“Ci prendiamo un caffè?” “Shall we have a coffee?” You’ve already had a couple of espressos but when Carlo refuses a tip after finishing fixing your dishwasher in record time, it’s the least you can do and so down you go to the local café together and drink your third.
“Can I offer you a coffee”, says Damiano, your girlfriend Margarita’s married lover, when he runs into you on the street. You and he haven’t exactly had a good relationship since he has been stringing your friend along for so long now. But he clearly wants to win you over so you allow him to escort you to a nearby coffee bar.
You’re carrying too many groceries and have somehow collided with the cute guy who lives across the street but with whom you’ve never spoken. He’s too young for you (but who knows?) so when he says “prendiamo un caffè” you say “va bene”, okay, as drinking espresso together is a good way to break the ice.
“I’m sorry but I just don’t have time for dinner any time soon”, you tell Emilia, the neighbor you were once friendly with but whose unrelenting tales of woe really get you down. “But what about a coffee at 4:00 p.m. this afternoon”, you say when she looks really crestfallen, making sure you add that you have an appointment with your chiropractor at 5:00 p.m.
In other countries, it might be a beer or schnapps. In Italy wine generally gets drunk together with people you already know. But it is il caffè, by which Italians generally mean an espresso that is drunk, standing up, at the counter at your local “bar”, that serves a social purpose. Or rather dozens of them.
Coffee was not invented in Italy (it’s the wrong climate to cultivate it). But given its importance in everyday life, and the variety of ways in which is served here, you’d never guess.
Supposedly, the first Italian city to make the acquaintance of coffee was Venice, where coffee beans are believed to have arrived around 1570 from somewhere in the Near or Middle East: Although first considered too much of a stimulant by Muslim authorities, by this time coffee had become a popular and accepted beverage in Istanbul, Cairo and Sana’a.
For centuries, there had been vigorous trade between Venice and the other parts of the Mediterranean, so it is not surprising that coffee would have eventually arrived there. One account says several sacks of the intriguing bean were brought to the lagoon city by one Prospero Alpino, a Paduan botanist and doctor. But who knows. Some say the first coffee stores were opened in Venice by 1645. Another report relates that by 1763, in Venice alone there were 218 cafés and that along with chocolate it was considered an appropriate gift for a man to send to his beloved.
Not everyone was immediately won over. At the outset many in Italy saw it as something “heathen”, the drink of “infidels” and even as Satan’s libation (Sound familiar? Remember Christians were not always as tolerant as they are today). And one Tuscan biologist, Francesco Redi, hated it so much he even wrote a limerick that went:
«Beverei prima il veleno
Che un bicchier che fosse pieno
Dell’amaro e reo caffè »
(“I would sooner drink poison then a glass full of the bitter and dangerous coffee”)
An enthusiastic fan was instead to be found in an unexpected place. According to what I read, in fact, a turning point in the popularity of coffee in Italy may have been due to intervention by Pope Clement VIII (1536-1605). The story goes that when someone brought some coffee to the Vatican, the reigning pontiff tried it and exclaimed: “This drink of the Devil is delicious. We should cheat the devil by baptizing it.” Which, reportedly, he did.
After that it did not take long for this stimulating brew to find favor in the rest of Italy and, in its many varieties, to become a staple of daily life. The result? Particularly in its concentrated espresso form (a lever-operated steam machine was developed in the early 20th century) coffee is seen by much of the world as genuinely Italian.
Note: Despite what appear to be unsubstantiated claims by the Café Florian on San Marco Square in Venice to be the oldest café in the world (it opened in 1720), it appears that other cafés preceded it even in Venice, in Vienna (and certainly in the Middle East) In fact, another version of of the coffee story has it that the first real café was that opened in Vienna after the Turks were chased from that city.
According to this version, a Turkish-speaking Pole named Jerzy Franciszek Kulczycki, a hero in the last battle when he accepted and carried out a dangerous mission, founded the first café in that city in 1683 using sacks of coffee beans that the Turks had left behind when routed.
One account says that here, too, the bitter and tart beverage was not enthusiastically received at first, but soon gained appreciation when the café owner began to sweeten its taste with honey, sugar and eventually added milk. With time Vienna gained reputation as the world capital of cafés, which it prides itself on to this day.