UK. In 1901, Bezzera came up with the idea of forcing pressurized water through a handful of coffee powder to produce a short, concentrated drink: the espresso, so called because it could be prepared expressly for each customer and because the water had to be expressed through the coffee.

Quick to make and good to wake, the espresso became a futuristic icon at the turn of the century, sharing its name with a high-speed train. Espresso machines found their place in so-called “American bars”—spaces where people would stand at the bar, saloon-style, instead of sitting down at the table.

The first American bar in Italy was Caffé Maranesi, in Florence, nicknamed Caffè dei Ritti after the standing people that populated it (ritti means “upright” in Italian). The person who prepared the coffee was called a barman, until the word barista was coined under the reign of Mussolini. Today, hipsters who work in coffee shops from New York to San Francisco sport with pride this relic of fascist nationalism.

This is not the only short-circuit between American and Italian coffee culture. During World War II, coffee in the country basically disappeared, replaced by surrogates like barley—as a consequence of the embargo that the League of Nations imposed on fascist Italy. Many Italian children first tasted real coffee in the soluble version that US soldiers brought, along with chewing gum, chocolate bars, and freedom.

By the late 1950s, most Italians consumed coffee at home, in the traditional moka pot—first built by engineer Alfonso Bialetti in 1933, and now an icon of Italian design worldwide, as Morris explains in his 2008 essay “A History of Espresso in Italy and the World.” But there were exceptions. A young Calvino was a regular customer at Caffè Talmone, a café in Turin where he met with other intellectuals to discuss books and politics. There, he drank Italian espresso with a layer of foam on top, the result of a patent registered by bar owner Achille Gaggia in 1947.

After moving to New York, Calvino was disoriented by how the beverage was marketed in the US. “You must choose from a long menu, in which every coffee is accompanied by its ingredients and sometimes a few historical notes,” he wrote. “‘Roman Espresso’: Italian coffee served in a glass with a lemon slice. ‘Caffè Borgia’: Italian coffee and milk foam covered in imported grated chocolate. ‘Cappuccino’: a preparation of hot milk and cinnamon is added to the espresso.”

The rise of the pumpkin spice latte

Contemporary Italians experience a similar feeling of disorientation when they enter a coffee shop in New York. The choices are varied and vast. Once you’ve made your order, the barista always has extra questions, including some truly baffling ones: “Do you want pumpkin spice in your cappuccino?”

Today, the average barista in New York takes three minutes to serve an espresso. By that time, in Italy, a patron would have already left in anger. From Venice to Palermo, espresso is still consumed standing at the bar, in the original “American” way. You order and wait about 30 seconds as the café worker efficiently runs through a rehearsed set of gestures: put cup under machine, start machine, place plate on bar, stop machine, serve coffee, attend to the next customer. You pour the espresso down your throat in one shot.

Popular Italian wisdom holds that the best coffee is served at gas stations along the highways, simply because the quality of espresso is best when produced by a machine that churns out hundreds of coffees each day. Choice is limited in Italy, and that’s a good thing: You can have a liscio (espresso), a ristretto (little water and little caffeine), a lungo (a bit more water), a macchiato (with a sip of milk), a corretto (“corrected” with a slosh of grappa), and of course a cappuccino (only before lunch). Each is available only in a single size.

Some barmen give you a cockeyed grin if you ask for a moccaccino (cappuccino with cream and chocolate). And any foreigner asking for a latte will be served a straight glass of milk, which is the direct translation of the word in Italian.

The difference between New York and Italy also shows up in price. The cost of an espresso in New York ranges between $2-$3, the minimum fare to access heat, a bathroom, Wi-Fi, and a seat. In Italy, the price of an espresso goes from 0.7 to 1.1 euros (78 cents to $1.23). Since 1911, every municipality has been required by legislation to set a maximum price for espresso. The figure has of course been updated over the decades, but still sets the standard for a product that—like water—is considered a resource to which everyone should have access. From 2006 to 2013, Italy gave away 13 million coffees for free in service stations along Italian highways—an attempt to prevent drivers from falling asleep while driving at night.

In spite of all the differences, it is not so strange that Starbucks will soon plant a flag in Italy. The company’s executive chairman, Howard Schultz, has said that experiencing Milan’s coffee bars years ago shaped the way he built the chain. And while Italians may bristle at the intrusion, Starbucks seems likely to succeed in a city where an increasingly multiethnic, hyper-connected population needs a place to rest, read, work, and use the bathroom while they’re on the go.

“It seems to me that no mental task is more complex than erasing any memory of what Italy is, like these guys do,” Calvino wrote back in 1960, referring to the owners of New York’s faux-Italian cafes. “And then inventing an unreal Italy, which corresponds to what Americans expect it to be.”

As Starbucks opens in Milan, the unreal Italy that Calvino observed in horror will finally merge with the real Italy, further blurring the distinctions between the original coffee culture and the copy. It’s the ultimate blend—and inevitably, it’s bittersweet.

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