From Devil’s Drink to Frappuccino: The Coffee Scene in Italy is About to Change

Bear with me while I reminisce about my first. I remember it distinctly: that very first sip of coffee with milk frothed up by way of pressurized steam.

A cappuccino.

Some of my earliest recollections revolve around the time I learned from my parents that we’d be leaving our home in Wichita, Kansas, to move to Greece. The idea was very confusing to me. I was four years old and fairly confident that Greece was a blob in a frying pan, not a habitable location.

Spoiler Alert: I was wrong.

An Intro to Café Culture

We moved to Athens. Everything was so new and different. It was the first time I could recall having encountered something along the lines of café culture. In those days I was too young to have been able to form any such concept of lifestyles and how they differ based on culture — yet still, I had noticed a difference.

The streets were full of people. People out walking or shopping at local markets. People who enjoyed watching people. Lively social interactions were part of the daily street scene. Life in Athens was livelier and more pedestrian-centric than what I had been used to in small-town, USA. (Not that I was drawing on much experience at that point in time.)

Now back to that first sip. I think I was already five by then, and we were getting settled into life abroad.

I was with my parents and sisters in a public gathering place — let’s call it a coffeehouse or café — but I did not know what a cappuccino was. My parents had each ordered the frothy beverage, and it looked so inviting, so tempting, so… YUMMY.

I begged them to let me have some. Eventually they gave in and allowed me a sip. I carefully held the warm cup with both hands and drew it in. What I imagined as a sort of chocolate-infused liquid-marshmallow mix touched my lips, it approached my taste buds, and… and…

It was GROSS!

It was NOT yummy.

It had tricked me with its frothy veneer!

It was bitter, not sweet like a hot chocolate, which I had been expecting. Cappuccino-Fappuccino. What a letdown that was.

Coffee Appreciation

Fast-forward twenty years. I had become an adult who could appreciate the value of good coffee. My taste buds had matured.

And now, you know, I’m all about that cappuccino. Or espresso.

In college, I had my first opportunity to partake in the Italian varietal on a school-organized trip to Venice, Florence, and Rome. To be brief, Italy was magical, and the coffee was divine. I was a convert from the get-go, ever-so convinced that the Italians know what they’re doing when they’re brewing.

To be honest, I didn’t really know much about the cult of coffee then. But I felt I knew enough: that I just had to trust my own taste buds. And it made sense. Italy and coffee kind of go hand in hand.

For starters, let’s look at the etymology.

The words we use to place our caffeinated-beverage orders are Italian. My dictionary tells me that the use of “cappuccino” and “espresso” in English dates from the 1940s, taken from the Italian language.

“Cappuccino” is derived from the Italian word, “Capuchin,” because it resembles the color of a Franciscan Capuchin friar’s habit. And “espresso,” is from “caffè espresso,” meaning “pressed out coffee” in Italian, which describes the process, whereby steam is forced through ground coffee beans.

Although in Italy, they would not call it an espresso, but would simply refer to it as “un caffè.”

caffè-latte
Ask for a latte in Germany, and you might get more than you bargained for.

Personally, I’m more inclined to order a latte these days. Short for caffè latte, it’s also Italian: “latte,” meaning milk. Knowing the etymology of your favorite drink may be nonessential trivia, but it’s something to ponder the next time you’re waiting to place an order with your barista (Italian for barman). 

Fun Facts:

If you ask for a latte in Italy, you'll get a glass of milk. Be sure to specify that you'd like a "caffè latte" to get some caffeine with your milk. 

In German, "Latte" is a colloquialism for "erection." Ask for a latte in Germany, and you might get more than you bargained for.

Yet — while the coffee lingo is Italian — the origins go back further (chronologically) and farther (geographically).

Mocha Choca Lata Ya Ya

The probable birthplace of the coffee plant is southern Abyssinia, today’s Ethiopia, but the earliest documentation of its use as a popular beverage points to Arabia, where coffee seeds were first roasted and brewed, specifically in Yemen.

Thanks, Yemen! We truly appreciate your contribution to humankind. Especially at 7am.

Interestingly, the Mocha variety of coffee bean stems from the Yemeni town of Mocha, on the southwest coast of Yemen, where the Gulf of Aden meets the Red Sea. And while the chocolate-flavored drink (Caffè mocha) was a subsequent development, it can thank Mocha, Yemen, for its name. Think about that the next time you’re singin’ “mocha choca lata ya ya.”

From Yemen, the popularity of coffee spread across Arabia, and throughout the Ottoman Empire. Some sources say that the first coffee shop opened in Constantinople in 1457, while others claim that date is off by almost one hundred years, and that it wasn’t until 1554. Others contend it was actually in Damascus in 1530 that the first coffeehouse opened.

What we do know is that for a while it was dangerous to be caught coffee-handed. In 17th-Century Turkey one sultan was hell bent on eliminating consumption of the aromatic brew. Consequently, “unfortunate coffee drinkers were decapitated as they sipped.” Off with their heads! Given how popular coffee is in Turkey today, the sultan’s tactic obviously did not work.

Türk Kahvesi (Turkish Coffee)

Kahwa, Koffie, Kahveh, Coffee?

Getting back to etymology for a bit, let’s examine the origins of the word itself. Referencing my handy dictionary again, we can see how “coffee” made its way into the English language: “from Turkish kahveh, from Arabic ḳahwa, probably via Dutch koffie.”

The language morphed along the trade routes in a way: spreading from Arabia through Turkey, reaching continental Europe, continuing north of the Alps, and beyond. With trade between Venice, The Middle East, and North Africa thriving, those brown beans sure did get around.

By the end of the 1500s coffee had made its way to Italy. For a bit of chronological perspective, Columbus had reached the Americas before coffee had arrived in Europe.

It wasn’t immediately welcomed with open arms or empty mugs. As the story goes, priests had petitioned Pope Clement VIII in 1600 to banish the “devil’s drink,” a supposed evil brought to the continent by Muslims. Legend has it that the Pope summoned a cup, partook, and declared: “This Satan’s drink is so delicious that it would be a pity to let the infidels have exclusive use of it. We shall fool Satan by baptizing it.”

If beheadings couldn’t stop coffee consumption in Constantinople, imagine what a Pope’s blessing would do? Coffee shops sprouted first in Italy (1645), then in England (1652), in Paris (1672), and, later in Berlin (1721).

And with the spread of coffee across countries, continents, and cultures, different traditions evolved. “When in Rome, do as the Romans do,” the old adage goes. Likewise, when in Turkey, one simply must sip a Turkish coffee: strong, smooth, bold, and with the grinds still in the cup.

Sipping Türk Kahvesi in Istanbul, May, 2016
Sipping Türk Kahvesi in Istanbul, May, 2016

Speaking of Turkish coffee, just FYI: the dregs at the bottom are not meant to be consumed. I’m not saying that because I learned it the hard way or anything.

In Vienna, coffee is embellished with a big dollop of whipped cream on top! And possibly also supplemented with some form or other of liqueur. We won’t judge if you order one before noon.

viennese-coffee
“Franz Landtmann Kaffee” at Café Mozart in Vienna: Double espresso with brandy, coffee liqueur, whipped cream, and cinnamon

And perhaps it is while sitting in a Parisian café, watching the beautifully dressed people promenade down grand boulevards or quaint, narrow arcades, nursing a noisette, and thinking of the poets, thinkers, writers, and artists who’ve inhabited these places in the past where one truly feels a sense of joie de vivre.

Noisette, by the way, is espresso with “a spot of cream” and derives its name from “the French word for hazelnut because of its color.” Thanks for the explanation, Paris by Mouth!

Coffee Culture: All Roads Lead to Italy

And what of Italy’s coffee traditions? Well, Italians have very strict cultural rules about when and where what coffee is acceptable to drink.

Earlier this year, I rode the Bernina Express from Pontresina, Switzerland, to Lugano, Switzerland, with a brief lunch stop in the Italian town of Tirano. I tried to order a cappuccino with my Caprese salad and was immediately scolded by the youngish, blonde waitress for attempting to order such a peculiar combination.

one-does-not-copy

Let’s just say that the look of disbelief (disgust?) on her face combined with the sound of dismay in her voice as she vigorously protested in a language I could not understand, encouraged me to reevaluate my decision.

Such an encounter would never have happened at home, in the US, where the-customer-is-always-right mentality reigns supreme.

In this case, though, I have to admit that she was right. And she had no qualms about letting me know it.

I ordered a vino bianco instead.

caprese-salad
Caprese is better with white wine.
Just say no to Caprese with cappuccino!

Last May, while assisting on a Rick Steves’ Heart of Italy tour for work, I was introduced to a caffè specimen I had never tasted before. The talented and entertaining David Tordi, lead guide of our tour, revolutionized my Italian coffee experience. He introduced me to caffè corretto — in other words: “corrected coffee!”

Corrected Coffee

Who knew I had been drinking incorrect coffee all these years?

What is caffè corretto, you ask? It’s a shot of espresso with a smidge of grappa, sambuca, or brandy. I tried the sambuca version myself and immediately was a fan.

Keep in mind that sambuca is an anise-flavored liqueur. And like licorice, you either love anise or you hate it. If you fall into the latter category, it’s probably best to steer clear of sambuca and opt for a grappa or brandy corretto instead.

This year, not long after the Caprese kerfuffle, I found I had even more to learn about Italian coffee traditions and faux pas. The lesson came from another of our stellar guides, Sarah Corfield, on a Rick Steves’ Village Italy tour. A coffee with milk, she said, should only be enjoyed in the morning, and never after a meal.

Coffee According to the Italians

Apparently, a true Italian would never be caught indulging in cappuccino, caffé latte, latte macchiato, or other such milky concoctions, past noon (with the exception of a macchiato — an espresso coffee with only a small amount of milk). Only unenlightened tourists do that.

The reasoning? It’s bad for digestion, of course. 

Caffè Pedrocchi
The Pedrocchi Café in Padua, where intellectuals and revolutionaries used to chill (without the Netflix). 

Try their specialty, Caffé Pedrocchi, a secret blend of coffee with mint-flavored cream, topped with a dash of cocoa. Delizioso!

Furthermore, the placing of über-complicated coffee orders is taboo in Italia. Contemplating a tall, decaf, double-shot, no-foam, coconut-milk latte with a pump of vanilla? Sei pazzo? Non ci pensa nemmeno. Don’t even think about it. You must be crazy.

So, hundreds of years in the making, Italy’s coffee traditions seem fairly well established, right? What could possibly change any of this?

Enter Sandman. Or, rather, Starbucks.

Enter Starbucks

Italy will be getting its very first Starbucks early next year, 2017. Not to be overly dramatic, but the store, due to open in Milan, will mark the beginning of the end. “The end of what?” you may ask. The end of la résistance. Or, la Resistenza, in Italian.

England was the first European country to succumb to the jolly green mermaid, in 1998. Austria, Scotland, Switzerland, and Wales were next, in 2001. Germany, Greece, and Spain capitulated in 2002, with Cyprus and Turkey following suit in 2003.

(They’re falling like overly caffeinated flies!)

In 2004, Northern Ireland, and even France, gave up la résistance. With Ireland raising the white flag shortly after, in 2005. A tough blow was dealt in 2007 when Denmark, the Netherlands, Romania, and Russia admitted defeat. They consoled themselves over a Venti Pumpkin Spice Latte.

In 2008, Starbucks adopted a new mission statement: “To inspire and nurture the human spirit — one person, one cup and one neighborhood at a time.” They could have substituted that last bit with “one country at a time.” That year, Belgium, Bulgaria, Czech Republic, and Portugal also joined the Seattle-coffee bandwagon.

Then Poland, in 2009; Hungary and Sweden, in 2010; Finland and Norway, in 2012. Even glamorous Monaco laid out the red carpet for the green mermaid in 2013.

Next up on the horizon, in 2017, almost 20 years after England got its first Starbucks, Italy will conform to the trend.

Will this change Italy’s coffee culture? And if so, how?

A New Era of Coffee?

Will the Starbucks presence eventually be accepted in Italian culture? Or will it ultimately be phased out? As was the case with the Starbucks that opened in Beijing’s Forbidden City in 2000, only to be closed in 2007 due to local opposition saying it “marred the solemnity of the Forbidden City and undermined Chinese culture.”

Will Italians succumb to Starbucks’ counterintuitive ordering lingo, where a medium-sized cup is called a “Grande,” (meaning “large” in Italian), while the large-sized cup is called a “Venti,” (meaning “twenty” in Italian — referring to its 20-ounce size, even though Italians use liters to measure liquids, not ounces)?

Will Italians start placing super-complicated beverage orders, and will they start drinking milky Frappuccinos in the afternoon?

These are all very good questions. And nobody knows for sure what the answers will be. What are your thoughts on the matter? “When in Rome,” would you order a Starbucks? Or opt for something more traditional?

Perhaps it’s something best discussed over a cup of coffee.

42 thoughts on “From Devil’s Drink to Frappuccino: The Coffee Scene in Italy is About to Change”

  1. Starbucks opening in Italy? A very dark time for Italy. IMHO Starbucks coffee is so inferior to a mere corner coffee bar in Italy that I’d be surprised if the chain survived in Italy for very long. Good coffee is a way of life in Italy. La dolce vita far niente.

    1. Yes, it will be interesting to see how this little Starbucks “experiment” will go! But one thing is certain: it will continue to be Italian coffee for me! 🙂

  2. Just a note to let you know that Starbucks are everywhere in Seoul, South Korea….tho in the traditional quarter Insadong, the only way Starbucks was allowed was if the Starbucks name was written in the Korean language….!

    1. Wow, that’s so interesting to hear! Thanks for sharing, Jeann. I really hope to make it back to Seoul someday! I’m sure it’s changed so much since I last was in Korea in 90s. There weren’t any Starbucks there then! 🙂

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  4. Hi Stephanie,
    Years ago, the coffee that I was served by my Saudi students looked almost like tea: the unroasted/very slightly roasted beans created a clear yellow green coffee–that was spiced with cardamom! I hope you get to try some. I’ll never forget the delicious, very different, flavor.

    1. Hi Katie! Wow, that does sound delicious! I do hope I’ll have the opportunity to try it sometime! 🙂 Thanks for sharing that!

  5. Last summer I was ecstatic to discover that there were no Starbucks in Italy. It seemed like the world’s last holdout! I’m crestfallen to hear that it’s coming to Milan. Surely the locals won’t frequent Starbucks, and I just hope tourists won’t either.

    1. Hi Barbara! Yes, I was very surprised when I heard that they’d be opening one in 2017. Hopefully it won’t be too popular!

  6. I am sure Starbucks will continue to gobble up prime historic real estate to try to gain share across Europe. Hopefully a fad just for European students/youth like McD’s or B King seem to be. I’ll never go there. Somehow, being served a coffee by a waiter at say the Callas Cafe outdoor courtyard by the opera house in Budapest, will always win my business over a Starbucks. And many others across Europe that help define European culture. I like a little EU ambience in my coffee.

    1. I fear you’re probably right, although I hope it won’t get too out of hand! I also like a little Eu ambience in my coffee! Thanks, Fonzo!

  7. Noooooo!! Say it ain’t so! My heart is breaking reading this and I’m a born and raised (just outside of) Seattlite who enjoys Starbucks while at home.

    I too, cannot imagine a scenario where Italians are going to patronize Sbux for their coffee or pay the exorbitant prices when they can practically walk down the street and get their espresso for a Euro at every other doorstep. And I certainly will NEVER step foot in one while visiting Italy! Not to be totally mean, but I hope it ends the same as their China experiment. We travel for the unique culture and experiences each country has to offer and it makes me terribly angsty to see this particularly lovely Italian construct get run over by a huge corporation who’s beginnings were spurned forward because of the desire to share and emulate Italian coffee culture in the first place!!

    1. “We travel for the unique culture and experiences each country has to offer” Yep! That about sums it up for me! I don’t think we have too much to worry about in the way of a huge corporate coffee takeover. As Dave and some of the others mentioned below, there are some things that just cannot be emulated, no matter how they try! Thanks for your comments, Angela!

  8. No, No, No. Via La Scala, Trastevere.
    “Bar” is the place to go. Dave has set the foretold scene. Everyone knows everyone (truly or a little) and the greetings range from hearty to reserved, or with maybe only a smile, but speaking volumes and the camaraderie envelopes you into their world. This will not, should not change.
    eh! a presto…ci vediamo domani allora…

  9. I am curious about the pricing. With an excellent caffe (espresso) at the bar for 1 euro and a cappuccino for 1.50 euro Starbucks will have to reduce their prices significantly. And what self-respecting Italian would use a paper cup? Unless it is supported by North American tourists, I can’t understand how the business model would work, but we will see…

    1. Yes, it will be interesting to see how it plays out. So far they’re only opening one in Milan, which has a big community of expats, so perhaps it might appeal to some internationals. But if they’ve already gotten acclimated to life in Italy — including the coffee scene — then maybe it won’t be so appealing. We shall see!

  10. Dave has it right! I cannot imagine, after almost 5 years living in Italy, that I would go into a Starbucks instead of a traditional bar or cafe! In fact, even in France we have trouble finding un caffè as good as in Italy. And availability in Italy: a bar in every block, every museum, every tiny castle on a mountain! I can no longer drink 12 or 20 ounces of “coffee.” I like my little Italian cappuccino which is maybe 5 or 6 ounces AND it is served in a ceramic cup. Always.

    Perhaps when back in the U.S. I will have to order a child-size…. Do they do that?

    1. Haha, yes! The sizes in the US seem enormous when one returns from a trip to Europe! I think you’ll have to order a “short” — I believe that’s their smallest size! I think I’d love living in Italy! Sounds like you’ve been enjoying it, Laurel!

  11. Two scenarios present themselves. I think I know which one I would choose:

    The one, a traditional Starbucks, packed with tourists lining up for their push-button coffees. Customers collect their orders, gather outside or push tables together inside, all the while texting one another. No one talks to his or her fellow traveller while nibbling on pastries and sipping their coffees, when suddenly off they go. Clutter left behind.

    The other, in one of Rome’s oldest cafés: marble counters drawn from Carrara in the 1870s, impeccable terrazzo floors; brass fittings, sparkling mirrors and windows reflect the morning sun, warmed ceramic cups hand-filled to the brim by smartly-attired, aproned baristas, ‘clinked’ onto a saucer and with aplomb – deftly placed in front of me on the crowded counter. A warm croissant follows.

    Everyone standing, everyone talking with great gusto – from the wealthy draped in Milan’s finest, elbow-to-elbow with rainbow-coiffed chattering students having dashed in from scooters jolted to a stop outside. Two diamond-ringed women in their 50s, with purple eye shadow and bright pink lipstick, slide their empty cups and saucers across the counter, smile a thank-you to the young female barista and wend their way through the crowd to the golden autumn morning outside. A handsome student – white school shirt not tucked in – holds the door and nods.

    1. BRILLIANT. You sent me right back to Italy; I think I saw the same 2 bright-lipped women over my last espresso! Thus why I will always choose the real coffee-culture anywhere! Oddly enough, I suppose travelers to the USA marvel at the “home of the ‘real’ Sbux culture”? Perhaps the blog in their native language that they watched real American sorority girls taking selfies with their PSLs (pumpkin spiced lattes)…

    2. That is a great little story…a tale of two cultures. Having a coffee in a Starbucks in Italy seems like nothing less than a farce!

    3. Wow! What a picture you’ve painted, Dave! I definitely know which scene is more appealing to me!

  12. I love my coffee, taking it bold and black, yet strange enough, I cannot, despite many attempts, drink espresso. So in Italy, it’s a morning cappuccino. I do carry Sbux Via packets, including decaf, with me, so if I am desperate for an “Americano” in my hotel, I will just get hot water (“tea without the tea” – lol) and get my fix. Love when a hotel has a Nespresso or similar.

    1. I don’t generally drink espresso, but I definitely do when in Italy! Love it! Glad to hear you are a “prepared” traveler! 😉 🙂

  13. I couldn’t pass up a blog post about coffee! Your story of the chagrined waitress reminds me of all the times I order a galao (basically a latte) in Portugal. It’s my favorite, but of course culturally is only taken in the morning. I unashamedly order mine any time of day and, when it comes to coffee, eschew the cultural norm:-) As for Italians and Starbucks, I’m guessing tourists will be the most frequent visitors at first. Foreigners lean toward the familiar and coffee culture in Italy can be intimidating. I remember ordering an espresso in Florence and taking a seat, then getting charged three times what I thought it would cost. Then I realized it’s cheaper if you stand and drink it at the bar. Starbucks probably won’t be like that in Italy. It’s standardized across the globe in many ways, a comforting thought to many visitors who might be way outside their comfort zone in a foreign country. I’m not too worried about Sbux usurping Italian coffee culture. If their espresso was actually any good, it might be a concern, but I’ve never had a Sbux coffee that tasted as good as one at a local joint, whether in the U.S. or abroad.

    1. Starbucks offers use of a restroom free of charge! That will be the draw for North American tourists!

    2. Oooh, a galao? I’ll have to try that the next time I’m in Portugal! I’m also guilty of ordering milky coffee beverages any time of day! Oh well, I guess as non-natives we can get away with it! 🙂 The only really good Starbucks I’ve ever had is at the Starbucks Reserve Roastery that opened up in Seattle a couple of years ago. That one is worth visiting if you’re ever in the area!

      1. Thanks! Toilet paper etiquette is a tricky thing. It wasn’t until my children were old enough and I had to explain it to them that I realized how complicated and confusing it can be while traveling.

  14. Great piece! Really enjoyable reading. I only drink coffee when I’m in Europe, not in the US. Turkish coffee is great! Who knew I could have once been beheaded for drinking it! Honestly, the worst coffee I had was in Italy.

    1. Thank you, Susan! I’m very glad you enjoyed it! Yes, I’m a big fan of Turkish coffee too. I’m sorry to hear that your Italian coffee experience was subpar, though! Perhaps on a future trip you’ll get a tastier cup! 🙂

  15. I have never in my 50-some years, acquired a taste for coffee until…..
    A fateful morning in Rome when my B&B served up my first real Italian cappuccino. What I discovered is that I didn’t like Americanized coffee but loved this one. Back in the states I tried the Starbucks, the Seattle’s Best, the Tully’s, nothing was like that delightful indulgence in Roma. I thought I’d have to fly back there if I ever wanted to duplicate that flavor but then I discovered the Nespresso machine and frother and the Roma-blend capsule. It nearly duplicated the wonderful cup o’ love I had been searching for and now lets me start the day like I am sitting in the lovely little B&B.

    1. Converted to coffee after fifty years and a visit to Roma! Love it! And I have to admit, I was pretty impressed with Nespresso coffee when I got the chance to try it! Thanks for chiming in, Beverly! And here’s to starting our days as if we’re sitting in a lovely little B&B in Roma! 🙂

  16. Stephanie, I have really enjoyed this piece. Coffee culture is fascinating! Perhaps you’ll write about famous coffee houses in Europe.

    1. Hello, April! Famous coffee houses would definitely be another interesting topic! Thank you for your comments!

    1. Thanks, Kenny! Oh, wow! Slovakia too? They weren’t listed on the Starbucks timeline page I checked, so I thought maybe they were still holding out. Guess not! The question is, did you guys order some while you were there?! 😉 Haha! Hope you guys had a great time! Looking forward to hearing about it!

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