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Is Italy Really Ready for Starbucks Milan?

Howard Schultz’s splashy new Milan opening is the culmination of an obsession. But it might prove a bitter taste for locals

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“Dedicated to Milan, the city that inspired our dreams. Every coffee we served brought us here.”

This inscription, translated from Italian, shines bright — literally, it’s backlit — on a wall in Starbucks’s newest location in Milan, Italy. It’s a massive coffee roaster, cafe, and shop, open to the public as of September 7. Those familiar with the coffee brand or its dreamer of a founder, Howard Schultz, will know that statement might be a platitude, but it’s not hyperbole.

Milan has long been peddled as the spiritual birthplace of Starbucks. “During my first trip to Milan in 1983, I was captivated by the sense of community I found in the city’s espresso bars — the moments of human connection that passed so freely and genuinely between baristas and their customers,” Schultz, Starbucks’s former CEO, founder, and chairman emeritus, wrote in a release. After becoming infatuated with “the theater, romance, art, and magic of experiencing espresso” in Italy, Schultz acquired Starbucks in 1988, intent on introducing the Italian coffee experience — complete with espresso, cappuccino, and professional baristas — to Americans.

Over the next 30 years, he exported his idea of the Italian coffee-drinking experience into more than 28,000 locations in 78 countries. It’s thus both ironic and completely understandable that the country most associated with coffee eluded Schultz’s Starbucks for 28 years. In 2016, with some trepidation, the company announced its entree into Italy. Milan was chosen over Rome, Italy’s capital, due to Schultz’s personal ties to it.

By all accounts, Starbucks’s new Roastery is an overeager and visually striking tribute to Starbucks’s white whale. A heightened fantasy of Italian aesthetics, it’s not as campy as Disney World, but its excessive polish and vaguely steampunk style are still vividly American. The 25,000-square-foot space (once a post office, and before that a stock exchange) houses many bells and whistles: The physical roaster was made by Scolari, an Italian manufacturer of industrial coffee equipment; casks are made from bronze, a material often used in Milanese decor and architecture; counters are honed out of the same 30-ton block of Calacatta Macchia Verde marble from Tuscany. A mermaid statue — Starbucks’s figurehead — adorns the Roastery’s portico, and was carved out of Carrara marble by Italian sculptor Giovanni Balderi. Though Starbucks’s press releases promised “humility” and “respect,” the overall effect is one of excessive flamboyance, not unlike an American dressing themselves in head-to-toe Gucci, Fendi, and Versace while on holiday in Rome.

Outside Starbucks Roastery in Milan, Italy.

But does Starbucks fit into the city’s current coffee culture? In Milan, both everyday coffee bars and gilded, opulent establishments (such as Cova in Via Monte Napoleone, established in 1817) are integral parts of the city. There are 149,429 coffee bars in Italy, and 63.8 percent of Italians have their breakfast at coffee bars or coffee-pastry-shop hybrids, each spending an average of 2 to 3 euros for coffee and a breakfast pastry, according to a 2017 report by FIPE (the Italian Federation of Public Exercises).

The coffee bar is perhaps the most distinctive lifestyle landmark of Italy. Open all day, coffee bars are a grounding daily ritual for Italians of all walks of life. They offer coffee and pastries for breakfast; no-frills lunch options (salads, sandwiches, and piadine); and aperitivi in the early evening. The proprietors of neighborhood establishments greet regulars by their first names.

Standard Italian coffee-counter menus are extremely concise. “Caffè” means “espresso” by default. Variations on the theme are caffè lungo, caffè macchiato, caffè ristretto, latte macchiato, and cappuccino. By contrast, the menu at Starbucks’s Milan Roastery offers more than 115 coffee- and tea-based drinks. There’s a tea “perfumed with Jasmine aromas with ginger spice and orange peel accents.” An artisanal affogato station is dubbed “Fire and Ice.” A new drink, the Cordusio, which pays tribute to the marocchino (a shot of espresso, cocoa powder, and milk froth), was launched worldwide this week in honor of the opening. The reactions from Milanese are mixed.

Diehards, proud of the country’s long legacy in coffee, scoff at the arrival of an American colossus on principle. “It’s offensive to Italian coffee culture,” says Daniele Amodio, a Neapolitan graduate student of history, calling out “the pretentiousness of these Americans, who want to bring their own idea of coffee here, where the beverage was in fact created, sponsored, and promoted.”

Lorenzo Bises, a local writer with a background in art history, promotes Milanese culture but says he’ll try Starbucks’s new megashop — eventually. “If it’s not too crowded and teeming with teenagers, which usually happens to trendy new establishments, I won’t mind going,” he says.

“I am a loyal Starbucks customer when I travel abroad,” says Federico Caligaris, a financial advisor based in Milan who admits to loving mocha-based concoctions. “I think it guarantees service and products of a certain level, in contexts where it’s usually hard to come by a high-quality beverage.” Still, he says he probably won’t be a regular at the Milano Roastery because it’s not within walking distance from his office.

Despite their allegiance to coffee bars, somewhat paradoxically, Italians don’t seek out what Starbucks’s stateside roasters tout: single-origin beans or precisely temperature-controlled brews. In Italy, espresso flavor profiles are very rarely discussed. “I don’t think [Italian customers] really care about flavor profiles and notes, mainly because in order to properly distinguish them, you need some expertise,” says coffee roaster Carlo Russo, who owns the nearby coffee bar Milano Roastery. “What matters is to drink a good espresso that doesn’t taste bitter or burnt.”

Whether or not Starbucks’s coffee will be judged as bitter is still up in the air. But in an effort to show its support of local Italian businesses, the coffee giant partnered with a longstanding and well-liked bakery chain, Princi. There’s a bakery inside the new Roastery, and, as part of the partnership, Starbucks is bringing Princi to the States.

What’s more, Starbucks’s Milan Roastery opens at a time when the city is rife with establishments that nod to American cuisine and beverages. Twenty years ago, former Danone manager Marco D’Arrigo launched California Bakery, which specializes in all-American desserts such as cookies, apple pie, and cherry pie. An unassuming storefront in the late 1990s, it now has eight locations all over Milan. “America Coffee” is the first caffeinated beverage listed. Tizzy’s NY Bar and Grill, located on the Naviglio, is a New York-style diner, complete with subway tile, that offers a slightly refined version of diner fare. The city also sports Corey’s Soul Chicken, a soul-food restaurant operated by Kentucky native Corey McCathern.

And there’s a thriving number of Starbucks-inspired cafe chains, which, like Starbucks in the U.S., cater to students and freelancers who need a place to work. Arnold Coffee, with locations in Milan, Florence, and Rome, claims to be Italy’s first American-style coffee bar, with its own version of a caramel macchiato; Turin and Rome have Busters Coffee, which serves frappés, shakes, and iced coffee. The city of Naples boasts Cup Cap’s Café, whose tagline is “American Style, Neapolitan Coffee.” On this note, purists just have to acknowledge the obvious: There is, indeed, a high demand for beverages beyond the espresso/macchiato/cappuccino trifecta. “Starbucks is trendy,” Caligaris says.It’s cool to visit Starbucks, parade around a city with your paper cup, and take a photo of yourself with it for the Instagram.”

Doesn’t it almost seem counterintuitive of Starbucks, given the demand from younger crowds for sugary and Insta-friendly concoctions, to open a roastery that overemphasizes the “Italian” component? The cups even lack Starbucks’s famed logo in favor of a single star.

The flagship store will be located steps away from the Duomo, where tourist foot traffic is in high volume. For that reason alone, it seems quite easy to predict Starbucks’s success, at least financially. But those tourists, who are likely familiar with the brand, might elect to use the outpost as a place to mooch off Wi-Fi rather than savor a fantasy of the Italian coffee-drinking experience.

“As soon as Starbucks opens in Italy, it won’t be in a Podunk town, but in major cities,” William Cisco, a high school teacher and playwright, put it bluntly. “So if they just get one-time customers that go there just for the sake of a photograph, it will be so many of them that it won’t matter.”

“The choice to enter the Italian marketplace was a careful one, and we have taken our time to ensure that the entry into Italy has been thoughtful and respectful,” a Starbucks representative elaborated over email. “We are very proud of the Reserve Roastery experience we are bringing and have no intention of teaching Italians about espresso. We know we need to earn their respect, every day.”

Local businesses are not too worried. “It will be good for us if a colossus such as Starbucks manages to make high-quality coffee better known,” says Carlo Russo of the Milano Roastery.

Unfortunately, though, the Frappuccino and pumpkin spice latte-loving crowds will have to wait for the opening of non-premium locations to satisfy their cravings. Luckily, they’re just a few months away.