Coffee culture


Coffee is a cultural staple in Italy, the glue of a café society.

“The Starbucks are coming! The Starbucks are coming!”

This was not quite a Paul Revere-style warning of the approach of enemy forces. Ronnie Dentice, our coach and interpreter at our friendly gym in Monopoli, was incredulous and slightly dismayed about a recent announcement that America’s most famous coffee purveyor was planning to open outlets in Italy. For him, it was yet another example of corporate America’s arrogance and foolishness. Imagine a foreign company thinking it could succeed selling coffee to Italians in Italy.

Hamburgers, OK. Coca Cola, si. But coffee? No way!

Coffee is a cultural staple in Italy, the glue of a café society. Many people start the day by making a quick stop at their neighborhood café for a shot of rich, creamy espresso. Throughout the day, business meetings, social get-togethers and simple work breaks all involve coffee. As the day evolves, the ways in which coffee is delivered multiply.

There’s cappuccino or cappuccio, espresso mixed with steamed milk and often garnished with frothed milk and a touch of cacao. This is a morning-only treat for Italians. They’ll know you’re a tourist if you order one after lunch. Macchiato is a close relative, an espresso with just a touch of milk added.

Watered down espresso is known as caffe lungo and caffe Americano. The former includes water added during brewing and the latter gets extra acqua afterward. It’s hard to tell the difference. At the high-end of the octane scale is ristretto, a condensed super-charged version of espresso.
Finally, you can enjoy an almost infinite variety of espresso drinks amped up with various liquors.

I was converted to espresso years ago while vacationing in Rome. Each morning I would feed my caffeine addiction by patronizing the café on the ground floor of our apartment building and ordering a caffe Americano. On my fourth visit the barista suggested I abandon my lame drink and give “real” Italian coffee a try. I had one espresso and then another, and I’ve never gone back.

Those first shots led to constant espresso quests to Starbucks once back in the States. Before long, I splurged on a fancy, one-touch automatic espresso machine that perfectly grinds the beans at the start of the brewing process. (I somehow convinced Pamela that the expensive machine ultimately would save money because I wouldn’t have to go to Starbucks anymore.)

Sadly, the machine was too large to fit into even the largest trunk we hauled to Italy. But this forced me into Monopoli’s cafes. I’ve become a known regular at my neighborhood café. They no longer ask if I want a caffe Americano and often start pulling my daily espresso shot as I walk in the door.

As for Starbucks in Italy, well, I’m with Coach Ronnie. No way!

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