[Note from Mantic59: Michael Goldweber had been living in Italy but was forced to return due to the current world health situation. Before that happened he wrote up an article about wet shaving in Italy.] Quick; what is the first name that comes to mind when you think “old-school Italian shave?”
wait for it…
one more second…
Yep, Proraso! The 112 year old shave cream from Florence, Italy. While it may not top many “best shaving cream” lists based on shave quality alone, if one were to somehow relate some numeric measure of shave quality to cost per shave, I am confident Proraso, regardless of color/flavor (green, red, white, or blue) would be a serious contender.
[ed. note: Amazon, Grooming Lounge, The Art Of Shaving, and West Coast Shaving links are Sharpologist affiliate.]
It is interesting that in the American wet shave community, old-school British shave translates to the three T’s – premium shave creams/soaps and possibly the even older and pricier Yardley brand. However, when our thoughts travel south down to Italy, they land on the ubiquitous corner drug store brand – and yes, it is available at every corner drug store in Italy.
The goal of this article is to introduce (or reintroduce) readers to the glories of premium and more affordable Italian shave software.
As a past Sharpologist article chronicles, I began my shaving life with my father’s DE razor. Upon leaving home for Uni, I began a many decades wander in the desert of multi-blade cartridge razors. In 2004, while living temporarily in Bologna, Italy, I rediscovered DE shaving. Truth be told, I was shamed back to DE shaving by Italian colleagues who claimed that no self-respecting man used a disposable cartridge razor. Except for my travel kit, I’ve remained true to DE shaving.
Fast forward 16 years and I am once again living temporarily in Bologna, Italy. It’s great to observe that while DE shaving is enjoying a renaissance in the US, it never really fell out of favor here in Italy. While the Gillette/Borg cartridge pushing collective is making inroads here, it never erased DE shaving, like it did in America. Italy is a country whose national identity, culture, and lucrative tourism industry is based on preserving the old, slow ways of doing things. From Parmesan cheese, to balsamic vinegar, to hand-made Italian shoes, doing things the way one’s parents and grandparents did is celebrated.
A quick contrast of Bologna, to my hometown of Cincinnati, OH is illustrative. Greater Cincinnati is about 50% larger in population than Bologna. Cincinnati has two retail outlets for shaving supplies outside of big-box offerings: An Art of Shaving outlet in a mall, and Appointments, a downtown fountain pen store which also stocks some brushes, creams, razors, and stands. In Bologna, stores which stock high-end shaving supplies are ubiquitous. I counted at least six such stores within a ten minute walk of my flat. (Euro-speak for apartment.) Furthermore, there are no barber shops in Cincinnati where one can safely(?) get a cut-throat shave. In Bologna, it seems every old-school barber shop boasts of their barbers’ skills with the razor. A future Sharpologist column will hopefully chronicle my shave experience at Bologna’s oldest barber: Barberia Marchi, founded in 1870 by Luigi Marchi.
Italian Shave Products & Barbershops
While not quite a universal truth, it seems that many of Italy’s high-end shave products came out of individual barber shops. For many, the mother ship of such shops and their products is Antica Barbieria Colla, or ABC. ABC is a barber shop in Milan that also produces and sells their own line of shave software. Their shave cream, like many Italian shave products, is almond scented. It’s also very very expensive: $60 for a 3.4 oz tub (ed. note: in the US it is available at Bullgoose Shaving And West Coast Shaving).
Continuing with high-end expensive shave creams — Italians seemingly prefer creams over soaps — is Acqua di Parma. Available in two versions: brushless or for brush, a 4.4 oz tub costs about the same as a tub of ABC (ed. note: Acqua di Parma is more readily available in the U.S., including Maggard Razors, and Grooming Lounge)
Rounding out the lineup of super premium Italian shave producers is Panama 1924. Also originating from a barber shop, this time in Naples, Panama 1924 produces an almond scented tallow-based cream and soap. What can I say: they grow a lot of almonds here in Italy.
Since my goal is to introduce readers to Italian shave software they may be unfamiliar with, I’m going to skip over
– RazoRock: A relatively new brand whose goal is to produce high quality products in Italy for online distribution. Not surprising, I have yet to find RazorRock in Italian brick and mortar stores.
– Cella: Another almond scented shave cream out of Milan. Like Proraso, its cheap, ubiquitously available in Italy, and provides a very good (excellent?) shave. Some Italians when discussing (talking loudly/arguing) Proraso (green) vs Cella (extra pure) remind me of Americans when talking about Coke vs Pepsi or Ford vs Chevy. In the US Cella is fairly widely available at places like Amazon and West Coast Shaving.
– Tcheon Fung Sing (TFS): In spite of the name, it is an Italian brand from Turin. It was started after WWII by a Chinese immigrant. TFS is considered a middle-of-the-road brand whose focus is on vegetable oil-based creams. TFS is also the factory behind many of RazorRock’s creams. It is also available on Groomatorium.
There are three more brands I wish to introduce to you: Mondial 1908, Omega (yes ,the shave brush people) and a new brand I’m quite excited about, Barbieri Italiani.
Mondial 1908 and Omega are two companies that instead of starting out as a barber shop (though Mondial now has an upscale boutique barbershop in Florence), began their lives as shave brush producers. Mondial produces a high-end line under the Mondial name in addition to their Antica Barberia line priced to be within reach of those stepping up from Cella or Proraso. In the US Mondial is now available at their US site.
Omega, which like me is based in Bologna, produces, in addition to their extensive line of shave brushes, both the Omega shave cream (which I can not tell apart from Cella by scent or shave quality) and a newer line: Via Barberia. Via Barberia is the name of a street in Bologna, in the city center, about a 5 minute walk away. For those who’ve forgotten any Latin they may have once learned, Via Barberia translates to “Barber Street.” Bologna is an old medieval city whose streets still reflect their ancient purpose. Barberia Marchi, the 150 year old barber shop I hope to get shaved at is just off of Via Barberia.
Finally, I wish to introduce Barbieri Italiani. This is a newish barbershop located on Via Barberia that like many of its predecessors (e.g. ABC) also produce their own shave software. I can’t yet report on the quality of their products since I thought I would also shop “old school” by first getting a shave at their barbershop with their product before buying any for myself.
I know that this has been a confusing trip through Italy’s shaving landscape – which seemingly is concentrated in Italy’s north. It’s hard enough with companies with Chinese names, or founding years, let alone the repeated use of “Antica” (old) or variations of “Barberia.” Barbieri Italiani, Antica Barberia, and Antica Barbieria Colla are three different products, to say nothing of La Barberia (sorry, its from Spain). I also apologize if I left out anyone’s favorite Italian product: Valobra, Barberia Bolognini (which is NOT from Bologna), Acca Kappa, Saponificio Varesino, Pannacrema, and others.
For those still reading, I hope that I successfully shared my excitement at being an American shave tourist in Italy. Walking around and seeing all these different shave products in the flesh is so different from the American DE shaver who essentially does all their shopping online. Really, for shave nerds like us what could be cooler than visiting barbershops for a shave using their own shave creams/soaps. From Milan (ABC), to Bologna (Barbieri Italiani), and then on to Florence (Mondial). I recommend stopping in Parma between Milan and Bologna for their famous cheese and ham. Unfortunately, Acqua di Parma moved to Milan years ago.