March 06, 2024 3 min read

Coffee, as we know, is an integral part of Itailan and particularly Neapolitan culture, so much so that it has earned the nickname "black gold" of Naples. The drink is consumed both in coffee shops as well as at home, where a stovetop espresso maker, an espresso machine or a coffee maker for pods or capsules is always present.

It's a daily ritual from which Italians rarely escape. Naturally, various curiosities and traditions are linked to the consumption of this famous drink. Among these, the most evocative is certainly that of caffè sospeso or  'suspended coffee'.


What is Caffè Sospeso?

To properly understand the history of  caffè sospeso, it is necessary to know its definition. Contrary to the picture above, this term is actually more abstract, and it refers to the custom of paying for two cups of coffee and drinking only one. The barista will thus prepare the previously paid coffee for the person who enters the coffeeshop next. It's similar to what people in English speaking countries call "paying it forward". However, in Italy, it is not seen as an act of charity, but rather as the desire to share a life's pleasure with a stranger.

It’s a small gesture, but considering how Italians feel about coffee, it’s pretty important nevertheless. Coffee, with all its variations and customs, is more than a simple drink for those who love it. For many, drinking coffee is also a moment of relaxation and self-care. Seen from this lens, it’s easier to understand whycaffè sospeso is worth so much more than its actual monetary value.

This custom was very widespread in the past. After years of decline, however, it has returned to prominence again, thanks above all to the famous Caffè Gambrinus in Naples, which revived this practice on the occasion of its 150th anniversary in 2010.

napoli naples coffee espresso

Origin of the tradition

The first historical evidence of the practice dates back to the post-World War II period, a particularly difficult time in Italy. Poverty and misery were widespread like wildfire all over Italy, including in Naples. However, there was certainly no lack of solidarity among Neapolitans. It is precisely in this context that the practice of paying for two cups of coffee was born, one of which was offered to anyone who requested it.

There are also other hypotheses for its origin, though. According to Riccardo Pazzaglia, Neapolitan writer and journalist, famous for his sketch in the film "Così parlò Bellavista", the habit was the result of the good-hearted diatribes that often arise among friends when it came to paying for coffee at the bar: some wanted to offer atazzina di caffè to their friends, others weren’t sure if this or that person at the table had it or not, so you’d often end up paying for one or two coffee that wasn’t consumed. When you realized it, instead of asking for the money back, you’d just leave a coffee paid and pending at the counter, for whoever came after you.

espress cappuccino in a coffeeshop in montreal

Caffè SospesoToday

Although originated in Naples, the tradition ofcaffè sospeso has spread to other Italian cities; and as time passed, it became a way to express solidarity and generosity towards others. Today, many coffee shops in Italy and around the world still offer the possibility of asking for acaffè sospeso or leaving acaffè sospeso for those who need it.

It’s important to understand that caffè sospeso is not only an economic issue, but also a question of cultural identity. In fact,caffè sospeso has become a symbol of Naples and its culture of hospitality and solidarity. It's a tradition that demonstrates how even a small gesture can make a difference in the lives of others.

The best description of the beauty ofcaffè sospeso was perhaps given by Neapolitan writer and philosopher Luciano De Crescenzo, who wrote in 2008 that: “Quando qualcuno è felice a Napoli, paga due caffè: uno per sé stesso, ed un altro per qualcun altro. E’ come offrire un caffè al resto del mondo.” Or, to say it in English: “In Naples, when someone is happy, they pay for two cups of coffee: one for themselves, the other for someone else. It’s like offering coffee to the rest of the world.”