The Coffee Culture of Naples

Tuesday, February 18, 2014

By Publications Manager Dan Rubin

Leading up to World War II, drinking coffee was an important ritual, considered by most to be a basic human right. The city is home to the caffè sospeso, the suspended coffee, in which a customer anonymously pays for the coffee of someone in need. Neapolitan writer Luciano de Crescenzo says, “It was a beautiful custom. When a person who had a break of good luck entered a café and ordered a cup of coffee, he didn’t pay for just one, but for two cups, allowing someone less fortunate who entered later to have a cup of coffee for free. . . . It was a cup of coffee offered to the rest of humankind.” But Italy did not grow its own coffee beans, and as the wartime blockades made importation difficult, the staple became precious—and expensive. Instead of visiting cafés, customers had to visit the black market to get their caffeine fix.

Coffee came to Naples late compared to other major Italian cities. When it first arrived in the late eighteenth century, in fact, the superstitious population considered the bitter drink bad luck. Today, however, Naples is one of the coffee culture capitals of the world. The transition began with the early nineteenth–century invention of the cuccumella—more widely known as the napoletana for the city that made it famous. The napoletana is a domestic coffee maker that is comprised of three sections. The bottom is filled with water; the middle contains finely ground coffee; and the top is an upside-down serving pot. After the water is boiled on a stove, the entire contraption is flipped over to let the water filter through the grounds into the pot. While the 1901 invention of the espresso machine revolutionized the public consumption of coffee in Italy, the technology behind domestic preparation remained basically unchanged until after World War II. For many Neapolitans, it remains the preferred preparation method. Here is playwright/director/actor Eduardo De Filippo reciting a monologue from his Questi Fantasmi! about brewing the perfect cup of coffee.

To read more about A.C.T.'s production of Napoli! in our Words on Plays
click here to purchase a copy. For tickets to Napoli! visit

The Basso Setting of Napoli!

Friday, February 7, 2014

By Publications Manager Dan Rubin

Napoli! takes place in a Neapolitan basso, which literally means the "lows." These windowless, street-level, studio apartments have historically been home to the city's underclass. They are cramped, and their occupants have no privacy from passersby, who can peer through the open door, the only point of both ventilation and light. In 1884, a British journalist described the dwellings as follows:

Imagine a doorway of a cave where on entering you must descend. Not a ray of light penetrates into it except by the one aperture you have passed through; and there, between four black battered walls and upon a layer of filth mixed with putrid straw, two, three, and four families vegetate together. The best side of the cave, namely that through which humidity filtrates the least, is occupied by a rack and manger to which animals of various kinds are tied; a horse it may be or an ass, a calf, or a pig. On the opposite, a heap of boards and rags represent the beds. . . . Multiply it by thousands. Remember that a hundred thousand beings at least have no other shelter; that they only live on fruit and vegetables, on snails and onions; without even changing their rags once in a year; without water except such as flows in a dense impure rivulet winding though those lanes.

A model of the Napoli! set by scenic designer Erik Flatmo
Perhaps unsurprisingly, it is impossible to find photographs of the interiors of bassi apartments. Napoli! scenic designer Erik Flatmo found himself watching numerous Italian movies from the World War II era to understand what, for example, light switches looked like then. He also quickly realized it would be necessary to compromise: much of the cultural identity of Naples is formed by what happens on its streets—and, yet, Napoli! takes place inside. So, to the "cave" Flatmo added two windows looking out onto the Spanish Quarter street.

To read more about A.C.T.'s production of Napoli! in our Words on Plays
click here to purchase a copy.
For tickets to Napoli! visit
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