The Caffè del Teatro box

By - Donatella Brunazzi - Stendhal wrote that “the Teatro alla Scala is the city’s drawing room”, but “the city’s café” would also have been appropriate given the catalytic role that the opera house has always played in Milanese social life.

After all, no one at La Scala in the 19th century ever missed the opportunity to enjoy a meal or at the very least a coffee in the comfort of their box: a few precious square metres in which meetings, business deals, and political and romantic intrigues took place and continue to take place, as though every evening in the boxes of La Scala was another show, in addition to the one advertised on the poster. Food and wine were often served by young boys from cafés around the opera house, who ran back and forth with the orders. The most important was the Caffè del Teatro, located opposite the opera house’s entrance in Piazza del Teatro alla Scala 1149, a celebrated café founded by Francesco Cambiasi, owner of box no. 12, row IV, left section, “the Caffè del Teatro box”, subsequently replaced by coffee maker Antonio Borrani, who had at least eleven boxes at his disposal in the Napoleonic period, which he rented on behalf of pro-Habsburg aristocratic families, enormously enriching himself. The Caffè del Teatro was then taken over by Giovanni Martini, who was not a box owner. Starting in 1832, the Caffè Martini gained a reputation for being popular among artists and patriots, until 1858, when it was closed to make room for the square in the area in front of the opera house.

It is hardly surprising that the buzzing life of La Scala went beyond the confines of the building and invaded the entire district since the year of its foundation, 1778, in the midst of the Milanese Enlightenment, when revolutionary ideals from beyond the Alps fell on fertile ground, becoming a topic of discussion in cafés, which were places of cultural and political debate and exchange.  Among them was the Caffè dei Virtuosi, in which a brilliant young waiter once worked: Domenico Barbaja, who within a few years took over management of La Scala to later become the prince of European entrepreneurs. In 1800, while still working as a waiter, he had the idea of mixing coffee, cream and chocolate. The “barbagliata” was created and soon spread everywhere, enabling the Caffè dei Virtuosi to overcome the competition of the largest cafés.

These are just a few of the “Milanese Stories” that are the focus of the “Nei Palchi della Scal” exhibition curated by Pier Luigi Pizzi, which will open at the Museo Teatrale alla Scala on 8 November.


A journey through the history of La Scala that is inseparable from that of Milan, where, following “Maria Callas in scena” (Maria Callas on stage), La Cimbali accompanies us once again, continuing a centuries-old tradition that links the opera house to cafés.

Donatella Brunazzi


Museo Teatrale alla Scala