You want to know what happens when Italy (and its coffee) stops being polite and starts getting real? Check out Naples for an authentic, old-school, and defiantly no-nonsense look at espresso culture.
Everyone who heard I was visiting Naples said the same thing: "Be careful, it' s the most dangerous city in the country." Since I've heard my mother repeatedly say the exact same thing about New York City since I moved here nine years ago, I shrugged it off: "Psshh, how bad could it be?"
Well, okay, so maybe I was a little scared when I got there: The high-speed train spits you out into a distinctly unsavory part of town, and when you're just barely over five feet tall and carrying all of your worldly possessions in a huge standard-issue yuppie REI urban-explorer backpack, you start to feel a little vulnerable. The neighborhood I was staying in was more like a scene out of the Bronx in 1983 than the rolling Tuscan hills I'd motored through a few days ago, and for the first time throughout my trip I was very noticeably the only tourist on the street.
All it took was one surly barista to put me back at home—and boy, do the surliest baristas make the most delicious coffee, or what?
Within moments of depositing my stuff in the hotel and venturing out for one of the classic dark-roasted shots Southern Italy is known for, I smacked myself up against the now-somewhat-shabbily elegant bar at Gran Caffe Gambrinus and ordered un cafe from that ray of sunshine above. I mean, everybody always pokes fun at the too-cool "hipster" baristas back home, but you've got to come to espresso's birthplace if you want to meet a cafe employee as thoroughly disinterested in your bourgie love of espresso as this guy right here.
That said, the man could pull a shot. (And I do mean pull: As with most Neapolitan cafes worth their weight in beans, the machine at Gambrinus is lever-powered, and our man was cranking 'em out one after the other so fast that it was like watching hydraulic pistons on the line at a factory.)
The shot was a classic, and exactly what you'd expect to get from a sourpuss in a tuxedo jacket: Dark and bittersweet, with a long, smoky aftertaste. This isn't the soft-and-sweet coffee of Florence; this is a buck-up shot in the arm that says, "If you can handle this cup, you can handle this city."
Naturally, I fell in love with both on the spot. (And maybe the barista a little bit, too. What can I say: I'm a sucker for a jerk in uniform.)
Gran Caffe GambrinusVia Chiaia 1/2, Naples, Italy 80132 (map); 011-39-081-417-582, grancaffegambrinus.com
About the author: Erin Meister trains baristas and inspires coffee-driven people for Counter Culture Coffee. She's a confident barista, an audacious eater, and a smiling runner, but she remains a Nervous Cook.