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Italians coined the words espresso and cappuccino and think of themselves as the custodians of top-quality coffee. So the arrival of the first Starbucks in Milan has been met with skepticism and alarm but also curiosity. NPR's Sylvia Poggioli reports on what the company calls the jewel in its crown.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: We cannot wait for you all to come in. So welcome. Welcome to Starbucks.
SYLVIA POGGIOLI, BYLINE: On opening day, the line stretched around the block. Italians are impatient types, but these customers waited an hour just to get inside the American coffee temple. And they were not deterred by a formal consumer union complaint over Starbucks prices, up to three times the Italian average. The city of Milan is a key element in the company narrative. It was here 35 years ago that Howard Schultz drank his first cappuccino, the spark that led to what we now know as the Starbucks brand.
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UNIDENTIFIED SINGER: (Singing) I keep on...
POGGIOLI: Called the Reserve Roastery, Milan's Starbucks is in a former post office extravagantly renovated with brass, copper and marble fittings. Marble counters are common in Italian coffee bars. But at Starbucks, says Lauren Hill of the PR department, they're something extra.
LAUREN HILL: It is marble, but it's heated. So it - you're not sort of leaning on it and feeling like it's cold or it's a shock to you. It's a comfortable, pleasant experience for you. It's quite something.
POGGIOLI: The 25,000-square-foot location is dedicated to illustrating the roasting and brewing process.
CLIFF BURROWS: We are in the most beautiful expression of coffee.
POGGIOLI: Cliff Burrows is a Starbucks partner who has been with the Milan project since the beginning.
BURROWS: You can hear maybe in the background the coffee roasting, the coffee being moved around. We have a bronze cask which stretches 21 feet into the air which stores the coffee. And we move through copper pipes the coffee from the silos right through to the bars. It's the freshest it could ever be.
POGGIOLI: And there's more than coffee. Along with bakery products, varieties of gelato are made on the spot. And in an homage to the Milan tradition of aperitivo, a pre-dinner drink, there's a bar serving signature Starbucks cocktails.
BURROWS: We start here in Milan. And I know there's - and we have great respect for the tradition of the coffee bar. I hope it will become part of their ritual as a complement to their regular coffee bar.
POGGIOLI: But journalist and author Beppe Severgnini believes Starbucks in Italy will be successful precisely because he says they don't sell coffee.
BEPPE SEVERGNINI: I think they sell time. They sell an idea of America. They sell comfort. They sell consolation on a rainy afternoon. Coffee is completely irrelevant.
POGGIOLI: Severgnini does frequent the chain when traveling abroad.
SEVERGNINI: If I had the choice between Starbucks and going Italian cafe - Italian style, full of noisy Italian debating politics - I'd go for the Italian cafe.
POGGIOLI: Some local cafes are worried. Across the street from Starbucks at the cafe Ferrarini, 21-year-old barista Giovanni Ferrari is convinced the new American coffeehouse will take over the neighborhood.
GIOVANNI FERRARI: (Through interpreter) This is a big tourist area. So many more people will go to Starbucks, and all the cafes like this one will shut down.
POGGIOLI: Ferrari admits that like other Italian millennials, he is attracted to the novelty of Starbucks. But for the time being, the posh American coffee showcase will refrain from offering Italians pumpkin lattes, frappuccinos and supersize anything. Sylvia Poggioli, NPR News, Milan. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.