This Italian custom, caffè sospeso, may just be our new favorite tradition in Naples.
You may have heard about “pay it forward” chains at your local Starbucks, where drive-through patrons pay for the order of the person behind them in an act of anonymous generosity—but did you know that the concept began in Italy more than 100 years ago? Meet the caffè sospeso (“suspended coffee”), a Naples tradition that dates back to the unification of Italy in the 19th century.
In 1860, as a political movement to combine the disparate kingdoms of the Italian peninsula reached its peak, Vincenzo Apuzzo opened a coffee house on the Piazza del Plebiscito in Naples that he hoped would be a cultural center for the new country. By the end of the century, Gran Caffè Gambrinus was indeed a grand Italian meeting place, with art nouveau murals, gilded chandeliers, and domed ceilings. It hosted intellectuals from around the world, and was frequented by Émile Zola, Oscar Wilde, Jean Paul Sartre, Ernest Hemingway, and many others.
It was around this time that the tradition of caffè sospeso began. Coffee culture in Naples is so strong that stopping for a coffee (or a few!) during the day is a necessary ritual—patrons stand at the bar and hurriedly sip their coffee before going on with their day. The city also has a large working-class population for whom the ritual could prove too expensive. So, in a show of solidarity, if one patron had enjoyed some good fortune that day, they would pay for two coffees but only drink one, leaving the second for someone in need to enjoy. As Neapolitan writer Luciano De Crescenzo wrote, “When a Neapolitan is happy, for some reason he decides to offer a coffee to a stranger because it is like offering a coffee to the rest of the world.”
The practice grew and flourished through the tough years of World War II, when resilience and resistance were points of local pride. The tradition was handed down orally among generations of Neapolitans. (Giada’s nonno Dino, a Neapolitan native who was born in 1919, told his children about it, and Aunt Raffy shared the story with Giada!) In coffee shops across the city, baristas kept ledgers where they recorded the coffees that had been prepaid or taped sospeso receipts to the window so needy passersby could easily see what was available. But as the Italian economy boomed in the 1950s and ‘60s, the era of La Dolce Vita, it gradually fell by the wayside.
During the economic crisis that began in 2008, which reverberated across Europe, Neapolitans who had grown up hearing about the caffè sospeso ritual decided to revive the practice. Caffè Gambrinus converted a massive coffee pot to a receptacle for the coffee receipts, which today bears signs in multiple languages explaining the concept to curious tourists. And other businesses got into the sospeso spirit, including bookstores, sandwich shops, and pizzerias—including one of Giada’s favorite pizza spots, Da Concettina ai Tre Santi. In 2010, a local group proclaimed December 10 to be Caffè Sospeso Day. Not coincidentally, it’s the same day as International Human Rights Day, for in Naples, coffee is a human right!
If you want to take part in this century-old tradition the next time you’re in Naples-- as Giada did on her last trip-- visit Caffè Gambrinus and order your drink and a caffè sospeso. You’ll be given two receipts—hand one to your barista when you get your drink, and drop the other in the coffee pot. Whoever fishes out your receipt will be able to enjoy one of the city’s most iconic cups of coffee on you.