The first to open at dawn were newsstands, then coffee shops for drinking espresso and reading the newspaper. Bakers worked all night and baked michette in the morning; on Saturday they made double bread. There was the Sports Bar, where people watched games and played cards; the Drogheria and Coloniali sold exotic things like spices and chocolate from abroad; in the Salt and Tobacco, the state monopolies–salt, stamps, cigarettes. Blacksmiths, milkmen, tailors and delicatessens: the stores were those of artisans who were producers first, or skilled selectors, where people “went to the store” to learn a trade. They were neighborhood stores where you could order “the usual”, gossip with the hairdresser, and you knew the butcher would save what you liked best.
Day after day. At Christmas, lining up to buy something special, luxurious at the deli. Sundays closed. August vacations. There was a time, less than 30 years ago, when the rhythm of life and commerce went symbiotically hand in hand–zero-miles between home and store. Then we began to consume more than produce, to travel, to shop with large carts in malls once a week, perhaps in the evening or on weekends, and the stores below our homes began to lose their social and commercial functions and to close. But some of these botteghe storiche have now reinvented themselves to the point of becoming brands with international reach.
Botteghe storiche, and the similar locali storici, are protected by specific regulations that defend their commercial and artisan activities–cultural assets at risk of extinction. Municipalities confer the label of bottega storica to businesses that have been operating for at least 50 years and that have historical architectural value and original furniture. Locali storici are instead bars, restaurants, ice cream parlors and pastry shops with at least 70 years of life and that preserve the original staging of the shop, collected under a national association called Locali Storici d’Italia.
Pasticceria Cucchi, Milano
The Best Botteghe Storiche in Italy
The oldest in Italy is the Officina di Santa Maria Novella in Florence, a fixed destination for perfume lovers since 1612; in Rome, the Antica Farmacia Reale Sbarigia has been in business since 1687 (the shop’s wooden furniture is amazing); in Venice, the oldest is the Rizzardini pastry shop, which has been churning out cakes, pastries, focaccia and doughnuts since 1742.
In Milan, the Fratelli Bocca Publishers bookstore has been a botteghe storiche in business since 1744, and the bottega storica label could also be given to the first supermarket in Italy, opened on November 27th, 1957 by the Rockefellers themselves and Italian entrepreneur Bernardo Caprotti, founder of the city’s iconic Esselunga supermarket. Too bad they modernized the interior, because if it had remained as it was, it would be a more visited city attraction today than the Rinascente mall. The face of Italy lies in both the great monuments and these small businesses with vintage charm, and that is why this DNA must be protected for its immense cultural value.
Among the 50 best stores in the world elected by the Financial Times, seven are Italian. There’s the Casa del Parmigiano at the Rialto Market in Venice and Sergio Falaschi’s Macelleria-norcineria in San Miniato, Tuscany–gems scouted by British journalists but half-unknown domestically. Also on the list, however, are two examples of excellence that have become unfailing stops in Italy’s urban geography. In Rome, one of the 50 best is Roscioli, a city landmark for the food counter and the carbonara, so busy and popular that it has now become a universe of several brands consisting of a pastry shop, bakery and wine bar–all of excellent quality. In Milan, the address is Peck, which has gone from being the “salumeria dei milanesi” and making bresaola in the cellars under the Piazza Duomo to opening outlets around Italy and the world.
These botteghe are symbols of Made in Italy, our proverbial pandas to be saved. In turn, these stores will save us from old town centers populated by international chains, identical to one another. The charm of period furnishings is not enough: botteghe storiche mean artisan knowledge, quality, specialization, service but above all, relationship with customers. Farther afield than downtown, botteghe are woven into neighborhoods and the midst of everyday city life.
Officina di Santa Maria Novella, Florence
After COVID, Botteghe Storiche Are the New Normal
Two years of COVID have revitalized neighborhood commerce, finally challenging the mall formula. Because of crowded supermarkets that were too far away, the lines in front of butcher shops, bakeries and delis, which for months replaced restaurants closed by decree, were seen again after decades. Italy saw a return to grocery shopping in the places below houses and experienced a general rediscovery of genuine, non-industrial products. Every crisis also brings opportunities, and seizing them this time around was not only Amazon, but also the corner greengrocer. Contrary to any past statistics, new stores have also begun to reopen, repopulating neighborhoods with trades, faces and greetings. No nostalgia though, that’s lethal for neighborhood stores or artisan workmanship: if they keep on working like the world is not evolving around them, it’s over. Today florists have cafeterias, bars have karaoke, neighborhood markets are where you go for aperitifs. In botteghe storiche, you order the usual and gossip about the latest from the neighborhood–today, while drinking a gintonica (gin tonic).