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Reviving Forgotten Coffee Traditions

Reviving Forgotten Coffee Traditions

Slow and Steady Wins the Brew

A Neapolitan Coffee Journey

First you have a bite of cake, then you have some water, and THEN you drink the coffee. These are the words that Giuseppe Schisano, owner of Don Café Street Art Coffee in Naples, Italy, uttered to me as he prepared a traditional Neapolitan flip pot coffee.

As a lifetime coffee lover, I was surprised by this multi-step ritual. You see, I'm the type of person who likes to down an espresso in one quick shot, darting back to my busy schedule like a caffeine-fueled hummingbird. But Schisano was about to show me that there's a whole other world of coffee tradition that's been largely forgotten - one that's meant to be savored, not rushed.

Growing up in the Quartieri Spagnoli, a once-dangerous neighborhood in Naples, Schisano had seen firsthand how coffee could be an act of care and hospitality. The tradition of caffè sospeso, or "suspended coffee," where customers pay for an extra cup so someone in need can enjoy one, was just the start. There was also the custom of o cuonzolo, where people would bring food and coffee to console families who had suffered a loss.

"The scent of coffee on that day," Schisano told me, his eyes taking on a faraway look, "left a mark on me." It was then that he knew he wanted to revive these forgotten coffee traditions, not just for himself, but for the community he grew up in.

The Cuccuma Rises Again

After being inspired by a mobile coffee cart he saw in Copenhagen, Schisano decided to bring the concept back to Naples with a twist - he would use the traditional Neapolitan flip pot, known as the la cuccuma or la cuccumella. These unique brewing devices, with their distinct shapes and materials, had once been synonymous with coffee culture in the city.

"The origins of the pot can be traced to France, where percolators were patented in the early 1800s," Schisano explained as he meticulously assembled the pieces of his cuccuma. "But when the design reached Naples, local artisans made it their own, producing versions that differed in shape, size, and material - the Neapolitan preference was for tin or aluminum rather than France's more expensive copper."

It wasn't easy for Schisano to get his mobile coffee cart off the ground. He needed help securing funding and permits, but thanks to the support of two organizations, If-ImparareFare and Caritas, he was mentored in business and able to get a loan for a bicycle-powered cart in 2018. Now, he serves up cuccuma-brewed coffee to locals and visitors along Via Toledo, the main thoroughfare of the Quartieri Spagnoli.

"In keeping with the local coffee-as-hospitality tradition, I ask for donations only," Schisano told me as he carefully poured the rich, dark liquid into a small cup. "Some people leave five or six euros, some leave 20 cents, and they're thanked in the same way."

Slow Coffee, Slow Living

As I took my first sip, I was immediately struck by the depth of flavor and the way the coffee seemed to unfold on my palate. There was none of the bitterness or acidity I'd come to expect from my usual espresso. Instead, it was smooth, almost syrupy, with hints of caramel and chocolate.

"This is Neapolitan coffee," Schisano said, a proud smile spreading across his face. "It's not just about the quick hit of caffeine. It's about taking the time to savor it, to let it be part of a moment of connection and conversation."

A kilometer away, Achille Munari, an Umbrian transplant to Naples, had also opened a cafe dedicated to the cuccuma. Unlike Schisano, Munari hadn't been a lifelong coffee enthusiast, but he was struck by the care and ritual involved in the traditional Neapolitan preparation.

"In Italy, we have espresso, which is fast," Munari told me, "whereas the old Neapolitan coffee is slow. It wasn't just a way to take a break and have a pick-me-up; it was a way of spending time together."

Munari's cafe, aptly named Cuccuma Caffè, reflects this dedication to the tradition. The decor includes a collection of antique flip pots, il Museo della Cuccuma (the Cuccuma Museum), and the walls are adorned with vintage coffee paraphernalia. It's a space that invites you to slow down, to savor not just the coffee, but the entire experience.

A Tradition Worth Preserving

As I stepped out of Schisano's mobile cart and onto the bustling streets of Naples, I couldn't help but feel a sense of wonder and nostalgia. The rich aroma of the cuccuma-brewed coffee lingered in the air, transporting me to a time when the pace of life was a little slower, when people took the time to connect over a shared cup of this precious elixir.

In a world that's increasingly dominated by instant gratification and efficiency, it's easy to forget the value of these forgotten traditions. But Schisano, Munari, and others like them are working tirelessly to ensure that the Neapolitan coffee culture - with all its nuance, its ritual, and its sense of community - doesn't fade into obscurity.

So, the next time you find yourself in Naples, or perhaps even at Brooklyn's Georgian Coffee House, I urge you to slow down, take a deep breath, and immerse yourself in the world of cuccuma-brewed coffee. Who knows, you might just find that the journey is just as rewarding as the destination.

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