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Gran Caffè Gambrinus in Naples is Indeed Grand

Our contributor endures the crowded bar at Gran Caffè Gambrinus for a specialty coffee and a slice of the chaos that defines Naples.

The opulent, crowded interior of Gran Caffè Gambrinus in Naples.

The opulent, crowded interior of Gran Caffè Gambrinus in Naples.

A mindless stroll on a rainy Saturday afternoon through the Naples coastline led me to Gran Caffè Gambrinus. Having checked it off my list earlier in the week, a second visit seemed redundant. I was, after all, in Naples, the Italian capital of coffee. As a Java connoisseur, it was my duty, I reasoned, to taste the Italian delicacy in as many different spots as possible.

I had come for breakfast at the historic cafe a few days prior and enjoyed a baba’ and cappuccino on their outdoor patio in what turned out to be a pleasant but uneventful affair, and my curiosity of the coffeehouse, at the time, was fully satisfied. But here I was, at the corner of Piazza del Plebiscito, and Gran Caffè Gambrinus emerged before my eyes like a mirage luring me to abandon reason and surrender to the promise of caffeine waiting for me behind majestic doors. And surrender I did.

I stepped into the Caffè for another taste of the Italian elixir only to be met with a completely different scene than the one I had experienced a few days before. Servers impeccably dressed in black and white suits and black bow ties hurried past the bar into one of the salons, expertly carrying, interlaced in their fingers, a cascade of plates filled with bite-sized tarts and chocolate-dipped strawberries, decisively requesting “permesso” while trying to navigate the packed bar.

A barista stacking the signature cups at Gran Caffè Gambrinus in Naples.
A barista stacking the signature cups at Gran Caffè Gambrinus in Naples.

Baristas, also impeccably dressed, poured shot after shot of espresso into signature Gambrinus cups, made of thick white ceramic with forest green design, only to clear the bar of the empty server ware minutes later and start the dance again – a tango of sorts, passionate yet graceful. Guests, lined in front of the bar, waited for their turn to partake in the Neapolitan coffee ritual with the bustling energy inside the premises mimicking the vibrancy of life outside. Always one to shy away from crowds or long lines, I embraced my place in the multitude as it had become clear to me that Neapolitan coffee culture embodied the very essence of life in this southern Italian city – it is meant to be lived in the moment, deeply, with emotion, and stripped of added pleasantries.

When the gentleman behind me kept trying to push his way to the bar, I asked him, nicely, if he could give me a little space. “Napoli e’ cosi’!” (Naples is like this!”) he repied with his facial expressions and hand gestures speaking far louder than his words, letting me know the irrationality of my expectation of order in a city known for being chaotic.

With indignation now joining me on the line, I turned my attention to the lady in front of me, and we wondered how long we’d wait for our caffe’ al volo (on the go.) It turned out to be a good 15 minutes for an espresso you’re meant to drink in two sips, but the fascinating communal experience made time fly by in this historic coffeehouse dating to 1860 but young with life.

Nocciola con Panna at Gran Caffè Gambrinus in Naples.
Nocciola con Panna at Gran Caffè Gambrinus in Naples.

Nocciola con Panna was my order, once I was close enough to the barista to be able to recite it. One of the specialty coffees served at Gambrinus, it’s a blend of espresso with hazelnut cream; it comes already sweetened and was overly so. It made me wish I had opted for just a shot of espresso, but the taller drink allowed me to linger longer at the bar, people watching, and immersing myself in Neapolitan coffee culture, feeling the pulse of the city — that is the real reason for visiting Gambrinus.

Gran Caffè Gambrinus has been through its share of ups and downs, until it was restored to its former glory in the 1970s by Neapolitan entrepreneur Michele Sergio, who later passed the management of the business down to his sons, Arturo and Antonino. Purportedly named after the mythical King Gambrinus, creator of beer — Europe’s other most popular drink — the Caffè has been nonetheless beloved for its Neapolitan espresso, over a dozen types of specialty drinks, typical pasticceria, and gelato, a tradition that continues to this day.

Pastries on display at Gran Caffè Gambrinus in Naples.
Pastries on display at Gran Caffè Gambrinus in Naples.

The pastries on display are a who’s who of Pasticceria Neapolitana, with bakery showcases tempting the guests with beautifully arranged classics such as Rum Baba’, Pastiera, Sfogliatella, and Zeppole di San Giuseppe. The gelato options range from a cup of the frozen treat to brioche-filled gelato and lemon sorbet served on the shell. Savory items like pizzetta, caprese salad, and prosciutto-wrapped melon are also available, with cocktails and Prosecco rounding out the menu. Bringing forth proof that your name somehow defines you, everything at Gran Caffè Gambrinus is indeed grand.

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