In Italy, cafes’ have been part of the culture since the mid- to late 1600s. It is interesting that the cafe’ experience in Italy has been traditionally different than what we view as cafes here in the United States.
This is gradually changing. Starbucks and Dunkin’ in the last five years or so have been establishing a steadily growing presence in Italy. But they are relatively new compared to the traditional Italian café. In fast-paced cities like Rome, Florence, Venice, Milan, Turin and Verona, for example, Italians on the go do grab a coffee at cafés and espresso bars and now at these coffee giants while rushing to work at the start their day. However, cafés, coffee houses and espresso bars are where they stop, take a break and escape from the hectic day-to-day life in the city. Getting a coffee may be a social get-together, a romantic encounter, a leisurely lunch or even a casual business meeting at these places. They are a pleasant change of pace from daily life.
Some cafés in Italy have long histories, such as Caffe’ Gilli in Florence. It boasts 270 years of history offering coffee drinks and superb pastries in an elegant atmosphere. Caffe’ Sicilia, as the name suggests, is beautifully located in the baroque town in Sicily. This world-famous café has been in operation for over 100 years and is now run by the fourth generation of the Assenza family.
There are tiny Cafés in Italy like Caffe’ Mulassano in Turin. It packs extreme beauty and a thriving business into 35 square meters of space. Others may be large and luxurious like the Gran Caffe’ Quadri, in operation since the 1630s in the heart of Venice. This is a place to see and be seen. It is a go-to place for celebrities and is known for superior coffee, live entertainment, and a fancy restaurant upstairs. On the other hand, modern cafés like Sal De Riso Costa d’Amalfi in Minori along the Amalfi coast is not only a café’. It presents itself as a modern gastronomic multistore. It is a large multi-purpose environment featuring a 7-meter-long pastry counter, an artisan ice cream counter, pizzeria, and bistro in addition to a full-service café as described in The Curious Traveler guide. These places are found all over Italy.
The owners and operators of Italy’s cafés are not bogged down by their history. Today’s Italian coffee houses offer the most modern and in-demand coffee and espresso beverages that Italy’s 5.8 million patrons of coffee bars want.
Here in the United States, the coffee culture is, in my opinion, somewhat bi-polar. Around 84 million cups of coffee and coffee beverages are consumed at one or more of the country’s 24,000 coffee shops. Much of that number is purchased at convenience stores, drive-throughs and fast-serve cafes. Coffee was introduced in the United States by John Smith in 1607. He learned about the beverage during his travels in Turkey. Then in the mid-1700s, taverns doubled as coffee houses. However, coffee was viewed as a beverage only for the well-to-do. Then in 1773, the revolt against British taxation known as the Boston Tea Party caused drinking tea to be considered unpatriotic.
America became a country of coffee drinkers. War, politics, international disputes, and many other factors played roles in the ups and downs of the coffee trade. The French and the American Revolutions were planned in coffee houses. In 1989 injustices to coffee farmers started the gradual rise in fair-trade coffee. It took from then until 2017 to generate fair trade premiums.
Coffee houses gained mass popularity in the United States during the 1960s and 1970s, and came to be associated with the hippie and anti-war movements, intellectuals, artists, and the college communities. In 1992 Starbucks went public and by 1996 began opening stores internationally to become the largest coffee-house chain in the world.
Since that time, we are seeing a resurgence of the European style but, uniquely American café, coffee house and espresso bar. The COVID-19 pandemic caused a major decline in this market. However, we are seeing a strong recovery. Cafés and coffee houses are opening and growing in our cities and rural towns. Places like Pot Heads Coffee House in Bensalem, Pa., are being opened and operated by artistic and creative owners.
Everything about this coffee house is unique and special. From the coffeepot logo to unique coffee and espresso beverages, to cold brews, premium blends, and flavored coffees from Bucks County Coffee, even a gourmet micro roastery. Add premium baked goods and even a line of branded accessories and clothing items, and the owners have created a destination experience.
Yes, American coffee consumers want their coffee fast and flavorful. Yet, like the cafes of Italy, we also are enjoying the more relaxed and slower pace and atmosphere offered at coffee houses and cafes across the country. Much like our enjoyment of wineries, breweries and distilleries, cafés and coffee houses are outstanding places to spend leisure hours and enjoy social outings. I suggest that you make a point of giving one or more of these a try. You will be pleasantly surprised.