Between the end of the 1700s and the beginning of the 1800s, cafés were a place for intellectuals, middle class, aristocrats and the penniless to mingle. Regardless of their status, everyone came in looking for something to eat or drink, a shelter from the cold, or – in the case of artists and writers – a place where ideas could be exchanged and inspiration found. Some of these venues have been kept intact over the years, and now exude historical charm in an age of quick coffees grabbed between meetings. Here is our guide to where, all across Italy, you might walk into one of the cafés where intellectuals of the past spent their time, sipping a hot drink and, perhaps, creating some of their most famous work. At least once in your lifetime, we hope you have the chance to sit down and take in the atmosphere, surrounded by mirrors, vintage velvet and amazing stories.
Caffè Florian – Venice
Though Floriano Francesconi opened it on 29 December 1720 under the name “Alla Venezia Trionfante”, over time it simply became known as “Florian”. An icon of the city on the lagoon, it is located under the Procuratie Nuove porticoes in Piazza San Marco. As the oldest historical café in Italy, it has seen centuries of social changes, financial crises and political events go by. Famous figures like Goldoni, Canaletto and Foscolo – to mention but a few – were patrons. Florian’s mirrors, stuccos, velvet and wood paneling welcomed Rousseau and Lord Byron, but also created a romantic backdrop for Casanova’s flirting.
Caffè Greco – Rome
Inaugurated in 1760 on Via dei Condotti, it showcases three hundred works of art – and indeed could be seen as one of the world’s largest private art galleries to be open to the public. With small rooms and long corridors covered in art, it maintains its 19th-century charm with original wooden tables with marble tops, velvet decor and paintings on the walls. This is where great artists found inspiration to create their most famous work, politicians discussed their alliances, and writers and philosophers exchanged ideas. Amongst Italian personalities, Giorgio De Chirico, Giacomo Leopardi, Gabriele D’Annunzio, Antonio Canova, Arturo Toscanini, Renato Guttuso, Gioacchino Rossini and Alberto Moravia all came to Caffè Greco. International celebrities also often visited: Richard Wagner, Hans Christian Andersen, Thomas Mann, John Keats, Arthur Schopenhauer, Guillame Apollinaire, Orson Welles and even Buffalo Bill.
Caffè Pedrocchi – Padua
Nicknamed “the door-less café” because it stayed open day and night from its inauguration in 1831 until 1916, Caffè Pedrocchi is the namesake of founder Antonio Pedrocchi – mentioned even by Stendhal in “The Charterhouse of Parma”. Located in an imposing neoclassic building, Caffè Pedrocchi soon became the place to be for intellectuals, writers and artists. Its clientele included Gabriele d’Annunzio, Eleonora Duse, Filippo Tommaso Marinetti, Stendhal and Alfred De Musset. Amongst the many interesting facts about the café, one revolves around its famous green room: it was reserved for penniless students, who could sit there to read and study without waiters asking for their order, and gave rise to the Italian expression “restare al verde” – literally “staying in the green” –, which means “to be broke”!
Caffè Al Bicerin – Turin
Giuseppe Dentis originally opened Al Bicerin in 1763, as a small shop right in front of the Consolata Sanctuary. It turned into the elegant café we know now – with shelves and shelves of “confetti”, a central wooden counter and white marble round tables – only later, redesigned by architect Carlo Promis. This is the birthplace of the famous “bicerin” of course: a mix of coffee, chocolate, milk and syrup that has become one of the icons of Turin, mentioned even by Alexandre Dumas in one of his novels. As an ideal treat even during lent (because it was not considered a proper “food”), it was a favorite of ladies who stepped into the café. Over time, Caffè Al Bicerin welcomed celebrities such as Giacomo Puccini, who wrote how he loved walking towards it in his memoires, and Umberto Eco, who set parts of his “The Prague Cemetery” here. Wanda Osiris, after mass at the Consolata, often came by Bicerin, just like Guido Gozzano and Italo Calvino in their time and, even before them, Camillo Benso, Count of Cavour.
Gran Caffè Gambrinus – Naples
Some say that Gabriele D’Annunzio wrote the poem “‘A Vucchella” while sitting at a table here. Whether that specific anecdote is true or not, Caffè Gambrinus is certainly one of Naples’s great institutions. Founded in 1860 during the Belle Époque, it launched the cafè-chantant genre (also known as café-concert), but truly rose to fame thanks to the delicacies it created, attracting the best maître pâtissier and ice cream makers from all around Europe. Its excellent treats even won over the royal family, who named Caffé Gambrinus “Fornitor della Real Casa”. Amongst its patrons, the Empress of Austria Sissi – who tasted a wonderful violet ice cream – and Oscar Wilde, Ernest Hemingway, Jean-Paul Sartre, Benedetto Croce and Matilde Serao, who started national daily “Il Mattino” sitting right here at one of the café’s tables. In the second half of the 1800s, this was also where the Italian tradition of “caffé sospeso” (“suspended coffee”) started: paying an extra coffee, for the next stranger who comes in and cannot afford one..