Confessions of a Reluctant Startalian

May 13, 2016 | 12 4 min read


It’s good to feel inspired, when you’re trying to write a book-type thing, or even a witty article or blog post, to achieve lofty goals. You want to think big. Like, what if you invented your own language? And made everyone speak it, and be goddamn grateful for the privilege? From truck drivers to hedge fund managers to teachers, road workers. and aspiring thespians?

Too lofty, you say? Not so. It’s been accomplished by Starbucks.

If you want Starbucks product, you need to speak its pidgin form of Italian. None of the planet’s 24,000 Starbucks are in Italy — though I guess one’s finally in the offing for next year — but that doesn’t signify. You can say you want a Grande, a Venti®, or because America’s a supersizer, now a Trenta®. Also a Frappuccino® — about as Italian as a Big Mac, but the –uccino thing is clearly Italian flair. Or even a Fizzio™. (That one, name-wise, may be a bit of a misfire. It fizzles.)

Lo these many years ago, when I first crossed a Starbucks threshold — I’m in my mid-40s, so I can boast about a quarter-century of sporadic Starbucks patronage — I had the innocence, the arrogance to resist. Not the drinks themselves (because I’ve always found the Americanos pretty tasty, I won’t lie) but the pidgin Italian. No, I said churlishly to my private self, standing in line, waiting to order. No. I will not do this thing. I’d been to Europe, and I liked it, but my thinking went: this isn’t Europe. This is an American caffeinated beverage chain. So when I got to the register I’d say something like: “I’d like a medium coffee, please.”

I’d get a raised eyebrow and a rephrase for clarity, and I would nod stiffly. You may speak your franchise Startalian, I thought grumpily, but you will not visit it on me.

Later, in the tempered wisdom of maturity, I’d come to recognize Startalian as a simple variation of McDonalds- or Burger King-speak, an upwardly mobile version of basic food-chain branding. I mean, would I stand at the register in Mickey D’s and order “one of those burgers with two patties?” No, I’d say a Big Mac. In refusing to say “Grande” I was suffering from petty reverse snobbery.

But the truth is that when you’re ordering a Grande, and the lights are low, and the décor’s making a gesture at good taste, with furniture in dark veneer and sometimes sage-green or rust-red upholstery with discreet swirly patterns on it, and the chairs are comfortable, you do feel a certain elevation. You may have just pulled a long-haul all-nighter from Sheboygan, but here you are, speaking Startalian and, through your casual mastery of the lingo, acquiring a fine-tasting drug, in a vaguely opium-den setting, that’s also perfectly legal. There may have been a few naysayers back in the ’90s, a few who dismissed the Starbucks juggernaut by lumping together liberals, lattes, and Volvos, but those days are past. Nowadays, citizens of any stripe will belly up to the barista and feel a little classy.

Still, there’s a big difference between a Venti® and a Whopper®. And I don’t mean the ingredients. In taking fast-food language and décor in the direction of, say, high-fashion clothing emporia along Fifth Avenue or Rodeo Drive, Starbucks makes an overt appeal to our vision of ourselves as refined consumers with a taste for the finer things. And the finer things are European. Or pseudo-European. You may not feel you have the bank balance to shop for couture by some Italian designer with a shingle in Beverly Hills, but damn if you can’t treat yourself to a Grande — every day, even, for 16 years. It’s a wallet death by a thousand cuts. And it feels pretty good.

When you step into Starbucks, you step into the boudoir of the upper middle class — or if you’re not there yet, your upper-middle-class future. Doesn’t matter that the beans and dairy arrive in mammoth trucks along the asphalt arteries of the nation: you have a brief illusion of sipping your poison in a surrounding of luxe, or as close as a global-chain coffee purveyor can come. Which makes Starbucks an ideal place to sit with your laptop, if you’re the aspirational type. Starbucks is littered with laptop-typists. Sure, locally owned cafes with non-branded beverages are hipper, but when they’re not available — er, possibly driven out of business — Starbucks can serve.

Because there’s no inspiration sitting in a Mickey D’s. You’re not going to linger at a table there, beneath the flatness of bright light, surrounded by polymers in primary colors, listening to families squabble at the register over the kids’ sodas or whether they’re allowed to get large fries, and feel you may possibly be typing out a work of ascendant genius. Ditto for Burger King, Carl’s Jr., Wendy’s, etc. Starbucks has some food, that’s true, but the smell of fryer oil is not pervasive, and if there are kids around they’re likely teenagers, snapping pics of their misspelled names on whipped-cream drinks to post on Instagram. They’re too cool to argue and they don’t make much noise.

Plus, coffee is thought fuel; burgers and fries are couch-potato fuel.

All of this means that Starbucks adds up to more than location + coffee; Starbucks is a success model, far more so than the Golden Arches or its meat-marketing mates. Despite its food offerings, the place with the weird mermaid logo remains first and foremost a seller not of nourishment but of predictable, controllable rush. A rush that produces, a restaurant chain that produces — not only coffee, but you. The green-and-white mermaid is a mythic figure, a styling of pure fantasy: and that’s the genius of Starbucks and its Startalian. Here you can become one with the furnishings and the product; here you also can embody a successful fantasy, a sheaf of straw turned into gold. You too can be — if only while you linger — a boutique idea, translated to a mass market.

Image Credit: Flickr/poolie.

has written more than a dozen books of literary fiction, most recently a novel called A Children’s Bible (W.W. Norton, 2020). She works as chief editor at the Center for Biological Diversity, an organization dedicated to fighting climate change and species extinction.


  1. Am I the last of the hold-outs when it comes to refusing to bend to their ridiculous naming scheme then? I still hold my head high, ordering “medium” or “large” rather than partake in Startalian. And lo, my wife now actually works for a Starbucks! Still, I remain steadfast as I gladly indulge. I, too, like their Americanos.

  2. “Starbucks makes an overt appeal to our vision of ourselves as refined consumers with a taste for the finer things. And the finer things are European. Or pseudo-European.”

    Ironic, then, is the tendency of the Starbucks servers in Berlin to behave like perky Ambassadors of the AWOL (American Way of Life) here on the continent, with all the imaginary (long-faded) luxury that projects.

  3. I prefer real coffee from family-owned establishments list the fabulous Coffee Bean & Tea Leaf, Bob Dylan’s 18th Street Coffee in Santa Monica and Revolver in Vancouver, B.C. Starbucks tastes like deep-fried piss that’s been strained over a cheesecloth.

  4. I submit happily to star bucks lingo and giving my name (I just say “Ann” as it is much easier if my barista is new comer to Canada). Yelling “Bill” is sure a lot easier on the low paid staff then yelling “tall nonfat extra hot no foam no whip mocha”. And damn they do make a fine Americano.

  5. It gets even more ridiculous here in Spain where “grande” is the actual word we use to means large. So every time I’m at a Starbucks I end up hearing someone ordering a grande and the barista replying “but grande grande or grande medium?”

  6. ….in Lucerne it’s interesting: while Starbucks signifies Trenta bad taste, a local [gastronomically far superior] impostor by the name of Bachmann has…evolved and ranks only as a Grande on the caliculus-gustatererius-abomination scale….

  7. Lydia Millet does Starbucks! Priceless. I just finished your trilogy. Also priceless. I think of you as the author with the skewed view. Looking forward to Sweet Lamb.

  8. Herman Melville is likely rolling over in his grave at having been so flagrantly co-opted. Starbucks has become to contemporary society as whaling was to the American Puritans.

  9. “there’s no inspiration sitting in a Mickey D’s. You’re not going to linger at a table there, beneath the flatness of bright light, surrounded by polymers in primary colors, listening to families squabble at the register over the kids’ sodas or whether they’re allowed to get large fries, and feel you may possibly be typing out a work of ascendant genius.”

    Have to disagree with that. If you want realism, and a look into the heart and soul of America – it’s dreams, nightmares and baffling contradictions – spend a lunch hour in a downtown Micky D’s. McDonalds is a Herzog documentary; Starbucks is a Big 3 Network sit-com with a laugh-track.

  10. All this takes me back to the early days of A&W, when they introduced their line of family-based burgers: Papa Burger and the rest. We had a friend, Max, who liked the burgers but would not succumb to the A&W nomenclature. He’d ask for a large burger, be asked, “You mean a Papa Burger?” and growl, “No. I mean a large-sized hamburger, goddammit!” Usually the servers got the message and delivered the sandwich without any genealogy attached. I’d usually avoid the issue by saying, “I’ll have what he’s having.”

  11. Derryk, I beseech you, go into a star bucks, wait inline with the hipsters order a grande (or super big) Americano black. Then tell me it’s a milkshake. But be advised, when you tell me it is the best coffee you ever had, you will be very hyper. YUM.

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