Real Coffee & Gambrinus
In Billy Wilder's delightful 1972 film, Avanti!,
Jack Lemmon's character, Wendell Armbruster, an
obnoxious American industrialist, insults
Neapolitan coffee by saying that he had tried
the local mud baths earlier that morning: "They
called it espresso."
say Neapolitans. Naples prides itself on coffee —nay,
knows itself to be the sole arbiter of what sets a
magnificent brew apart from the swill they serve in the
rest of the world. Naples even has its own special
Neapolitan coffee percolator, a three-piece contraption
that requires three-ring dexterity to turn upside down (or
maybe it's rightside up) at just the right moment during
the brewing process.
For such a city, Naples was tardy —the late 1700s— in coming to the idea that one could actually set up little coffee bars along the by–ways and maybe serve some sweets and pastries in the process. Such places were common in the rest of Italy in the late 1600s. Yet, the Neapolitans made up for lost time; by the mid–1800s there was scarcely a short stretch of street in Naples without a little coffee bar of some sort. That tradition continues to this day. Some are holes in the wall, and some are opulent. Indeed, calling the Caffè Gambrinus a coffee bar is like calling St. Peter's a church; you're right, but the crime of paucity of description borders on a capital offense.
The Caffè Gambrinus (photo insert, above) is on the ground floor of the large building that houses the Naples Prefecture at Piazza Plebiscito. One entrance is on that large square, itself; the main entrance is on Piazza Trieste e Trento (still known to many as Piazza San Ferdinando, named for the church on that square). Gambrinus is a few yards away from the Royal Palace, the San Carlo opera house, and the Galleria Umberto. It is at the beginning of two of the most famous streets in Naples: via Toledo (also known as via Roma) and via Chiaia, the main street that joined the downtown area of 1900 to the western part of the city. Gambrinus, thus, was the crossroads where music, art, and politics came together in the late 1800s to sit together and have a coffee and maybe a brandy or two. In other words, a watering-hole for intellectuals.
Gambrinus was born as, simply, il Gran Caffè on its current premises in the 1860s. By the 1890s, with the great rebuilding of Naples, the risanamento, in full swing, it turned into the Caffè Gambrinus, using the name of the "patron saint of beer," that name deriving, according to one plausible etymology, from Jan Primus (John I), a 13th–century Burgundy prince. Thus, Gambrinus, like other establishments of its kind was and remains a place where you do more than just drink coffee.
The premises consist of a main bar and pastry section plus six adjoining rooms, all of which are showcases of fin de siècle fashion, that 1890s wave of sophistication and world-weariness. The rooms are all vaulted and display in white bas relief various scenes from mythology. The walls are lined with thin, classical columns and reliefs of statuary, and there is ample use of large mirrors to increase light and the illusion of space. The mirrors alternate with equally large paintings of outdoor Neapolitan life of the day, not precisely tromp l'oeil, but at least creating the pleasant sensation that you are looking out at the bay of Naples, a coast-line, fishermen, fashionably overdressed women strolling along the street, and even one of the ultimate in 1890s decadence —a woman smoking a cigarette! Neapolitan decadence of the 1890s is round and plump, not to be confused with the gaunt English decadence of the same period; all the women in these paintings, especially the smiling peasants, have 40 pounds on anything Aubrey Beardsley ever came up with.
Gambrinus was closed in 1938 under the flimsy pretext that the noise was keeping the prefect and his wife, who lived in the same building upstairs, awake at night. In reality, all those artists, politicians, and writers had created their own little hotbed of discussion, the noise from which was keeping Fascist government officials awake on the eve of WW2. The establishment reopened in the 1950s.