Drink one coffee and pay for two: history and meaning of “suspended coffee”

Offering a coffee to strangers to share your good mood: an ancient and romantic Neapolitan tradition, symbol of kindness and solidarity, has come back into fashion with the economic crisis of recent years.

«When a Neapolitan is happy for some reason, instead of paying for a single coffee, the one he would drink, he pays for two, one for himself and the other for the customer who comes next. It’s like offering a coffee to the rest of the world…»

(Luciano de Crescenzo, Il caffè sospeso, Arnoldo Mondadori Editore, 2008).


“Suspended coffee”, how it works

In Naples, coffee is synonymous with happiness. A coffee is always there, even when your pockets are empty. It is called “suspended coffee” and its origin has been widely debated.

According to Riccardo Pazzaglia, a writer who was born and grew up in the Sanità district, the custom began in the early 20 th century due to the “dispute” among friends about drinks to be paid. If in doubt, the price was rounded up and the customer paid for an extra coffee for the benefit of customers that day. Other experts of folklore, instead, date the custom back to the second half of the19th century, at the legendary Cafè Gambrinus in Via Chaia: when a person was happy or had a happy event to celebrate, he drank a coffee and paid for two.

What is certain is that the tradition, inspired by the pride of sharing a gesture of solidarity and hospitality, finally took hold in the war years, when economic hardship had made coffee a vice that few people were able to afford.

Suspended coffee in the social network era

I have three coffees at a time to save two tips’, said Cavalier Torquato Pezzella (alias Totò) in the film entitled I Tartassati (The Overtaxed). Actually, it seems that the “Prince of laughter” was such a strong supporter of suspended coffee that he would pay for 10 coffees a day at various coffee bars in Naples. Then the economic boom of the 1950s led to this romantic tradition being forgotten until now, as the economic crisis of recent years has revived the habit of paying for a coffee for those who cannot afford one.

The Gambrinus giant moka coffee pot – The tradition has been renewed right were it originated: now at the entrance to Cafè Gambrinus there is a giant moka coffee pot, where customers leave receipts for a “suspended coffee”. Tramps and street artists looking for comfort in a good coffee can enter, take a receipt from the giant moka coffee pot and then order a coffee. The benefactor does not know who will drink the coffee and the person who drinks the coffee does not know who offered it.

The Suspended Coffee Network – In 2010, on the occasion of Gambrinus‘ 150th birthday, the Suspended Coffee Network was created, including about sixty coffee bars, festivals and associations throughout Italy. Its founders established “Suspended Coffee Day” every year on 10 December, in conjunction with International Human Rights Day: an entirely Italian way of celebrating humanity. Besides being a way of spreading the tradition of a suspended receipt, the Network promotes the exchange of food and basic necessities.

Suspended coffee in the world – Over the years, the spread of this custom has crossed national borders and now you can pay for a suspended coffee almost anywhere in the world. Coffee bars in Ireland, Spain, Sweden and Brazil have joined the “Network“. Similar initiatives have also been launched in Argentina (where the practice is called empanada pendiente), the USA, Canada, Russia and Australia.


From the “suspended book” to a coffee for singles

The tradition of the suspended coffee has inspired other initiatives of solidarity: from the “suspended meal” at the Casetta Rossa in the Roman district of Garbatella to the “suspended book” at the Modus Vivendi bookshop in Palermo, and the “suspended pizza” at
Oliva in Naples.

In Milan, you can find a suspended coffee for singles: you leave a paid cup of coffee with your nickname and a short description of yourself so you can be traced online, hoping that the person to sip the coffee will be your soul mate. This initiative, launched by the Meetic dating website, has already been joined by Giacomo Caffè in Piazza Duomo and Pasticceria Cucchi in Corso Genova.

Cover pic designed by Freepik

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