Where to find a good espresso in Italy?
Everywhere, of course.
But what is it about train stations in Italy and coffee? Train station bars have the best coffee ever. You order at the cashier, present your receipt at the bar, and get served coffee that, well, just makes you want to travel by train, every day, if possible, or live close enough to the train station that you can get your morning, mid-morning, after-lunch, mid-afternoon, and after-dinner coffee there. Train station bar ambiance is not so great. But the coffee? A life-giving elixir.
My first experience of train station coffee was in the early 80’s, in Calalzo, a small town up in the Dolomites. Bound for Cortina d’Ampezzo, I had traveled 36 hours from Detroit: long flight, very long layovers, a fogged-in Milano airport, a mysterious work stoppage at the Genova airport that had somehow made our luggage invisible, then a pokey train from Milano northeast to the mountains. Arriving in Calalzo semi-comatose, I slept eight hours of pure obliterating dreamless sleep of the dead, and woke up groggy to take a 7:00 a.m. train from there to Cortina. At the train station bar, I was served a cappuccino that surpassed all understanding. I was revived, exhilarated. The taste of the coffee lingered on my palate long after I boarded the train.
More recently my wife and I, returning from Capri, had coffee at the Naples train station. There it was again, only perhaps even more intense: a dense, almost syrupy consistency, with mouth-filling flavor and that long, long finish. A few years before, touring the town with our friends Antonio and Delia, we had hit a few notable coffee bars, where the coffee is set down in front of you with a shot glass of water. Water first, Antonio said, to prepare your palate.
The Napolitani, like all Italians, are serious about their espresso. It was in Naples, in his book The Canon of Medicine, published in 1491, that the Arab scholar Avicenna noted coffee’s medical value, observing, “It fortifies the members, it cleans the skin, and dries up the humidities that are under it, and gives an excellent smell to all the body.” Mention Naples to Italians elsewhere in the country, they are likely to mention two things: pickpockets and coffee. Good coffee is general throughout Italy, so that acknowledgement carries weight.
One of our stops that day with Antonio and Delia was Gran Caffe Ciorfito Sas, near the church of San Gregorio. There we encountered sugar cream, a thick dollop of which the barista plops in the cup before pulling the espresso. It’s a heavenly double-dense cup of coffee. The next morning, down at the end of Via Toledo, I mentioned zuchero-crema to the barista. He shook his head and told me that wasn’t real coffee. “Try this,” he said. With or without zuchero-crema, the coffee is simply great.
An Italian is likely to have his preferred bar. Close to home. Close to work. A place to pop into for a quick blast. Maybe even the bar with her preferred brand. You go to a Pascucci bar, a Medaglia d’Oro bar.
You drink it hot and fast. The coffee is good everywhere. But nowhere better than at the train station.