The first time I had coffee in Naples - at the counter of one of the grand caffè of the Centro Storico - it burned my tongue. When the barista, donning the immaculate white suit of the craft, saw me grimacing, he asked: “Are you familiar with coffee’s three Cs?” Turns out that, according to local folklore, coffee should have you exclaim: “Comme cazzo coce!” (or “F*ck, it burns!”). Given the near-cult status of Neapolitan coffee, I didn’t say what else I was thinking: not only did my espresso burn my tongue, but it also tasted burnt.
On a recent morning, I went for breakfast to O|NEST in Milan, a newly-opened bistro with a focus on specialty coffee. While sipping my cup of single-origin espresso, I asked resident barista Lorenzo Sordini why coffee in Naples is served so hot. “Have you tried drinking it once it’s cooled down?” he replied. “I’ll give you €10 if you can.” Serving coffee very hot is a bit the same as serving wine very cold: it numbs the mouth, and hides the poor quality of the drink.
Everywhere in the world, coffee has a strong association with Italy: during the 16th century, its emerging middle class was among the first in Europe to get on board with the new concoction once it made its way from the Middle East. And the pleasant jolt of focus and energy provided by caffeine was especially appreciated by intellectuals, who would gather to exchange opinions over coffee in another recent invention: bars. The connection was so strong that when the ideas of the Enlightenment started gaining traction in Italy, and a publication was founded in Milan to popularise them, the founders picked the name ‘Il Caffè’ (which in Italian is both the drink and the place). The Italian bar remained such a powerful symbol that former CEO Howard Schultz credits a 1983 trip to Milan for the creation of Starbucks - and obviously, the espresso is an original Italian invention, of the end of the 19th century.