Coffee bars have always been a part of our urban and social fabric; they represent the Italian lifestyle and the cultural identity of Italy. This is confirmed by their ubiquity and number: there are 140,000 coffee houses throughout the country, roughly one every 400 inhabitants.
The concept of the coffee bars blossomed in the 18th century in Central Europe and immediately combined coffee & culture. For one thousand years, the most creative minds have been inspired by coffee and they have consumed it in quantity: its stimulating properties, that improve the attention span and clarity of thought, made coffee an excellent coadjutant for creativity, concentration and alertness. During the Age of Enlightenment, this “drink of reason”, the epitome of modernity and progress, became the beverage of preference of scientists, intellectuals, merchants and clerks, mirroring the propagation of a new rationalism. Paris, Venice, Trieste and London: in a short time, the coffee house conquered Europe and, in the second half of the 1600s, it established itself in the heart of the continent, Vienna. We can thank Jerzy Franciszek Kulczycki (1640-1694) for this: a Ukrainian nobleman of Orthodox faith. He was a merchant, diplomat, soldier and spy, and is considered a national hero by the people of Vienna. His name is associated with the first Viennese coffee bar and he was also the first to propose drinking coffee with milk. Vienna’s coffee houses have multiplied since then, becoming, in one century, the very symbol of an era and hosting the gatherings and reminiscences of key exponents of Central European culture. In Venice and Trieste in its “espresso” version (an extraordinary name, which immediately evokes lucidity and quickness of thought), or as a hot beverage in Vienna, Prague and Budapest, coffee fed the intellect and coffee bar became cradles of thought, social and cultural places par excellence.
Over the centuries, the opportunities for drinking a coffee have doubtless grown – geographically, as well – but the icon of the Italian bar as a place of cultural and social aggregation has remained unchanged and, in recent times, has even grown. Thanks to the renown and success of the Italian lifestyle, the Italian café, too, is living a magical moment.
Abroad, Italian bars – which are typically espresso bars – are places that are inspired by our culture; they recreate a corner of Italy in other countries and are frequented by members of the Italian expatriate communities, locals and tourists alike. These oases of Italian “savoir vivre” are enjoying an unprecedented success and they represent a point of pride for Italy as a whole.
In Italy, a true coffee bar evolution is underway. This sector is without a doubt mature, its margins have narrowed; it has had to revitalize and reinvent itself. As a consequence – as often occurs in times of crisis – Italian bars have become much more sophisticated; they are inspired by traditional historical coffee houses but re-invent them in a modern key. The idea is to reduce “in-and-out” consumption, to place coffee bars once more at the center of the social and cultural life of cities and towns; the pace of life must slow down and make room for encounters and the enjoyment of the small pleasures of life – including an excellent espresso, an extraordinary cocktail or the perfect snack.
In this spirit, it is also interesting to observe what I call the “chameleon character of coffee houses”, which are able to adapt to the various moments of the day: breakfast, mid-morning coffee break, a quick lunch featuring gourmet choices, afternoon break, to conclude with the happy hour, generated by another typically Italian tradition, the aperitivo, which has also become a global phenomenon in recent years.
Italian bars continue to evolve and change, making our heritage – and our way to reinvent this culture – a model to be exported worldwide.