Imagine, for a moment, that you were to purchase a time machine and travel back to the opening of the very first Starbucks store on March 30, 1971 (after you’ve stopped the Kennedy assassination or whatever). When you arrived, it would be nothing like the Starbucks you’re used to. First, the logo was different, featuring a brown, topless mermaid spreading her tail fin to entice sailors. Second, there was no coffee for sale, only beans. The company started as nothing more than a bean roastery, helping start the home-brew coffee revolution in Seattle.
You would have to move the time machine 16 years closer to the present, 1987, to get an early taste of Starbucks coffee. The store began selling coffee thanks to Howard Schultz, who was hired by Starbucks in 1982. On a buying trip in Milan, Italy, Schultz fell in love with the coffee culture, with “the light banter of political debate and the chatter of kids in school uniforms.” When he came back to the United States, he went up to the founders to recommend they transform Starbucks into a center for culture and coffee in North America.
The founders weren’t interested. So Schultz, totally not out of spite, left Starbucks in 1985 and started his own coffee company, Il Giornale. Two years later, he bought Starbucks. Schultz realized his dream, and he succeeded in bringing Italian-style coffee to the United States.
Well, “succeed” is kind of a stretch. What is true, though, is that Starbucks is finally making a trip to its theoretical homeland: they’re opening a roastery in Milan in 2018. Despite there being Starbucks locations all over the world, this will be the very first location in Italy, and Italians are…shall we say, ambivalent.
This brings us to the question at the center of this article: How Italian is Starbucks? I decided to investigate.
The Coffee Shops
Starbucks: You either hate it or you love it. Or probably both! Instead of just going to any old Starbucks, I traveled to their first New York City location, which opened at 87th and Broadway in 1994. But that location was closed, so I found the Starbucks closest to that one.
Caffé Reggio: Just south of Washington Square Park, Caffé Reggio is the oldest cafe in Greenwich Village, first opening its doors 90 years ago. The shop offers an array of Italian coffees, and it advertises that its espresso machine was brought to the United States in 1909. This is the closest I could get to Italy without having the budget to actually go to Italy.
Starbucks: You can walk into basically any Starbucks in the U.S. and it will be exactly the same. The music was a white guy strumming an acoustic guitar while singing about love, the color scheme was a mix of beige and brown, and the art was a bunch of close-up black-and-white photos of a car. The atmosphere falls a bit short of the conviviality of an Italian coffee shop: half of the people just grab their coffee and go, while the other half grab a table for themselves and bring out their laptops to use the free Wi-Fi. The latter was me.
Caffé Reggio: As I walked into the cafe, I was told to take any seat and a waiter brought me the menu to look over. The music was soft piano, with music like Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata. The decor was dim, making it a rather cozy cafe, and the art was an eclectic array primarily harkening back to the works of the Italian Renaissance. Like Starbucks, there were plenty of people sitting alone doing work on laptops, but there were also old Italian men holding conversations, making it seem even more authentic than it already was. The waitstaff was also extraordinarily kind to the clientele, and if I lived near here I would definitely become a regular.
Starbucks: Sticking to Starbucks’ three main sizes, there are Tall, Grande and Venti, which roughly translate to Small, Medium and Large. However, this system makes no sense. Originally, Starbucks had two sizes: Short (8 fluid ounces) and Tall (12 fluid ounces), so for some reason the smallest size is the larger of these two English words. Grande is the Italian word for “large,” and of course, then, it would be medium. Finally, there is Venti, the Italian word for “twenty,” which alludes to the fact that it is 20 fluid ounces (or 24 fluid ounces for cold drinks because of ice, I guess). This system is perhaps the biggest affront to the Italian language that Starbucks has to offer.
Caffé Reggio: Like many Italian cafes, there is only one size on offer for each drink.
I decided to get two drinks at each cafe, and I started with a cappuccino. The cappuccino in its modern variant appeared in northern Italy during the 1930s. It traditionally comprises one shot of espresso and hot foamed milk. It is only a breakfast drink in Italy, and it can be considered sacrilege to drink anything with foamed milk in it after morning has passed.
Starbucks: There is almost no flavor. It could be confused with just a cup of foamed milk and nothing else, but a little more bitter. Also, even at the smallest size Starbucks offers, Tall (12 fluent ounces), the cappuccino was bigger than any of the drinks at Caffé Reggio. Even after finishing it, I only got the vaguest impression I had actually had coffee.
Caffé Reggio: Caffé Reggio is credited with being the first establishment to bring the cappuccino to the United States, so that’s pretty tough competition. The coffee comes in a nice branded mug, and is topped with a sprinkling of cinnamon, so this is the closest I’ve ever been to appearing on an episode of Frasier. I decided against going with the Viennese style, which includes whipped cream. The espresso flavor was quite strong, though the cinnamon added a pleasant sweetness. It is definitely a drink meant more for sipping than for chugging, as Starbucks’ seemed to be. If I were to categorize the difference, Starbucks’ cappuccino is like a coffee version of a fruity cocktail that masks the alcohol (in this case, espresso). Caffé Reggio’s cappuccino is more of an Old Fashioned, where the strong caffeine taste is crucial to the overall flavor.
Next, I wanted to experience the drink each place was known for. At Starbucks, I went with a Salted Caramel Mocha Frappuccino, which is an Italian-ish combination of frappe, the New England name for milkshakes taken from the French frappé, and cappuccino. At Caffé Reggio, I ordered an espresso, or un caffé, because that’s what Italians often get when going to a cafe in the afternoon.
Starbucks: Human beings have evolved to enjoy foods that taste sweet, because it is our mouth telling our brain, “This has energy in it.” When you drink something that is really sweet, then, your brain becomes addicted to the taste and you want to consume all of it so that your body has lots of energy. The Salted Caramel Mocha Frappuccino, however, goes well beyond that. It’s like drinking straight caramel. The Grande has 69 grams of sugar, or about three Hershey’s chocolate bars’ worth. I could not drink it; no one should drink it; my body was completely overwhelmed by this Luciferian elixir.
Caffé Reggio: Good God, drinking the espresso last was a terrible, terrible idea. As someone who enjoys wonderfully terrible Dunkin Donuts coffee more than any other coffee, I was unprepared for the rush of espresso. It did not help that this was technically my fifth espresso shot in two hours. I can’t say I particularly enjoyed this drink, but I can say it’s certainly unlike a usual drink at Starbucks. If the cappuccino is like a cocktail, this was straight tequila, my friends.
I did not write this post to make fun of anyone who drinks Starbucks coffee. It is a generally benevolent company that is good to its employees, and I have had my fair share of their coffee over the years.
What I do want to strongly dispel is the illusion that Starbucks has a claim to Italian culture at all. Yes, they offer Italian-ish drinks, but they have certainly not created an environment similar to any place you would go to in Milan.
What Starbucks can say, however, is that they redefined American coffee culture. No longer is it a utilitarian drink meant to be chugged so someone can feel slightly more alive when going to their 16-hour-a-day job. Now, coffee is a linchpin of the United States, with new, Instagrammable drinks introduced every few months that are filled to the brim with sugar. The American coffee shop is a place to meet your friends, to do your work, and to drink your expensive milk foam. As a company that can spark a national feud over not including Christmas trees in their cup design each winter, Starbucks should be proud to be as American as it possibly can be. God bless Starbucks, and God bless the one country that would embrace their constant boundary-pushing experiments with caffeine: the good old U.S. of A.