The Coffee Culture of Naples

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
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