What's Brewin' New Coffee News
Italy's Great Cafés:
by Bruce Milletto
President, Bellissimo Coffee
Founder, American Barista & Coffee
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
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.
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.
Milletto is founder of The
American Barista and Coffee School and Bellissimo
Coffee InfoGroup. He is recognized by the
press and the coffee industry
as the voice of North America’s specialty coffee industry.