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Fare l’Americano? No! by Hélène de Lauzun

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Fare l’Americano? No!

The irresistible song that made Renato Carosone a success in the fifties has a strange echo today. While the number of American shops closing in the land of Vito Corleone is increasing, it would seem that today’s Italians have no desire to fare l’Americano

From Milan to Palermo, we have to acknowledge the truth: junk food doesn’t work there, fast fashion either, and many of the brands that are making the headlines all over the world have failed miserably in Italy.

In the summer of 2022, the American retailer Domino’s Pizza had to admit failure and pack up. So did Gap, Banana Republic, and Häagen-Dazs. 

Regarding fashion, American brands have come up against a vast, high-quality local production that is well identified by consumers, with whom they are unable to make a credible difference. Sportswear brands such as Nike fare better because they have no local equivalent.

As far as food is concerned, the phenomenon has been around for a long time: Italians like local food and prefer it beyond anything else. McDonald’s entered the Italian market late in life, not without some vigorous controversy, and had to adapt its products to local taste, offering burgers with Parmesan or Pecorino cheese, or salads. What’s more, the expansion of the American firm’s restaurant network is perceived there as an aggression—denaturing the Italian heritage as well as the landscape. The fast-food company’s attempt, in 2019, to set up a restaurant at the gates of the Terme di Caracalla in Rome led to the intervention of the Minister of Culture, who opposed the project on the grounds that “the wonders of Rome had to be preserved.” McDonald’s then turned to the Council of State to win the case—so far without success

The case of coffee is not very different. A few years ago, when the Starbucks coffee chain was already a popular institution in many European countries, one state was an exception: Italy. In the home of espresso, where Illy and Lavazza dominate, there was not a single Starbucks. The first shop opened in Milan only in September 2018 under the amused gaze of the locals, who certainly wondered how anyone could dare to call a tasteless brown liquid served in paper cups a “coffee.” 

Today, Starbucks continues its offensive: new shops have opened in Turin and Rome, and one is about to open in Verona. But the game is not yet won. Italians see Starbucks as an exotic and incongruous product, but traditional coffee is resisting. The allurement of Starbucks’ green siren has not succeeded in sweeping away a centuries-old history. Isn’t it said that it was in Venice, at the Caffè Florian, that the very concept of coffee was born in 1720, both as a place to enjoy the black beverage and a place of culture?

Le café Florian à Venise

Patriotism and the attachment to national products are not the only reasons that explain the failure of the American giants in Italy. The local offer persists, because it is genuinely superior in every way to the foreign offer, and marketing snobbery is not enough to overcome this obstacle. 

The secret of the Italians is that they manage to offer a quality that is simple and affordable for everyone—which makes their country a popular destination for all lovers of lifestyle and everyday excellence. How can you find interest in Domino’s Pizza, when just around the corner you can enjoy fantastic pizze al taglio or fall back on very honourable local chains like Spizzico? Why turn to Häagen-Dazs and its industrial ice creams imported straight from Minneapolis, when the smallest cart on the pavement of Pistoia or Syracuse offers you, for a few coins, marvels with the sweet name of crema di pistacchio or fior di latte with incomparable aromas? 

The French are rightly proud of their starred restaurants. They remain the guardian of the fundamentals of a cuisine considered to be the international touchstone in terms of taste and mastery. But it is becoming increasingly difficult in the land of Brillat-Savarin to eat simple, good, French food. The sirens of burgers and tacos are deafening—as clearly sensed by the makers of the delightful cartoon Ratatouille, which featured a greedy and declining Parisian chef who gives in to the temptation of associating his faded image with ready-to-digest frozen meals. 

Parisian restaurants that serve the great classics of traditional French cuisine are disappearing, and the menus of brasseries give pride of place to burgers, served overpriced, on the grounds that the fries that accompany them are “homemade.” Such a phenomenon has no equivalent in Italy, where you can eat traditional, good, cheap, fast food in a neat setting just about anywhere. So much for Domino’s pizza, so much for Häagen-Dazs. 

Will Italy, which is nowadays in disarray looking for its destiny, be saved by pizza and coffee? Who knows. The departure of these sad American sires is only a drop in the ocean. But anything that proves the permanence and resistance of a rooted and traditional model can only make our hearts, and our taste buds, rejoice!

Hélène de Lauzun studied at the École Normale Supérieure de Paris. She taught French literature and civilization at Harvard and received a Ph.D. in History from the Sorbonne. She is the author of Histoire de l’Autriche (Perrin, 2021).