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This past weekend, I had the great fortune of accompanying a best friend to Host: International Exhibition of the Hospitality Industry at the Fiera Milano in Milan, Italy.  It was a five day tour-de-force showcasing everything hospitality related: restaurant and food, coffee, cafes, hotel and spa.  My friend had arrived from California to be a guest at the exhibition and promote her specialty organic coffee;  it was my first visit to Italy.

To say the very least… Italy = Style.

From the grand, elaborate and beautiful Gothic architecture of Il Duomo de Milano, the fourth largest cathedral in the world; to the emblazoned boutique names of Prada, LV, Gucci; and the perfectly dressed city residents walking the streets with confidence, the aspects of the city dedicated to draw attention did so with utmost coolness and style.

The sleek, polished showcases of the Fiera’s exhibition halls were no different.  We spent an entire two days roaming the convention center.  Even as a tag-along-guest, never once did I find myself bored.  On display were industrial sized pasta makers, pizza ovens, and juicers; everything gelato related – grand machines, pre-made ingredient mixes, display cases, carts on wheels, cones and containers.  At times, I felt a bit disillusioned seeing so much glossy and large machinery for products which I had always held to be quaint and artisanal.

The displays for the coffee portion of the exhibition were even more tremendous than the other departments of hospitality;  the style-factor was amped up by orders of magnitude.  However, considering the coffee culture of Italy, the grandness now seemed fitting. Most vendors had set up fully functioning cafes within the exhibition hall to promote either their coffee roasts, tableware, cafe design, desserts, machines, packaging, or various combinations of all of the above.  And these mock cafes were no ordinary side of the road corner stands.  Each had glossy countertops showcasing various desserts and accoutrements, polished floors, designer furniture, perfectly chosen art and decor, experienced baristas operating glorious espresso machines, and wait staff to serve the several tables set up where potential customers were politely wooed.  Some cafes employed catwalking models to lure in gawking crowds, while others gathered energy and loud cheers through expert demos and fast paced barista competitions.  I would have expected this sort of extravaganza from a luxury auto show, but no – this was coffee!

The coffee served was pretty darn brilliant;  I tasted award winning beans from eco plantations of Columbia and Honduras, locally sourced Italian roasts, and even the highly rated and exclusive Kopi Luwak (one of the world’s most expensive beans).  By the end of the second day, my palate that had previously been honed to a Starbucks habit began to broaden a bit with the ability to distinguish floral or chocolate or vanilla undertones, sweetness, smoothness, acidity, and the right amount of crema or lack thereof.  I also learned that Italian espresso shots are shorter than those served in most countries by about half the volume, making downing four or five espressos in one day an easy thing.

In fact, I think I am still purging caffeine.

My Milano experience cured me a bit of my American longing for a hearty latte served in a big to-go paper cup.  A quick shot of silky espresso served in smart porcelain transforms coffee from a simple morning wake-up call to an all out experience.  And the desire to savor it in a glamorous to-see-and-be-seen cafe… maybe I am becoming a bit European after all.