Naples’ custom of sharing espresso with strangers

Customers visit caffès in Naples each morning and order two espressos. But, they don’t drink both. The second one is called a “Caffè Sospeso” or suspended coffee.  

Caffè Sospeso Origin Story

Naples was once a powerful city, rich both economically and culturally. But, after Italian unification in 1861, Naples fell on hard times. Cholera an Typhoid epidemics swept the city multiple times, killing tens of thousands of Napolitano.

By the turn of the 20th century, Naples was reeling.

Photo: Brent Petersen

From this rampant poverty the Caffè Sospeso tradition was born.

If a person received some sort of good fortune or windfall, they would share it with others. Think of the guy who gets a raise or a promotion at work and shouts “drinks are on me!” in his favorite bar.

But, instead of buying a round of drinks, the good luck Neapolitan would purchase a Caffè Sospeso.

It works like this. The customer buys two espressos; drinking one themselves and “suspending” the second. Then, later that day, a down on their luck Nnapulitano might pop their head in the caffè and ask if an espresso had been “suspended.” The barista would serve them the Caffè Sospeso.

After WWII, Italy quickly rebuilt under what was called the “Italian Economic Miracle.” Slowly, the Caffè Sospeso died out.

Caffè Sospeso video

Why Caffè Sospeso?

You might ask “why Caffè Sospeso?” Aren’t there better ways to help those in need?

The killjoys at The Consumerist have pointed out that the Caffè Sospeso tradition is inefficient. And you know what? They’re right. Caffè Sospeso isn’t a good way to relieve poverty in Naples.

But, that’s not its intention. Caffè Sospeso is meant as a simple act of kindness.

In Naples, a daily espresso isn’t seen a treat or even a necessity. That jolt of caffeine is more an inalienable right. Its almost as if a person who doesn’t get to enjoy an espresso is being deprived of some essential part of being Neapolitan.

Caffè Sospeso rebirth

When the worldwide recession hit Naples, many people lost their jobs. Under this cloud of economic uncertainty, Caffè Sospeso made its return. And not just in Naples. Web sites and Facebook pages are dedicated to the idea of paying it forward through Suspended Coffee. There’s even a film about the phenomenon.

In Naples, Caffè Gambrinus still practices Caffè Sospeso. The historical caffè is one of the most ornate in Naples but they still give out about 50 Caffè Sospeso every day! Keep in mind that if you participate in the custom, it is not a tourist attraction. Gawking at the recipients of the largess is frowned upon. This is a small anonymous kindness.

About the Author

Brent Petersen is the Editor-in-Chief of Destination Eat Drink. He currently resides in Setubal, Portugal. Brent has written the novel “Truffle Hunt” (Eckhartz Press) and the short story collection “That Bird.” He’s also written dozens of foodie travel guides to cities around the world on Destination Eat Drink, including in-depth eating and drinking guides to Lisbon, PortoSintraMonsaraz, and Evora in Portugal. Brent’s podcast, also called Destination Eat Drink, is available on all major podcasting platforms and is distributed by the Radio Misfits Podcast Network.

Author: Brent