How Luxury Fashion Houses are Revitalizing Italy's Most Historic Cafés

Courtesy Fondazione Prada

By Mitchell Davis Posted August 08, 2016

With luxury fashion houses (Prada, Cavalli) revitalizing some of Italy's historic cafes, your morning espresso never looked so good.

In Italy, the most important decisions of the day revolve around what to wear and what to eat. So it seems inevitable that top fashion brands are venturing into the food business—specifically, the hybrid bakery-cafés where well-dressed Italians congregate over morning pastries, then lunch, aperitivi and savory snacks, all the way through to late-night scoops of gelato.

Roberto Cavalli, the sexy-animal-prints pioneer, augured the trend when he revamped Florence’s beloved Caffè Giacosa more than a decade ago. Clearly he was onto something. Recently, Prada purchased Milan’s historic pasticceria Marchesi after luxury-goods powerhouse LVMH (which owns Italian brands like Fendi, Loro Piana and Emilio Pucci, as well as a plethora of French and American ones) bought the rivaling Cova. It’s no coincidence that these places are in fashionable shopping neighborhoods, so customers can have a 360-degree brand experience.

If this trend sounds frivolous, it shouldn’t. Fashion houses helped save Italy’s landmarks in the midst of the 2008 economic crisis: Tod’s paid for the restoration of Rome’s Colosseum; Diesel backed the redo of Venice’s Rialto Bridge. Now they’re keeping another venerated tradition alive: the Italian café.

Bar Luce at the Fondazione Prada, Milan

Food & Wine: Bar Luce, Italy

© Anthony D'Argenzio

The opening of Fondazione Prada in 2015 coincided with the start of the world’s fair Expo Milano. More than 20 million people visited the expo, but inevitably everyone was abuzz about the Prada Foundation. Located in a former distillery on the city’s outskirts, the contemporary art and cultural center was designed by starchitect Rem Koolhaas. In a corner of the main building is Bar Luce, styled by American filmmaker Wes Anderson; an art piece of sorts, it looks like a set from his movie The Grand Budapest Hotel.

On the menu: foie gras–and–orange flatbread and photogenic pink-marzipan-coated chocolate custard cake. The retro cocktail list includes Sazeracs, sidecars and Milan’s staple: the spritz. Largo Isarco 2; fondazioneprada.org.

Food & Wine: Bar Luce, Italy

© Anthony D'Argenzio

Marchesi, Milan

The strong colors, bold patterns and marble accents of this shop’s neoclassic interior make you feel as if you’re sitting inside a pastry case. Set on Milan’s fashion-centric Via Monte Napoleone, it’s a new outpost of the storied café purchased by Miuccia Prada in 2014. Just like at the original Marchesi (opened in 1824 on Via Santa Maria alla Porta), every biscotto is baked and every chocolate hand-dipped in the store.

At the new café, handsome young servers in tailored gunmetal-gray uniforms bring elegant desserts—a wedge of fruit tart, a selection of miniature pastries—that seem almost austere in this ornate setting. (Imagine a woman wearing a Prada dress in a rococo courtyard.) Jars of housemade apricot and raspberry confettura and tins of exotic tea are gorgeously displayed in backlit cases. The overall effect is both historically resonant and futuristic.Via Monte Napoleone 9; www.pasticceriamarchesi.it.

Caffè Giacosa, Florence

After hometown hero Roberto Cavalli built his flagship boutique here in 2001, he bought the adjoining Caffè Giacosa, a gathering place for Florentine society for more than two centuries. He restored the clubby interior and lined the walls with black-and-white photos of Cavalli-clad models. Though he has kept classic sandwiches like focaccia stuffed with prosciutto and mozzarella, he did add bottles of his Cavalli Super-Tuscan wine to the menu.Via della Spada 10; caffegiacosa.it.

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Cova, Milan

A fixture since 1817, Cova is equally famous for its wood-lined interior, well-dressed crowd and towering Christmas panettone. The café has changed little under new owner LVMH; tuxedoed waiters still bring perfect cappuccinos in fine china cups to the linen-draped tables, and everyone still comes for buttery breakfast pastries and boxes of gianduja-filled chocolates and candied fruits. Via Monte Napoleone 8; pasticceriacova.it.

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