Demitasse: From Around the World
by Bruce Milletto

Italy's Great Cafés: A Retrospective

By Bruce Milletto

Health-Enhanced Coffees
by Kenneth Davids

What's Brewin' — New Coffee News

Italy's Great Cafés: A Retrospective

by Bruce Milletto
President, Bellissimo Coffee InfoGroup
Founder, American Barista & Coffee School

In early 2005 I spent almost two weeks traveling through Italy visiting companies that produce espresso machines, grinders and other coffee-related products.

During the journey, my travel partner and I logged many mile in numerous provinces, sampling coffee and spending time in coffee bars of every type-from gas stations in Autostrada to the most elegant and famous bars of Firenze (Florence). I began to take mental notes about how coffee in Italy has changed since my last visit almost three years ago.

As one can imagine, change in coffee culture is slow in the country that claims the birthright of espresso and prides itself on quality. But change does happen. The opening of chains such as Starbucks on European soil has had a small impact on coffee. I remember sitting with the editors of major coffee-industry magazines three years ago and they asked me question after question about how the American influence would affect European café culture. They were worried that the landscape if coffee could forever be altered by the invasion of American chains. I am very happy to report that on my recent trip I saw only subtle change and found that great espresso is alive and well in the motherland. I don’t think its product will easily fall prey to the 20-ounce latte in the near future. Thank the Lord!

First, I will report I never had a bad cappuccino or espresso on my trip. Some were less than perfect, but the worst was just as good as an average drink in the United States. I found even hotel employees, who were not fully trained, pulled good extractions and steamed and foamed milk better than most of the baristas I have seen at work in my hometown of Portland, Ore.

The coffee I tasted was, for the most part, excellent. The blended beans-often with robusta-were always fresh. Even the coffee from large-scale roasters tasted great. As you know, preparation is the key and pride on this front has not diminished.

It is so pleasurable to drink coffee in the right size cup. One shot of espresso was never meant to be mixed with 12 ounces of steamed milk-and the Italians know this. Cappuccino was meant to be served in a five- or six-ounce hot ceramic cup within seconds after leaving the machine. What a treat to experience the correct recipe.

With the euro the recognized monetary unit and the lira just a fond memory, many coffee bar owners told me that tourism is down significantly due to the weakness of the dollar against the new currency. Italy has never been an inexpensive place to vacation, but today is less attractive than ever to tourists from the U.S. who are staying away and finding cheaper destinations. But other changes have taken place inside Italy, and those have to do with coffee.

The menu changes little in the Italian bar. You can almost always find panini, wonderful pastries baked fresh in-house, and sometimes even pizza by the slice. And gelato is showing up in more and more coffee bars as an additional profit center, just as it is in the U.S. In upscale bars you will find elegant chocolates, in small coffee bars you will find chocolate in bar form without the wax we have grown to tolerate here.

Given it was snowing during much of the time I was in Italy, this was the first time I did not indulge I at least one gelato a day. The Italians always display gelato with style, and I have never been served a mediocre product. Gelato is a good fit in most American bars, and I predict we are going to see even more of a gelato wave hit the U.S. in the coming years.


I predicted five years ago that panini would do what gelato is now doing: showing up everywhere. The panini in Italy has achieved astounding complexity in taste, while maintaining simple ingredients. How is it possible to put so little between two slices of bread and come up with a sandwich that tastes 100 times better than the one the chains offer in the U.S.? The answer is fresh, quality ingredients mixed in just the right proportions and wonderful bread. I had a number of panini during my trip, and, like always, all were excellent!

Fresh morning pastry is found in almost every bar of any size or variety. Pastries in Italy are not physically huge like they are in the U.S., illustrating once again that bigger is definitely not better. It’s difficult to imagine not being able to find a chocolate brioche waiting for me each morning when I entered a coffee bar for a cappuccino. I saw more muffins than I ever had before, but once again, they were decorated with flair and finished with decadent chocolate or other amazing toppings. Cakes and special desserts are ever present-many times displayed with the style of Armani in a chilled case, available by the slice or ready to put in a box and take home.

I can never remember seeing much tea served in Italy on past trips. Maybe I was not observant enough. But this year, I saw it served a lot, especially in the evenings in elegant individual crockery. Italians are very health conscious, and I believe all the press about green tea and its health-promoting properties is the reason tea is showing up more and more in coffee bars.

For the first time ever, I saw a few barista serve drinks using syrups. These drinks are not common like they are in the U.S., but because of the sweet tooth of many Italians, I predict they will increase in popularity, especially among young coffee drinkers. Also, for the first time, I tried specialty drinks served in dessert glasses. One that was absolutely wonderful was nothing more than espresso, steamed milk, chocolate and a hint of nut syrup topped with slivered almonds.

Historically, almost every Italian coffee bar has a full array of wine, beer and hard liquor. The typical aperitif of a small Campari and soda with two or three ice cubes is still quite common. Italians treat ice like it is some rare commodity, though it is really for gastronomic reasons: Many feel it is not healthful to put ice-cold liquids in one’s stomach. It is good to see more and more American coffee bars incorporating a few fine wines and a few special beers in their menus-it makes perfect sense for evening business, something Italian coffee bar owners have known for years.

Overall ambiance
The modular bar systems of Italy remain amazing. Lots of wood mixed with glass and marble, in perfect harmony with the surrounding layouts. Style is never lacking in even the smallest bar, nor is a penchant for using the best materials possible. Lighting is usually well throughout and the overall feel of most bars remains comfortable. Most beverages are still consumed while standing-hard to do if your drink is 20 plus ounces and 160 to 170 degrees Fahrenheit as is often found in the U.S. One main change in ambiance for the better is the new smoking ban. It is still hard to imagine the Italian coffee bar with no ashtrays and not filled with smoke, but I saw no resistance or grumbling about the change. Few would have ever predicted that a smoke-free coffee bar would be tolerated in Europe-especially Italy-but low and behold, change is on the march.

As the world gets smaller and media exposes us to Europe and vice versa, it is only natural that each continent will affect the other. I am happy to report that with the penchant from a new breed of serious American baristas for fancy pours-in some cases outshining Italian barmen-we are seeing the bar raised here more and more to Italian standards. Thankfully these standards of quality and love for coffee and all that surrounds it remain intact and strong in Italy, and serve as an example to coffee retailers and baristas in America.

Bruce Milletto is founder of The American Barista and Coffee School and Bellissimo Coffee InfoGroup. He is recognized by the press and the coffee industry internationally as the voice of North America’s specialty coffee industry.

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