This article was originally published on July 15, 2010 in our newsletter, Il Postino, by the late Andrea Sertoli.
Anyone who sets foot in Italy soon discovers that it’s a place where coffee is a cult, with rituals that grow close to fanaticism in the regions south of the Apennines. From the Italian coffee drinking habit – espresso-drinking, to be sure – one can identify several of the components of the Italian lifestyle. Think of the difference – the opposition, rather – of what coffee means in the US and in Italy. In the US, coffee is truly a working companion; the coffee mug is a fixture of most cubicles and a staple in the hands of commuters across the country. Even at Starbucks, most of the public grab their beverages and leave. The container is abundant in size and designed to last, releasing its energetic power over time.
A ritual without time: espresso at the bar
Conversely, the espresso ritual in Italy is primarily a social act of enjoyment, around the sensation of taste. First of all, it is designed to take you away from the office; second, it is the opportunity to socialize and meet with colleagues and friends. Everything about the ritual is the result of millions and millions of tests; from the shape and design of the iconic espresso cups right up to the very spirited elixir delivered by those somewhat mysterious machines – objects of elegance in their own merit – that manage to squeeze fragrant black juice out of roasted dark powder.
To be accurate, the espresso bar is also one of the environments where Itay’s all-pervasive language of symbols gives some of its best. It’s around espresso coffee that deals are made, love affairs are born, friendships are reinforced (or restored). In short, bonding, in its multiple manifestations, takes place. The espresso ritual is where the country gathers and recognizes itself and nowhere does this happen more often than in Naples, where the espresso culture reaches its highest peak. In Naples, not only you can find some of the best coffee blends, but the “brotherhood” of espresso has established the tradition of the caffe’ pagato – the “paid coffee”.
The caffè pagato
The caffe’ pagato consists in the sublime act of kindness of prepaying an espresso for a customer that has yet to come and that you typically do not know (nor ever will). If your Italian is good enough to understand some of the jargon exchanged in the bustling morning activity around many bar counters in the South, you may catch occasional messages such as “1 caffe’ pagato,” “3 caffe’ pagati” or whatever number of caffe’ pagati (I once heard a record of 10 caffe’ pagati in Rome!). These are quick sound-bites aimed at the chief barman who coordinates the traffic of the dozens of simultaneous coffee orders that are launched in apparent chaos from all directions and that the bar team manages seamlessly. The customer sends him notice that he or she is prepaying 1, or 3 or x number of extra coffees for future customers. Typically, these are clients who are “short of cash” and who enter the establishment asking, “any pre-paid coffee left?” If the answer is positive, then a small moment of happiness and enjoyment is generated. Now, isn’t that beautiful?
Are you an espresso lover? Where in Italy did you have your first espresso? Tell us about your experience!