While you order that triple low-fat caramel no foam no milk decaf latte from Starbucks and watch as the order gets shouted down the line three or four times by the “barista”s, know that, as usual, you are looking at the diluted version of an Italian tradition. Chapeau to Starbucks for reigniting the love of coffee in the U.S. (and worldwide for that matter), but I always find it interesting to peek behind the cookie cutter façade of what is in vogue to see where the latest trends came from and how truly “authentic” they are in their current form.
The “barista” in Italy is an artisan, a shrink, a jester and a philosopher rolled into one. The point is to make the early morning better while getting your dose of caffeine quickly and done right. The caffeine, though, is not really what matters. It’s everything else.
Monday mornings are typically dominated by taunts and trash talk about local soccer teams having won or lost. Tuesday through Friday is all about political commentary and satire. The weekend, of course, is dedicated to complaining about the workweek. Then, there is everything in between: tips on how to get a parking ticket removed, the best way to make fettuccine by hand like “nonna” and why your last girlfriend or boyfriend was a loser. This, of course, all happens as your drink of choice is prepared in the blink of an eye without having to write anything down on a disposable cup – and if you’re a regular there is no need to discuss your drink of choice at all – it just magically appears as you approach the “bancone” (the marble counter top typical of Italian “bar” which is where you go to get your espresso or cappuccino). You must also know that Italians don’t sit down for their coffee. It is the only thing that the Italians do standing up and quickly. That whole sit-down-and-sip thing is done beyond Italy’s northwestern border.
What makes the Italian barista such an intriguing figure is that beyond serving up an incredible coffee lickety-split, they are actual humans who relate with their customers. They are the coffee culture to which everyone aspires and which no one truly obtains. You cannot franchise the human touch and inevitably when you scale things, the human element suffers. The art and joy of coffee (like many other arts and joys) is completely lost when this occurs. This goes for the “Blue Bottle”s and other so-called “independents” in the U.S. that do serve a higher quality product, but are unable to capture the true essence of coffee culture, let alone provide an authentic “barista”.
When I show up for my espresso downstairs at my local “bar” I want to start my day off on the right foot and my barista is there to help me, just like your “sarto” knows how best to fit your shirt and your “salumiere” knows how thin to slice your prosciutto. The art of coffee is disappearing, as are the true “barista”s.