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Even if the passion for java is common to most countries in the world, with some (I am looking at you, Finland) even consuming more of it per capita than Italy itself, the relationship we Italians have with our favourite beverage is the stuff of legend: always ready to criticise a less-than-heavenly brew, we will judge your hosting capabilities on the basis of how good your coffee is, and no moment of relax is considered as such without one touching our lips.
Coffee in Italy goes hand in hand with another word: café, or “bar” as we say. Thing is that what “bar” means in Italy is very much different from what it means in the US – and in most of the Anglo-saxon world, as a matter of fact – because, contrarily to the US conception of it, an Italian “bar”’s world does not go around alcohol, but coffee.
I am sure you are well aware of how Italian “bars” work: there is no need to bore you with something you are probably familiar with already. Let us just say that, to avoid issues, I will refer to Italian-style “bars” as “cafés” throughout the article, because confusion, alas, is a good read’s worst enemy.
The point is, have you ever wondered when and how cafés became a thing in Italy? Where they first opened and why? In fairness, I never did until a few months ago when, while reading about beautiful Pompeii, I remembered my Ancient History classes in university and the Roman world of thermopolia.
What are they, you ask? Why, they are Italy’s own first café-restaurants, of course. And the adventure of cafés in the country only gets better from there.
Ancient Rome: when cafés served no coffee (but loads of food)
The Romans were outstandingly modern in many things they did, including their habit, shared by a huge chunk of people all over the world today, to eat out when at work or while travelling. When Romans needed some grub on the go, they headed to a thermopolium: here they could buy hot food and drinks to consume either on the premises (some of them offered sitting space and even had internal gardens with triclinia and tables) or on the go. Thermopolia usually opened directly on the street and were separated from it by a stone or brick counter, often decorated with marble insertions. Within it, large jar-like containers for food and amphorae for drink were encased.
Here, the Romans bought their honeyed wine along with some lentil stew and bread, when going home for lunch proved too difficult or time consuming: remind you of something you do everyday on your lunch break, when you head to the café for coffee and sandwich? I bet: it is very much the same thing.
When cafés become modern: enters coffee into the picture
Coffee was unknown to European palates until the mid to late 16th century, when it entered Europe via its most notorious commercial ports: one above all, that of Venice. In Venice, coffee had arrived already in the 1570s, when a botanist, Prospero Alfino, took a taste for it while visiting Egypt and decided to bring some back to enjoy in the luxurious tranquillity of his home town, where he also introduced it as a medicine. It did not take long to Venetians to fall in love with the brew, though, even if the record of opening the first café in Europe – it was 1659 – does not belong to la Serenissima, but to another sea city and important port, Marseilles.
Venice followed suit, according to sources, in 1683, when the first Italian café opened in Piazza San Marco. In typical Italian style, however, the date is contested and shrouded in mystery: some believe Venice had her very own café as early as 1615, many more settle on a later date, 1640, still antecedent to that officially recorded by the annals.
Truth is that, even if it was not the first place to open one, Venice quickly became the city of a hundred cafés: by 1763 there were 218 of them, including Caffé Florian, established in 1720, today the oldest café in the world still open.
Italian cafés then were already very much what they are today: a place to enjoy a cup of coffee and good company. They were lively cultural and political hubs, the trendiest among them places to be “seen,” just as their modern counterparts are.
Interestingly enough Rome, the ageless beauty that had brought the very idea of cafés into the country with her thermopolia, welcomed the trend with more suspicion: coffee was known as an excitant and was not seen positively by the city’s ruler, the Pope. Legend says it was pope Clement VIII, eventually, to chase away the last remaining doubts becoming a fan of the brew himself.
… And this is, indeed, how cafés entered Italy and took quick hold of how Italians socialize, meet and spend their spare time: all while sipping a dark, small cup of fragrant, piping hot, aromatic kava.