In Naples an excellent cup of coffee can be found twice on every block. If you ask for coffee and want something that comes in a cup larger than the length of your thumb, Neapolitans either look confused or smirk. For them, coffee is caffe and caffe everywhere else in the world is called espresso.
Neapolitans drink three kinds of caffe all day long: caffe lungo (long, like a double shot), caffe ristretto (short, no more than a tablespoon), and caffe macchiato (long with milk foam on top). In addition, men often order caffe cor’retto, which is espresso and a shot of alcohol, usually whiskey or sambuca. Alongside these traditional cafes, baristas in Naples add extra twists to their coffee delights. That can mean a simple heart shaped cacao sprinkled on top of an espresso shot or, at other times, something a little more complicated.
In the heart of downtown Naples, Caffe Gambrinus is an old watering hole that once hosted, among others, Oscar Wilde and Mussolini. Established in the 1860’s when the Bourbon kings still ruled the region, the cafe has artwork on the walls, an array of pastries, and outdoor tables. What’s more, on Thursdays and weekends, tours of the Naples underground start here, given by urban speleologist Signore Quaranta.
Caffe Gambrinus Building
All this doesn’t detract from their great tasting coffee. The baristas at the counter are brusque, but they know how draw up a rich froth on top of any espresso shot. The highlight of their beverage menu is, of course, the Caffe Gambrinus. The drink consists of a shot of espresso, a teaspoon of cacao powder, milk foam, whipping cream, and chocolate sprinkles on top. A little water both before and after drinking the beverage is meant to clean the palette.
A walk from here over to the ‘hip’ quarter of the city, Intra Moenia sits right next to the excavated Greek foundations of Naples. The cafe-bookstore has its own publishing house and is frequented by artists and students. A reigning favorite on the menu is Caffe al Bacio (coffee with a kiss).
Caffe al Bacio
The barista coats a brandy glass with syrupy nutella. She then adds a healthy shot of espresso and a dollop of milk foam. Cocoa flakes sprinkle the top. It’s expected that you’ll stir the hot beverage for a long time before taking it down in four or five gulps. Caffe al Bacio also comes with an auditory twist. Intra Moenia is one block away from the music conservatory, so often a soprano practices her scales from an open second story window while patrons drink.
Once the sweltering summer comes along, cold beverages abound. The Caffe Granita is the most common. Made of a large shot of espresso, the drink tastes like little grains of coffee ice. I found the beverage at the Arx Caffe located right next to the trapezoidal Castle Sant’Elmo that sits at the top of the city and touts breathtaking views of the Bay of Naples.
The Caffe del Nonno (Grandpa’s coffee) is a frozen drink I stumbled upon along the bustling shopping street of Corso Umberto. The barista drizzles lines of chocolate syrup inside the glass and then ladles out smooth vanilla ice cream mixed with espresso.
Caffe Del Nonno
Small business owned cafes in Naples are the norm. They tend to be tucked alongside shops and open markets, often having one counter where you catch a brief drink. But increasingly, shopping malls have cropped up in the suburbs. On weekends their parking lots are full and people push their way through chain clothing stores like Zara or buy in bulk at the French-owned Auchan that carries gourmet foods, electronics, and household goods.
All this over-consumption also gives rise to excellent caffe. Lino’s Coffee is an Italian chain located in many food courts. The company displays a marquee of their own propriety mixed coffee beverages. The Morocco is my personal favorite, made with a layer of cocoa powder, a layer of espresso, a layer of amaretto syrup, some milk foam and then — optionally — whipping cream with or without chocolate powder on top.
In Naples, it doesn’t matter if it’s a corner caffe, a historical watering hole, or a shopping mall – baristas don’t just serve coffee, they take great pride in their honed expertise. Although these cafes and their beverages are best known throughout the city, the truth is that good coffee here is delectably everywhere.
Barbara Zaragoza lives in Naples, Italy where she roams the ancient ruins or searches for that next perfect cup of caffe when she is not writing fiction. She also writes The Espresso Break blog.