Sunday, December 28, 2014
In Naples, Gift of Coffee to Strangers Never Seen
NAPLES, Italy — One azure morning in December, Laura Cozzolino arrived at her corner cafe in central Naples and ordered her usual: a dense espresso, which arrived steaming hot on the dark marble counter.
She lingered over the aroma, then knocked it back in two quick sips. But instead of paying for one coffee, she paid for two, leaving the receipt for the other — a caffè sospeso, or suspended coffee — with the bartender for a stranger to enjoy.
“It’s a simple, anonymous act of generosity,” said Ms. Cozzolino, 37, an employee of a medical device company. “As a Neapolitan who tries to restrict herself to four coffees a day, I understand that coffee is important. It’s a small treat that no one should miss.”
The suspended coffee is a Neapolitan tradition that boomed during World War II and has found a revival in recent years during hard economic times.
From Naples, by word of mouth and via the Internet, the gesture has spread throughout Italy and around the world, to coffee bars as far-flung as Sweden and Brazil. In some places in Italy, the generosity now extends to the suspended pizza or sandwich, or even books.
Naples is a city well known for its grit, beauty, chaos and crime. Despite those things, or perhaps because of them, its people are also famous for their solidarity in the face of hardship.
No one here seems to know precisely when or how the suspended coffee began. But that it started here speaks to the small kindnesses that Italians are known for — and also of the special place that coffee occupies in the culture.
In a time of hardship, Italians can lack many things, but their coffee is not one of them. So it may be the most common item left at many cafes, as a gift, for people too poor to pay.
More than 90 percent of Italian families drink coffee at home, and there is one coffee bar for every 490 Italians, according to Illy, one of Italy’s leading coffee producers, and a local organization that studies food and drinks. Espresso comes in seemingly infinite forms: ristretto (strong), lungo (more water), macchiato or schiumato (with a bit of milk or milk foam), or corretto (a kick of liquor added).
Drinking one is an act rigorously performed standing at the counter for a few quick minutes. It naturally sets the passing hours of the day. It is both an intimate and a public ritual.
Many bartenders attribute a soul to the coffee-making process and take pride in knowing their customers’ preferences, even before they lay an elbow on the counter and start talking about the sun — or lack thereof — or complaining about the government.
“Coffee consumption predated the unification of Italy by more than 200 years, so the rituals and traditions around it are very ancient,” Andrea Illy, chairman of Illy, said in a phone interview. “In Naples, coffee is a world in itself, both culturally and socially. Coffee is a ritual carried out in solidarity.”
That solidarity is spreading. In 2010, an ensemble of small Italian cultural festivals gave form to the tradition of generosity by creating the Suspended Coffee Network.
The purpose was to weather the severe cuts to the state cultural budgets by organizing and promoting their own activities together. But it also started solidarity initiatives for those in need. Encouraging a donated coffee was one of them.
Now, across Italy, the bars that have joined the network display the suspended coffee label — a black and brown sticker with a white espresso cup — in their windows.
In participating coffee bars, customers might toss receipts in an unused coffee pot on the counter, where the needy can pull them out and use them. In others, customers pay in advance for an extra coffee, and the cafe keeps a list or hangs the receipts in the shop window.
As the most vulnerable increasingly feel the pinch of Italy’s long economic crisis, bars in some southern towns have started inviting customers to pay for a sandwich — or more — for those in need.
This year, Feltrinelli, a large bookstore, encouraged clients to buy a book and leave it for destitute readers who could then go and collect it.
Likewise, in 2012, a pizzeria in Naples, Da Concettina ai Tre Santi, created the suspended pizza logo and printed it on its paper tablecloths. Each week, it manages to deliver around 15 free pizzas for the poor.
But in Naples, with its rich diversity of neighborhoods, coffee bars hold a special place as gathering points for all: senators, families with grandchildren, street artists, businessmen and beggars.
“Coffee in Naples is an excuse to dialogue, to tell stories, not like in other more hectic Italian cities,” said Bruno La Mura, one of the owners of the Spazio Nea art gallery, exhibition room and coffee shop, which has offered suspended coffees since it opened in 2012.
“Here we don’t drink coffee, we ‘take’ it, as a medicine,” echoed his business partner, Luigi Solito. “To me, the philosophy of the suspended coffee is that you are happy today, and you give a coffee to the world, as a present.”
Even before joining the Suspended Coffee Network, some Neapolitan cafes embellished the tradition on their own.
At Gran Caffè Gambrinus, a 154-year-old cafe in Naples, in 2009 the managers began displaying an old, oversize Neapolitan coffee pot, a local version of the kind in almost all Italian homes.
They leave the lid open, with explanations in six languages — and in Neapolitan — of what a suspended coffee is and how clients can contribute one by dropping a receipt inside.
Of more than 1,500 espressos it serves on average every day, about 10 are left suspended by customers, said Sergio Arturo, one of the owners. About five people come every day and stick their hands in the coffee pot and take a receipt, a number that has increased in the past year or two, he said.
Almost everybody in Naples seems to know what a suspended coffee is, though not all bartenders have served one.
In Naples’s old quarter, an area heavily visited by tourists, Caffè 7Bello serves about 1,000 suspended coffees a year, mostly to older people, migrants and the Roma, the owner, Pino De Stasio, said.
It is in the building where the 20th-century thinker Benedetto Croce once lived, on a street that is today lined with souvenir shops and pitchmen selling lucky horns made in China for a euro. That is where Ms. Cozzolino left her suspended coffee.
“I didn’t know about the suspended coffee,” said another customer that day, a mother of four from Bucharest, Romania, in flip-flops, socks and a light winter jacket, who panhandles nearby. “I just came by once, and they gave it to me, so I come back. We like coffee, too.”