Naples, Italy – Neapolitans are quick to tell you they have the best coffee in the world. After all they’ve invented espresso, so they claim. But when I ask – “Where in Napoli is the best of the best coffee served?” – they can never agree.
When Oscar Wilde (an Irish dramatist) and Guy de Maupassant (a French writer) visited Naples, they went straight to Caffè Gambrinus.
So I follow their examples.
The location couldn’t be more perfect, right at the heart of the city. Right there where the moped-buzzing Piazza Triese e Trento converge with the two famous Neapolitan streets – Toledo and Chiaia. And there across the piazza squats Teatro di San Carlo, one of the world’s oldest opera houses (1737). And off toward the bay, Piazza Plebiscito sprawls, curiously quite most of the time, free of the pedestrian-chaos of the surrounding streets. And there on the grand piazza, Palazzo Reale, a former palace of the Spanish rulers, stands, waiting to strike its hourly tolls from a large clock on its façade.
The café dates back to 1860. Named mysteriously after the patron saint of beer, Gambrinus. Don’t ask me why. All I know is that the café had quickly flourished, capturing the social and intellectual and political spirits of the Neapolitans.
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 and Waitresses jockey in and out of the adjoining olive-gray building, through large wooden doors of the main café.
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. 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.
Seven salons embellish the café. 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 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.
The clock of Palazzo Reale strikes the hour, and the sound reverberates against the surrounding stone buildings. Pigeons flit into the air. Momentarily, the cacophony of cars, mopeds, pedestrians, and people talking all melt away. I quaff a shot of espresso, steeped in the historical café, thinking this is the best coffee in the world.
I lived in Napoli for seven years. When someone asked me, “Where could I get the best coffee in Naples? I was quick to answer, “Go to Caffè Gambrinus. There you’ll have the best coffee in the world.”