Nearly 100 years ago a unique coffee tradition began in the city of Naples. Customers of coffee shops would pay twice for one espresso, instructing the barista to log the paid but untaken beverage in an “in suspense” chart (caffè pagato or a caffè sospeso). The barista would record what the patron paid for, such as an espresso, cappuccino or even a pastry. Paid items would remain in the log book until someone less fortunate would come and inquire if there was anything paid or in suspense. The barista would check the log and say: “Yes, there is a paid cappuccino. May I serve it to you?” The beauty of this form of charity was multifaceted. Donors and recipients remained completely anonymous to one another. The recipient was always treated with dignity. Donors would compete with other donors as to who could leave more paid coffees behind and baristas all over the city took great pride in carefully recording each entry and serving it.
Following Italy’s Dolce Vita boom years of the sixties this genteel Neapolitan tradition became confined to Christmas and nearly disappeared. In the last two years, it has sparked it up again. Perhaps, it’s that global cloud of uncertainty that looms over all of us. Nonetheless, the tradition of the caffè pagato is back in Naples and spreading. In Florence nearly a dozen of that city’s most fashionable cafes are recording paid coffees.
Not all Italians are yet aware of this fad and Italians generally hate not being at the forefront of any trend. So, if you happen to remember to leave a caffè pagato or caffè sospeso the next time you are in Italy, just watching the reactions may be worth the price and some interesting conversations might ensue. Say: Vorrei lasciare un caffè pagato. You can also say caffè sospeso. The former translates into a paid coffee the latter a suspended coffee — as suspended in thin air. Both mean the same thing.
Now if only we could start something similar over here, Starbucks, Dunkin Donuts and McDonalds immediately come to mind. Perhaps we could get even more creative and leave a paid prescription behind at the pharmacy or grocery items at the supermarket.
Next we shall explore the myriad ways you can order and enjoy a coffee in Italy.
PS. While a paid espresso is always good, most Neapolitans discovered it was better to leave a paid cappuccino as the foamed milk provided the recipient with a bit of nutrition as well.