Coffee in Italy: Is It Time for a Seattle-Italian Hybrid?

Like it or not, the Italian-inspired Starbucks started a coffee revolution in the US. The changes introduced there have been brought to cafes almost everywhere, in fifty countries from the Americas to the Middle East and Africa. This week writer Stephan Faris asked “Why not Italy?” In searching for an answer, he concluded that Italy is now ready for a Starbucks.

The major differences between the Italian café and those in America are in regard to the beans and cultural style. Though Starbucks, and the other basic American-style Wi-fi’d cafes, have evolved quite differently from an Italian espresso bar, a few innovators other than Starbucks have added some American touches to the Italian coffee scene. McCafes are starting up all over, familiarizing Italians with a more relaxed environment for enjoying their coffee more slowly.

When it comes to the beans, Arabica and Robusta are viewed differently than in the States. Arabica is not seen as superior to Robusta – just different. In the north, Arabica might be the preference, while in other parts of Italy, Arabica is not liked at all. Some roasters mix Robusta into Arabica to save money. To some, like Starbucks owner Howard Schultz, such coffee comes off as bitter. Faris reports on an interesting phenomenon – an ironic twist in some ways – that involves the newest Italian café concept, Arnold Coffee. Founded by two Italians, it’s modeled on the Starbucks concept. But Faris points out that “What Schultz did was take the Italian coffee tradition, fly it across the Atlantic, and infuse it with a Seattle approach to leisure.” So now, a Seattle-influenced concept is flying back across the Atlantic, returning to Italy as a sort-of Italian-American hybrid.

Not that long ago, Seattle was like everywhere else when it came to enjoying coffee away from home. One could drive all over the city looking for a cafe that stayed open late, offering a place to visit with friends over coffees late into the evening. For years, the only such place was Dennys and the only coffee was the endless cup of Bunn drip. Starbucks brought homey comfort and a much higher grade of coffee, espresso rather than just drip choices and a comfortable atmosphere that wasn’t a tavern or bar. If Arnold Coffee’s six Italian locations are any indication, it seems Italians – especially the younger, more travelled set– have also come to appreciate such an espresso café in which they can visit with friends, check email, read, even do a little work away from the office.

At the end of the day, as Faris reports, “Italians may be picky about their coffee, but they’re wide open for a company that offers them a new, slower way to experience it.” Mr. Schultz, are you listening? And for your own Seattle-based espresso enjoyment, try one of the delicious choices below.

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