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Mamma Mia! As Starbucks Looms, Italians Warm to U.S.-Style Coffee

MILAN— Giuseppe Disponetti has hewed to the same business model since opening his cafe here in 1989. Using a tried-and-true coffee blend, he sells mostly espresso and cappuccino to regulars who toss back their drinks while standing at the bar. He hasn’t refurbished in 20 years and offers no trendy blended coffee beverages or comfy chairs.

Now there’s a new coffee shop nearby. It sells a filtered coffee long derided in Italy as black water.

“I don’t see the point of that,” says Mr. Disponetti, 58 years old, when asked if he has considered modernizing his cafe’s coffee menu. “We need to defend Italian tradition. The only real coffee is espresso.”

A customer drinks an espresso inside the historic Fratelli Nurzia in L’Aquila, Italy. PHOTO: GIORGIO COSULICH/GETTY IMAGES

That might be true, but some Italians are jolting its coffee tradition anyway. Across the country, more cafes now offer flavored coffee, and coffee maker Luigi Lavazza SpA is selling them a new blend made especially to brew American-style coffee. Nestlé SA’s home -coffee machines that can make chocolate cappuccino are selling well in Italy. The use of coffee pods in home machines has soared 70% since 2012.

Coffee lovers in Italy say the changes show that some of the country’s deep-rooted habits are being slowly eroded under pressure from a relentless economic downturn.

More shops in Italy are open on Sundays, an intrusion on family time. Fast-food outlets such as kebab shops are challenging trattorias. Factory workers anxious to keep their jobs are agreeing to work through summer holidays.

The challenge to Italy’s coffee culture feels especially bitter. The smell of coffee permeates Italy’s city centers, and most Italians have a favorite espresso bar, where the drinks are made by injecting hot water at high pressure through a puck of tightly packed grounds. Customers drink a shot at a time from a tiny porcelain cup. The ritual lasts no more than a few minutes and has changed little for generations.

Italians have long scoffed at U.S. coffee trends, especially Starbucks Corp.’s faux-Italian words (“grande”), paper cups and sugary-sweet brews with ingredients such as pumpkin that have precious little to do with the real stuff.

Walking down the street with a coffee cup in hand is widely considered unhealthy and ill-mannered. “They’re not those kinds of kids,” Annamaria Conte, a 44-year-old hairdresser from Naples, says proudly of her two children, whom she has always admonished not to eat or drink on the run.

McDonald's Corp. has just one-fifth as many drive-throughs in Italy as it does in France. Nestlé tried to sell Italians Nescafé iced coffee in a can about 15 years ago but soon gave up. “On the go is just not in the culture of this country,” says Carlo Oldani, Nescafé’s marketing manager in Italy.

Since 2009, though, sales in Italy’s espresso bars have fallen 18%, according to Euromonitor International Inc. Coffee purists say the quality of espresso in many cafes has slipped. Few owners have been able to spruce up because of the economic squeeze.

That is creating more opportunity for entrepreneurs like Alfio Bardolla, a financial coach who noticed while traveling abroad that Italians were willing to hang out in coffee bars.

Getting the idea off the ground in Milan was tough at first. Mr. Bardolla had to import hot-beverage cups from the U.K. and look hard for machines that make filtered coffee. A local coffee maker had to create a special blend suitable for flavored coffee drinks.

In 2009, Mr. Bardolla opened Arnold Coffee, which sells caramel macchiato, filtered coffee and cinnamon caffe latte. Customers were scarce at first, even from the nearby university.

But he kept his shop open in August, when traditional coffee bars usually close, to steal their regulars and for longer hours the rest of the year. Mr. Bardolla put pretty girls offering free coffee outside the university.

“This is what I call an ‘addictive business,’ ” says Mr. Bardolla, who claims the quality of his coffee is higher than what old-fashioned espresso bars. “After some time, people start to see paper cups around and they decide to give it a try.”

He now has three Arnold Coffee shops in Milan and one in Florence, with plans to open three more.

Last year, David Nathaniel opened a coffee shop called 12 Oz. in Milan that sells caramel-flavored cappuccino and sweetened hazelnut latte. “We Italians exported the consumption of espresso,” he says. “Now we’re importing a new way of drinking coffee.”

Starbucks announced Monday it will open its first store in Italy early next year. In a bow to tradition, Starbucks will serve a special espresso blend made to meet Italian tastes and install a traditional bar where customers can drink their brew while standing. At the same time, the Milan shop will stick with the Seattle company’s “Italian” menu descriptions and sweet coffee drinks.

Antonio Carpenito, 61, shudders at the thought of a Starbucks invasion. His coffee routine has been constant for decades and he brews his first espresso of the day with a beaten-up, stovetop coffee percolator known throughout Italy as a Moka pot.

He and his wife bought a coffee-pod Nespresso machine last year, but its espresso “gave me heartburn,” he says. They went back to the Moka.

At midmorning, Mr. Carpenito goes to his favorite espresso bar in Naples for another brew. The owner and other patrons greet him by name.

“That is not coffee,” he says about all the new coffee drinks. “It’s something else entirely.”