CAFFÉ GAMBRINUS is Napoli’s historical café. Neapolitans are proud to tell you that Napoli serves the best coffee in the world. After all they’ve invented “café espresso” (their claim). But when I ask–“Where in Napoli can I have best of the best served?”—they can never agree.
When Oscar Wilde (an Irish dramatist) and Guy de Maupassant (a French writer) wanted coffee in Napoli, they went straight to Caffè Gambrinus.
So, I follow these writers’ examples.
CAFFÉ E GAMBRINUS – AT THE HEART OF NAPOLI
The location couldn’t be more perfect. It’s right at the heart of the city. It sits right there where the moped-buzzing Piazza Triese e Trento converge with the two famous Neapolitan streets – Via Toledo and Via Chiaia. And there across the piazza squats one of the world’s oldest opera houses (1737), Teatro di San Carlo.
If I approach the café from the Bay of Naples, I walk through a grand plaza of Piazza Plebiscito that sprawls curiously quite most of the time, free of the pedestrian-chaos of the surrounding streets. There facing the grand plaza is a palace of the former Spanish rulers who controlled the Kingdom of Napoli, the grand palace of Palazzo Reale . If I walk by the palace right on the hour, I hear the strike its hourly tolls from a large clock on the palace’s façade.
The café is right there across from the grand plaza. Caffé Gambrinus dates back to 1860. Named mysteriously after the patron saint of beer, Saint Gambrinus. Don’t ask me why. Not even the Neapolitans seem to know why. All I know is that the café had quickly flourished, capturing the social and intellectual and political spirits of the Neapolitans.
AN ELEGANT CAFÉ
I walk through a vine-entangled arbor that leads to the outdoor café area, where sun-umbrellas shade marble-topped tables and rattan chairs. Waiters jockey in and out of the adjoining olive-gray building, through large wooden doors of the main café. I head for the door.
I walk inside. Two large Venetian chandeliers blossom from the vaulted ceilings. The air is full of that pungent fragrance of brewing coffee. A bar-counter topped with green marble hunches, over which several baristas jostle, tapping ground coffee into espresso machines, and steaming milk for cappuccinos, all with that polished grace of a grand café. Neapolitans throng the counter for quick shots of espressos.
A VERY BRIEF HISTORY
Inside Caffé Gambrinus, there are seven salons. Two on the right are walled with antique mirrors. Layers and layers of reflections create an illusion of expanding space. Complemented with ornate gold tracings, gold gilded columns, and large spherical chandeliers, the overall impression is that of a miniature Royal Palace of Caserta.
Five salons to the left are less ornate but more elegant. They glisten with dark burnished woods—walls, ceilings, cabinets, tables, chairs—and in contrast, golden tablecloths are draped over round tabletops. On the walls are the paintings of Neapolitan life in the 1800s—of fashionable ladies, of fishermen, of the Bay of Naples.
In the 1930s, these rooms were popular with the intellectuals who opposed Fascism. Heated discussions bounced off the walls until the Fascist attacked. Claiming the noise kept the prefect and his wife who lived upstairs awake all night, in 1938, they shut down the café. But that irony saved the café. Throughout the troubled times of World War II, the doors remained closed, which helped preserve the décor inside. In 1950, after careful restorations, Caffè Gambrinus was back in business.
What Am I Doing Here?
CAFFÉ GAMBRINUS – IS IT THE BEST COFFEE IN NAPOLI?
There are many fabulous cafés in Napoli. They all serve amazingly tasteful coffee. The baristas are artists. They take their professions seriously. They check the weather and the humidity of the day, grind the coffee beans accordingly to the right consistency, and then they apply just the right amount of heated water pressure and run it slowly through the grounds. There are nowhere else in the world than Italy to savor a perfect cup of coffee. There are too many good café in Napoli to name only one as its best.
I lived in Napoli for seven years. When someone asks me—“Where could I get the best coffee in Naples?”—I’m quick to answer, “Go to Caffè Gambrinus.” Why? Because when it comes to savoring a good cup of coffee nothing makes it more perfect that savoring it in the best of all ambiences. Caffé Gambrinus wins my vote.
Seated at the outdoor café area, I quaff a shot of espresso. On the table beside my coffee is an open book I’m reading. There is no rush in time. Just a lazy, casual afternoon, of reading, drinking a good cup of coffee, and people-watching.
When the clock of Palazzo Reale strikes the hour, the sound of its tolls reverberates against surrounding stone buildings. Pigeons flit into the air. Momentarily, the cacophony of cars, mopeds, pedestrians, and the people talking around me all melt away. I’m alone in the wonderful world of the best coffee in the world.