Special dispatch: Breakfast in Naples / Gran Caffè Gambrinus
(via Gran Caffè Gambrinus
Via Chiaia 1
Piazza Trieste e Trento
+39 081 41 75 82
by Maggie Arto
It has been written in the LRB before that the Italians do not know how to have breakfast. Or don't have breakfast at all. Many a disappointing hotel table – featuring, for example, those small packets of dry toast biscuits, sugary yoghurt and an individual pod of jam – testifies to the fact that in Italy you might be better off waiting for the primi pasta and seconde of carne at lunch.* Which is sad, for where lunch feels functional, a punctual interruption to the tasks of the day, breakfast is hopeful: you begin half-there and end half-high. The transition from bleary-eyed to awake is a space not only where dreams linger, but where fresh ideas are made.
Alas, breakfast in Italy rarely summons reveries.
This noted, I'm here to write about the most essential Neapolitan morning ritual: coffee. It is said, in some roundabout histories, that in 1901 a gentleman in Naples complained about the time that his coffee took to brew, that in response an engineer in Milan invented a faster method of coffee extraction – what we would come to know as the modern espresso machine.
Today in Naples, the expression of espresso occurs via hefty manual machines – still several models removed from this early prototype – whereby a large lever is pulled down to build up pressure, and as it is lifted, the shot starts to drip. At first caramel in colour – this is the coffee's surf, the oil-ish amalgam that will form the espresso's head – a chain of steady, small pearls soon become thin mice tails, which curve slightly inwards, then stop; for the Neapolitan espresso is nearly always more of a ristretto, and must be cut off before in any way dilute. Next there is the option of a macchiato dash of foam, or for the sweeter inclined, a spoonful of nocciola cream, which is dished out of an obscene-looking vat. If, and only if, you're drinking mid-morning or earlier, you may enjoy the svelte foam of a cappuccino.
Such is the espresso spectacle at the Gran Caffè Gambrinus, one of the prestigious nineteenth-century establishments in Naples' Vomero district. As is proper, it has a metres-wide machine and a solid zinc bar. There's also a marble-floored tearoom, should you wish to linger, a gelato bar and a pastry counter. If you must wedge your hunger, a slice of anything orange or lemon-scented is desirable given the proximity of Sorrentine citrus groves. Those who can stomach sweetened ricotta in the first part of the day could opt for sfogliatelle, a local confection of fine pastry leaves forming a clam-shaped shell, piped with candied fruit filling. Biscotti come sharded with almonds, sometimes in the shape of thorny crowns.
This same ritual may be observed in countless other corner cafés. Your espresso is served with a thin glass of effervescent water while you watch other shots delivered in plastic cups, on yellow trays with covers, to nearby households and businesses; a zip-fast, to-the-door service that seems, from the perspective of a waitress, overly generous, but also crucial to the functioning of an informal but highly caffeinated city. Waiting staff develop keen right angles between their upper arm and elbows, my favourite delivery sighting being macchiato-by-moped, one arm on the bars, one beneath the tray.
As I write this, over a slow home breakfast and a fast coffee take-out, I am grateful for the Milanese engineer's invention.
*I had once believed that the breakfast situation in Portugal could be similarly under-thought, but one of the best hotel breakfasts I have ever experienced was on a twenty-five degree morning in the Lisbon hills - the kind of early spread that requires much rearrangement of crockery: freshly baked madeira cake, wild strawberries and home-strained yoghurt, seedy bread drizzled with olive oil alongside sliced, glistening tomatoes and soft white cheese, delicate jasmine tea and a silver pot of coffee…