Howard Schultz was a Starbucks employee in 1983 when he traveled to Italy and was enchanted, sip by sip, by the Italian coffee scene and its culture defining rituals. When the founder of Starbucks decided to sell the company for 3.8 million, Schultz bought it. Without any idea how he would build on his vision, he said, ”The passion was unbridled enthusiasm, desire, and the fact that I must do this.” We all know what happened next.
Coffee in Italy is so much bigger than what is in the cup. The “coffee bar” culture here is about gathering. It is a place people come in the morning for a pastry and a cappuccino (Italians never drink coffee with any form of milk added after their morning cup). Italians then visit their local bar after siesta (sometime after 3PM) and before passeggiata for un caffee (espresso) .
During passeggiata the antipasti is served and the bar becomes a place for beer or grappa or brandy before dinner which never begins before 8 PM. The bars are for everyone, young and old, rich and poor and every Italian has their favorite bar where they spend much of their day popping in and out in a way that connects everyone everyday effortlessly.
One of the main differences between the coffee culture here and my past life at Starbucks is that you don’t mess with coffee here. The lady I always seemed to be caught behind at Starbucks that wanted the half hazelnut, half almond, half caf, sugar-free, soy latte at 100 degrees, would never get served in Italy. Once I learned how to “belly up” to the bar here, I quickly learned to order whether anyone was looking or not. Then magically the artful cup steams before me as I stand proud and perfectly caffeinated.
In Seattle, I was always on a mission for the perfect cup of coffee. It started as a child, following my mother to every corner of the earth for espresso. She passed her passion onto me and since being in Italy, the mission has changed a bit. Now, it is a bit of a game to see if I can find a bad cup of coffee.
As I once followed my mother into the first espresso stands out west, my children dare me to try truck-stop coffee, Autostrada gas station coffee, and the last attempt – monastery vending machine coffee. As I accept the dare, drop in my coins, and take the first sip, I am overwhelmed with a velvety goodness that melts my skeptical palette.
I have not found a bad cup of coffee it Italy. What I have found is a culture surrounding coffee that has made me feel at home in every coffee bar I have stepped foot in since arriving in Italy. I think in this regard, Howard Schultz achieved his dream. I think the difference is, in Italy every bar has a unique culture and family behind it, so although no two cups are they same, they are made in the name of bringing people together and that is something to celebrate.
“There are moments in our lives when we summon the courage to make choices that go against reason, against common sense and the wise counsel of people we trust. But we lean forward nonetheless because, despite all risks and rational argument, we believe that the path we are choosing is the right and best thing to do. We refuse to be bystanders, even if we do not know exactly where our actions will lead.” ~ Howard Schultz