Counter Culture

Inspired by Italy, America’s number one espresso chain prepares to go full circle.


in Archive



When I studied abroad in Rome a few years ago, my travel packet included a primer for ordering espresso from the little museum café around the corner from our classrooms. To begin with, we were warned, don’t order espresso, a term which refers to a technique and not a beverage. Instead order caffè — short for caffè espresso, there’s no other kind — and embellish the word with lyrical phrases to indicate how long to let water seep through pressed grounds and how much milk to add and when.

The primer did not include instructions for finding a place to sit down in order to drink the coffee. Not even the café in a museum neighboring the school had seats; we took our mid-morning break up to the museum’s rooftop patio and perched on concrete planters with our short foamy cups. On weekends, I roved around the city with my laptop, looking in vain for place to plug in while I sipped and typed. Once I ordered my usual caffè macchiato from a piazza coffee bar with the intent to remain standing and lean against the counter as the Romans do, but downed my drink in a hurry when I found myself unable to converse or relax with the café regulars. Instead I sat on the steps of the piazza fountain with my computer balanced on my knees, buzzed and confused.

If I had only waited a few more years, I might have found what I was looking for — ample seating and electric outlets at a piazza Starbucks. There are not currently any Starbucks locations in Rome, and in fact Italy has been protesting the invasion of the espresso drink giant. But Starbucks has already crept quietly into Europe and placed coffee stores in nations with a cushier coffee culture and a taste for American trends, including France. According to Starbucks CEO Howard Schulz, it’s only a matter of time before franchise plants its recognizable logo in Italy; in a recent interview, he claimed that this European exception was financial prudence on the part of the corporation — though vocal objections from Italian caffè connoisseurs suggest that it may not be the only reason.

The irony, of course, is that the Starbucks origin story is grounded in Italy. Supposedly Schulz, then a coffee roaster, sampled his way down an avenue of coffee bars in Milan, slowly realizing that America’s coffee culture was sorely lacking — or rather, that America lacked a coffee culture at all. The invention of Mr. Coffee in the 1970s was an enormous leap for American coffee drinkers: Before then, most coffee was boiled in percolators at home or prepared inexpensively in industrial-scale drips to be consumed at diners. The result was mostly terrible — there’s a reason that coffee ruined by wives and secretaries was a running gag in midcentury sitcoms. Boiling de facto ruins coffee; it breaks down the bean into bitterness instead of gently releasing flavorful oils. Still, Americans were loyal to their terrible brews and suspicious of southern European cultures for most of the last century, so the infiltration of caffè espresso was as slow as Starbucks’ eventual Italian takeover is going to be.

For good reason. Italy didn’t invent coffee, but it did invent the method of producing a robust, intensely flavorful brew by forcing water through tightly compacted coffee grounds, and the creation and refinement of this caffè espresso is tightly wound with Italy’s tumultuous history in the 20th century. The first espresso machines — rather steampunk-y brass fixtures — were built for turn-of-the-century hotel bars to accelerate the process of preparing coffee for clientele, mostly visitors from more prosperous European nations who were enjoying Belle Époque mercantilism and mobility. Acceleration was the watchword of early 20th-century Italy, only recently unified as a nation and rocked by a second industrial revolution. Like trains, automobiles, and the thrusting designs of Futurist artists (some of the recipes in the Futurist Cookbook even use espresso as an ingredient), the initial sex appeal of espresso was in speed and efficiency. The benefit of a fine, complex coffee didn’t come along until several decades later, when further tweaks to the steam machine’s design heated water until just below boiling to avoid scalding the grounds and burning the coffee. And in most Italian coffee bars, the small cups of caffé were sipped standing up at a counter, a posture that permitted conversation but no lingering. Customers had to drink up and move out, making room for more customers, and workers had to get back on the clock.

Italy’s coffee culture didn’t remain this way uniformly — like any national habit, there are regional variations to the preparation and enjoyment of caffè espresso, from where to drink to how much sugar to add. The refinement of the beverage into a complex brew to be savored solidified its cultural significance — this is also the nation that started the Slow Food movement, after all. But generally, Italy’s coffee bars are not places to sit down in an armchair and listen to smooth jazz, let alone to work on your next paper or poem. (There’s a reason Ernest Hemingway wrote his first novels in Paris, not Rome.) Meanwhile, the public space of a Starbucks is designed to invoke comfort, leisure, and relaxation; they look like places to sit and stay awhile. Even for the customers who sweep in and out on a morning commute, the design and appeal of a Starbuck operates on the assumption that their coffee is a treat or a luxury. That was the wedge into the American market: They weren’t offering coffee, they were offering espresso and other beverages with a whiff of the exotic and sophisticated. Coffee is what the secretaries and wives ruin; a break for coffee is a 15-minute hiatus written into your union contract; a pot of acidic coffee is what you find behind the counter at a diner. Espresso is made by masterful baristas and enjoyed at leisure over a paper and a good chat; espresso is for the discerning consumer.

Of course, several decades into the U.S. reign of Starbucks, most of us have grown skeptical. We know that the Italianesque names are made-up and that the prices are overblown. We have probably noticed that the theater of pulling a shot with beautiful crema has mostly been replaced with push-button machines and that the coffee often tastes a little burnt (it’s not just the roast). We are, for the most part, not laboring under the illusions of leisure and luxury but convenience and ubiquity. Europe isn’t under this illusion either, to judge from skeptical responses to the company’s first forays onto Parisian boulevards.

But the marriage of Italian espresso and American niche marketing did produce a brand that is wholly different from the coffee culture that inspired it, and different is always a good strategy in brand expansion. So Starbucks probably will find its home in the piazzas of Italy eventually, providing public spaces the locals to drink American coffee and for the Americans to plug in their laptops. • 19 April 2013 


By day, Sara Davis is a marketer for a university press. By night, she is a dissertating student of literature — 90% toward a doctorate and buffering. When not working toward the production of scholarly books from one end or the other, she might be found supporting the performing arts scene by taking tickets or buying them, or else standing around at farmer’s markets, squeezing all the peaches. She writes about food in art and literature at Scenes of Eating. She also writes for the online magazine Table Matters.