The notion of café customers paying for "caffe sospeso" ("suspended coffees" or "pending coffees"), drinks that can later be claimed for free by less fortunate patrons, is something that has been described as an old Italian tradition in various news and Internet accounts, although we can't say how old or widespread the practice might actually be (inside or outside of Italy).
For example, "caffe sospeso" was mentioned in an April 2004 item published in the Italian online newspaper Nove da Firenze ("News from Florence"): "Let's pay for a coffee or a cappuccino for those who cannot afford it," stated the appeal launched by the "Charity Patrol," a solidarity movement for the homeless founded in Florence by theater director Paul Coccheri. The initiative was launched on Easter Monday. The habit of paying to offer a "suspended coffee" to a needy person was, it seems, was born in Naples, where "everyone" now practices it. A January 2011 travel blog post about the author's recent experience in Naples related that: I was having an excellent coffee in a caffe’ bar called Augustus on the main shopping avenue, via Toledo.
A well dressed gentleman of about 80 with a Borsalino hat and and elegant cane, walks to the cash register and asks to pay for "a coffee, and a suspended coffee". Then drinks his coffee and leaves the bar. I tried to ignore my curiosity, but I only could for so long. Then I just had to ask the man at the register, what in the world is a "suspended coffee".
So he patiently explained, trying to speak as close to a scholastic Italian as he could (my question had given me away as an ignorant stranger):
"Right after the war, many gentlemen had lost everything they had, and couldn't even afford coffee. Now, being that black hot liquid pleasure not considered a treat, but rather a basic human right in the life of any Neapolitan, those gentlemen who could still afford to have one, took a habit of paying for two: one they drank, the other was credited, to be had by the first less fortunate peer who would casually walk in the bar. The bartender would then say: 'Would you like a coffee, sir?' Which meant: there is a coffee paid for you, if you can’t afford one."
The donor and the recipient would remain anonymous to each other, to protect generosity, pride, and the pleasure of coffee beyond hardships.
A March 2013 report from Agence France Presse about the subject also described the practice as an old Italian tradition that had since taken root in Bulgaria: Can't afford coffee? No matter. In Bulgaria, an old Italian tradition that sees good souls buying hot drinks for those who struggle to make ends meet has taken hold after weeks of tensions over deepening poverty.
More than 150 cafes across Bulgaria have joined a goodwill initiative modelled on the Italian "caffe sospeso" tradition, which literally means "suspended coffee", according to a Facebook page devoted to the movement.