Starbucks will open the first Chicago location of Princi, an Italian bakery and cafe, on Tuesday in Fulton Market. The counter-service restaurant menu will include coffee, but also meals, changing from breakfast to lunch to an early evening bar with beer, wine, cocktails and snacks. Focaccia-based pizzas by the slice and desserts will also be available.
The announcement Thursday comes a week after the opening of the first Starbucks in Italy with the stunning Milan Roastery shop. The Italian city is also home to Princi, where there are six locations.
The Chicago location — actually three concepts in one with Princi, Starbucks Reserve and Bar Mixato — will face stiff competition not only from other restaurants but an existing Starbucks across the street. Next door Sweetgreen makes salads and grain bowls to order. On the opposite corner La Colombe Coffee Roasters cafe pulls perfect espressos and just brought back its seasonal pumpkin spice draft latte by the can. One block away, the McDonald’s HQ global menu restaurant opened with an Australian McCafe serving flat whites in April. Plus there are Forno Rosso’s Neapolitan pizzas and Nonna’s slices and Parmesan subs nearby.
The world’s largest Starbucks is scheduled to open in Chicago on Michigan Avenue in the former four-story Crate & Barrel building next year. While Princi touts on-site baking, a separate central kitchen is also planned on the Near North Side at a closed Le Cordon Bleu cooking school building to service the Chicago Roastery and future bakery locations. The Princi is the first U.S. location outside of Starbucks’ home base of Seattle.
At a preview Thursday morning, Rocco Princi and the Starbucks team offered items from the menu for a taste test. I tried coffee, bread, pizza, salad, desserts and a cocktail. Here’s what I thought.
The Princi blend coffee, only available at this location, is described as “rich and caramelly sweet with deep tones of dark chocolate.” The drip ($3.50 for 12 ounces, $4 for 16 ounces), brewed by the cup in the high tech Clover machines, plus a hand pulled latte ($4 for 8 ounces, $5 for 16 ounces) did live up to the bean’s billing with fresh fruity notes too. You will also find rotating single origin coffees, Teavana tea and hot chocolate, but no pumpkin spice Princi.
A signature Princi sourdough bread ($10 for whole loaf), baked beautifully with the house name on the crust, hides a surprisingly soft crumb though holding good fermented flavor. A sample of the focaccia was remarkably light and airy though shockingly salty.
“Mattina,” the morning breakfast menu, is served 7 a.m. to 11 a.m., including a breakfast sandwich ($7) on brioche with prosciutto di parma, Parmigiano Reggiano and arugula. The fillings were impeccable. Princi himself hand trimmed the imported, dry-cured Italian ham. Ivory shavings of cheese released powerful waves of umami. The brioche however evoked memories of many European airplaneflights, but sadly in coach with their cold wrapped feedings, or possibly an unfortunate en route Croissan’wich.
“Pomeriggio,” the afternoon menu, is served 11 a.m. to 9 p.m., except soup, which is only available until 2 p.m. We tasted three types of pizza al taglio” (by the slice): verdure grigliate ($8) with thinly sliced and roasted vegetables; quattro stagioni ($8), the classic yet variable four seasons toppings; plus speck and scamorza ($8.50), ham and cheese. Redemption. The focaccia served so salty on its own, here was the fragile yet Italian forward foundation. Generously sized servings showcased each ingredient to its full potential.
Two of the salads ($6 to $9.75), a primavera plus a chicken and farro, dashed my hopes again with operatic drama. The former was so meager, it appeared to be nothing but a side salad. The latter, simply seemed little more than plain grains and shreds of fowl.
But the desserts? The true heroines. Big, bold and unapologetically brazen. The Princina tart ($9.50) is served as a precise slice of crisp chocolate shortbread crust filled with deep, dark Agostoni Italian chocolate ganache finished with a chocolate mirror glaze. Tiramisu ($7.75) layers coffee-soaked, house-baked ladyfinger cookies with lush mascarpone cream, showered with cocoa powder. A seasonal crostata fragole ($8.50) glows with fresh strawberries over pastry cream in a buttery golden shortbread crust.
At the bar, when you buy any alcoholic drink, they will serve you a small plate of pizza, three strips about the size of half a regular portion. The lovely Aperol spritz ($10) starts with the namesake aperitif, topped with Villa Marcello DOC Prosecco, sparkling water and an orange slice.
One unusual detail to note about Princi, they don’t seem to like menus.
“The beauty of Princi is it’s a visual menu,” said Selim Giray, vice president of business planning for Princi. He’s leading the concept from the Starbucks side in partnering with Rocco Princi. “We order with our eyes and Rocco feels that way. You’re captivated by the visual offerings and a lot of folks end up ordering things that if you looked at a menu you otherwise may not be intrigued by.”
“It’s really that seductive visual experience,” said Giray.
Princi seems to be going against the trend of automation and self-serve kiosks.
“The visual menu also creates the opportunity to have engagement with our in-store partners -- the commessas — to talk about the items, the ingredients and to tell stories. We’re really about engagement.”
The first Princi opened 1986 in Milan. The first location outside of Italy opened 2008 in London. The first location in this country opened November 2017 in Seattle. After Chicago, New York opens this fall. Giray declined to discuss future growth plans, but expect a different Princi when the world’s biggest Starbucks opens next year on Michigan Avenue.
“They’re all very unique structures and experiences,” he said. “So we will absolutely have the opportunity to showcase Princi in a special way within the Chicago Roastery.”
Meanwhile this Princi will be open weekdays 7 a.m. to 9 p.m., weekends 8 a.m. to 9 p.m.
Princi, 1000 W. Randolph St., princi.com