Starbucks in Milan: Is this the end for Italian coffee?

Silvia Marchetti, CNNPublished 7th September 2018
(CNN) — When Starbucks opened its elegant new outlet in the northern Italian city of Milan this week, it raised eyebrows and quickened pulses already racing from morning shots of espresso.
Can the American chain really muscle in on a coffee culture so firmly part of national identity in Italy? Does this spell the end for Italian coffee? Or a new direction?
The truth is, for all the fanfare surrounding the new "Reserve Roastery," including the long lines outside, it's unlikely to have much of a long-term impact on locals.
Italians love their espresso on the run.
We gulp it down standing at the bar counter, the little round porcelain cup still fuming in our hand, then pay and rush out. No sitting down on a stool or chair. Five minutes total, depending on rush hour queues.
Grazie, arrivederci!
Coffee al volo, on the fly, is part of our lifestyle, an innate cultural trait.
So Milan's new Starbucks will likely have a hard time getting the workaholic Milanese to sit down and enjoy an American twist to our sacred daily ritual.
The pull of the brand's name will undoubtedly lure and amaze some customers more curious about the "Starbucks experience" than about the coffee itself.
Yes, the roastery pays its dues to Italian coffee -- there's a coffee roaster, an affogato corner where ice-cream caffé is made pronto and an on-site bakery -- and takes it to a higher level of cosmopolitan chic.
But the American way doesn't fit easily with our coffee culture.

Quick pleasure

Crowds gathered for the opening of Italy's first Starbucks in Milan.
Crowds gathered for the opening of Italy's first Starbucks in Milan.
Courtesy Starbucks
Firstly: we have bars, not cafés. Our bars are usually one-room temples, small and snug where customers literally rub shoulders and step on each others' feet, calling out loud to attract the barman's attention.
They're not huge places that look like modern art galleries, alchemy labs or reality shows.
Secondly: If we decide to spend time and hang out in a bar for more than just 10 minutes after the espresso treat, it's to chat with people and interact. It's not to use the shop's Wi-Fi for its free Internet connection, to work or catch up on social networking while sipping espresso and then cappuccino, and then another espresso.
The bar is the stage in the theater of our coffee-fueled lives. We drink up to five espressos a day, but it's a quick, strong pleasure. No time to linger and let the cup cool, our doses are drunk almost scorching hot.
We have a concentrated version of espresso that sums up this intense philosophy: the ristretto, a 15-milliliter injection of pure, dense coffee.
The Reserve Roastery is located in a converted post office.
The Reserve Roastery is located in a converted post office.
Courtesy Starbucks
"Italians are hard to satisfy, and change," says Maurizio Stocchetto, owner of the historical Bar Basso in central Milan."They want their espresso at the counter, fast like a tequila shot. This is what makes us Italiani when it comes to coffee and you just can't overturn certain things."
Stocchetto is annoyed.
"I must admit I do feel a bit invaded by Starbucks' arrival," he adds. "Prices over there are also way higher than ours. It's going to be tough convincing people to pay 1.80 euros (about $2) for an espresso, nearly double the cost at local bars.
"But Milan is Milan, an international city that sits well with experimental twists. It's more open to new stuff. We saw this coming, it was inevitable".
I'm a purist and to be honest, it sounds like a provocative joke.
It's as if Pizza Hut opened a restaurant in Naples, or Baskin-Robbins an ice-cream parlor in Sicily -- where pizza and gelato were first made and then exported to the rest of the world.
Mamma Mia!
Sure, I might go to Starbucks to admire the cool location and the decor -- how an old post office has been restyled into a sleek coffee boutique -- but not to grab an espresso or cappuccino.

Coffee temples

The Milan Starbucks has a 30-foot counter made from Tuscan marble.
The Milan Starbucks has a 30-foot counter made from Tuscan marble.
Courtesy Starbucks
Not that the quality isn't high. It's just that it wouldn't enter my mind as the first choice for a coffee break. The coffee blends and weird concoctions may be premium, but the way the caffé is served and the avant-garde ambiance are far from the Italian style.
The arrival of Starbucks is bound to trigger mixed reactions among locals.
Most teenagers and millennials will likely be enthusiastic about it, racing to meet at Starbucks on Friday evenings -- even for drinks. It will probably become one of many cool Milanese hang-out spots.
But the older generations, those anchored to tradition, see it as out of place and unfit to compete with Italian coffee temples and religion.
"Teenage girls here are all excited, they love it," says Ornella Boeretto, owner of a Milanese clothing atelier. "But when I hear 'Starbucks,' I can't help thinking of those [stereotypical] watered-down long American coffees served in plastic or, worse, paper cups with no taste at all.
"In the US you see people walking around holding them, sipping coffee with straws. It's one thing to have Starbucks in New York, another in Milan. I'll stick to my cozy, old-style historical bars."
Italians even invented a name for the mild, long coffee that they find so sacrilegious: L'americano.
And while Milan's Starbucks may try to overhaul Italy's old coffee world with a futuristic US approach, it won't be easy shaking off the American clichés it embodies.