In 1933, when Alfonso Bialetti introduced the Moka Express, Italy’s economy wasn’t doing much better than it is today. The Great Depression was in full swing, major banks were failing, unemployment was rampant and Italians were forced to curtail their spending. Like those of us who have limited our trips to Starbucks since the start of the current recession, the Italians of the early 1930s were easing up on their trips to the cafe. The Moka Express, a stovetop espresso machine that was meant for the home, provided both an affordable espresso and a beautiful object to make it in.
Now 9 in 10 Italian households own a Moka Express. The iconic object, which Luigi De Ponti helped develop for Bialetti, has been exhibited at the Museum of Modern Art, the Smithsonian Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum and the London Design Museum.
The idea for its construction, however, didn’t originate in the kitchen, but in the laundry room. According to“Deconstructing Product Design,” by William Lidwell and Gerry Manacsa:
While watching his wife do laundry, Alfonso Bialetti observed the workings of their primitive washing machine: a fire, a bucket, and a lid with a tube coming out of it. The bucket was filled with soapy water, sealed with the lid, and then brought to a boil over the fire, at which point the vaporized soapy water was pushed up through the tube and expelled on to the laundry. Bialetti imagined a similar mechanism for coffee, one in which a lower chamber filled with boiling water would force steam up through coffee grounds and then condense in an upper chamber. Many prototypes later, the Moka Express was born.
To differentiate his family’s machine from potential imitations, Bialetti commissioned a mascot from the Italian artist, Paul Campani, in 1953. In Italian, the figure is known as l’omino coi baffi, or “the mustachioed little man,” and was printed on the side of the coffee machine. It is rumored that l’omino is a caricature of Alfonso Bialetti himself, but according to the Bialetti historical archive, the black-suited man is actually his eldest son, Renato. In addition to l’omino‘s presence on the side of every Moka Express, he also starred in the company’s early television campaigns:
Buried in a recent article regarding the sorry state of Italy’s finances is a telling quote from an industrial-machine repairman based in Rome. He says, “We may not be so rich, but we are capable.” While we lament the global economic downturn, the Moka Express is a beautifully designed example of the ingenuity that can arise from adversity.
James Campbell Taylor New York, NY
I use a Bialetti to make my coffee everyday with Lavazza Qualità Rossa. I've never used anything else. When the rubber valves need replacing I pick them up at Zabar's. I don't like those new espresso machines that require those individual capsules — you become restricted by the brand you choose and the type of coffee. To me it's the difference between a book and a Kindle.
Larry Eisenberg is a trusted commenter New York City
What will come from our adversity?
Universal abhorrence of Tea?
Wishing on a star
For a new FDR,
Who from spending cuts will set us free?
steve new york
The pressure of the steam forces scalding water through the grounds, The steam itself is trivial and emerges only when the water in the bottom is exhausted. Further, if you vaporize soapy water you get water vapor and a soap residue, not some magical "vaporized soapy water". Not obvious points to most americans; I blush.
The history is nice, but two errors need correcting.
The coffee does not condense in the upper chamber. Hot water is forced through grounds and, becoming coffee, is filtered into the upper chamber.
Second, it isn't technically espresso which requires hot water pumped through grounds at higher than atmospheric pressure. A major reason that these machines make not-so-good coffee is that the water is too hot and the coffee is overextracted.
They can make bad coffee, but if you preheat the water before adding to pot, it makes all the difference. (the coffee can get cooked if it sits in a hot metal container while waiting for the water to boil.) See below link for v. good directions.
I'm enjoying the comments on this, and wondering when the coffee cognoscenti would chime in. (It took only a few minutes!) Some people have left some interesting information about how they use their Moka Express. But I guess it's true: the coffee it makes is not "real espresso" and there are drawbacks; however, for those of use who can't afford/don't have space for a high-end maker or the time to always get to a good coffee bar, it's perfectly OK.
I bought mine in Rome years ago and I love it. It makes a delicious cup of strong coffee or espresso, depending on the bean you choose. You absolutely need the correct grind, which is fine. If you don't have your own grinder, with variable settings, you'll need espresso grind, no matter what bean you use.
Tazzo d'Oro and Sant'Eustachio work very well. Morganti is also a delightful brew. Illy, which is very easy to get, also works. Not only do you need the right grind, and the correct amount, you also need the correct amount of water. I love Evian for my morning coffee. It takes some practice but once you get your formula down, this machine shows its true genius and lasts forever. Also, never wash with soap. Coffee will taste better if residual oil is left on the surface.
Geoff Providence, RI
Everybody seems to know how to make The best cup of coffee.
I think they make excellent coffee but you need to get the right coffee and good water. And the flame can't be too high. A little patience produces a much better coffee.
An elegant, simple design which produces a perfectly acceptable cup of strong coffee. Also, unlike most pieces of equipment we now own, it can be easily repaired by the layman for a few dollars and will last for years.
J Queens 1 September 2011
I usually use a French press and freshly ground coffee, but I keep a Moka Pot and a can of Lavazza (or even Cafe Bustelo!) on hand for those rare instances when I run out of fresh coffee. It's a great backup and much better than running out for coffee at the deli or resorting to buying crappy, stale coffee from the grocery store!
I love the Moka not only for its actual function, but because it is a reliable object for a drawing/analysis project I often teach with beginning architecture students. They use liquid containers to learn/explore the technique of orthographic drawing/projection - a beautiful lead-in to drawing plans, section, and elevations of buildings (also "containers"). The Moka is tried and true - elegant in its proportion, geometry, materiality, and functionality. Octagons (in plan/section) are a rarity on the liquid container world...
Of course, I also love my Moka for its coffee-making function - I think I'm on my 4th or 5th one (Illy fine grind for espresso machines is my chosen companion). My husband has a slightly annoying habit of forgetting to put water in the reservoir and 20min later... 'clunk!'... the plastic handle has melted off and the aluminum is scorching out. We've been using a handle-less one for about 3 years now - it still makes the best cup of coffee!
I used them for 40 years (until I moved on to Nespresso 10 years ago) and I have seen them explode in a fortunately empty kitchen; topple on top of an unsuspecting child (a nephew whose scars are still visible 30 years later); and burn badly the hand of an unsteady or distracted handler. They are cute and quaint but I say good riddance!
Agnes Seattle, WA
I switched to a Moka five years ago, and I adore it. Maybe the flaws in the resulting coffee are hidden by the 8 ounces of skim milk I pour over it, or the packet of sugar I mix in, or the fact that when I wake up, I'm so desperate for caffeine that I would chew roasted beans if I had to. But it's vastly cheaper than any other method (Nespresso, walking to Starbucks), and as the one person in my house who drinks coffee, a 3 cup pot is the perfect solution.
jt New Jack City
I use the Alessi version. It's a true work of art and makes a fine cup of coffee. The drawback of the standard model discussed in the article (and comments), in my view, is that its made of aluminum and that destroys the taste. Seek out a stainless steel version, like the Alessi.
Marco New York, NY
Corradino D'Ascanio's Vespa was another beautifully designed product of adversity, in this case for travelling Italy's war damaged roads while consuming minimal fuel...
Greg Nichols Northampton, MA
These are beautiful machines in the look and ease of use. It is too bad they don't also make good coffee! Still, if the italian people had to chose between this espresso or no espresso, their popularity makes much sense.
kfr Norman, OK
There is nothing more tiresome than a coffee know-it-all. Please, spare us all from your deep knowledge and refined palate - it really doesn't make the rest of us think you are sophisticated.
Michael Falco New York, NY
After the economic downturn, and realizing i was spending over $200 a month in Starbucks, i decided to try this simple devise to save some money. This simple devise makes the most delicious coffee and has saved me thousands of dollars.
This coffee pot is a beautiful example of design and function done right!
Zach Portland, OR
It's important to note that the folks who point out (correctly) that moka pots don't make "good coffee" set a much higher bar for good coffee than the vast majority of coffee drinkers.
great reading but it spells L'OMINO CON I BAFFI. all the rest: perfect, most of all, the fact that we were not making better than today in the thirties!
gazump New York, NY
The exact words are "l' omino con i baffi or "l' omino coi baffi" in spoken language.
The word com is hybrid from the Latin cum and half from the Italian con or just a mispelling.
This is absolutely the best coffee maker ever. I have used it since 1991! I get excellent coffee with Folgers Columbian. You can get the coffee maker and its accessories directly from the Bialetti website. I have seen them in Wholefood stores as well.
AD New York
We started dating long-distance in November 2008, at which point I was still making coffee as if I was camping: pouring water through a coffee-filled filter to produce each cup individually. Apparently he noticed, and in the mail, just in time for my birthday that January, arrived my first 3-cup Bialetti (accompanied by something more intimate that will not be mentioned here.) It was the best birthday present, ever, and I use my Bialetti every, every day with Pete's Major Dickason's Blend coffee from Gormet Garage and cold whole milk, which renders the coffee the right temperature for drinking, immediately. I've since bought the 9-cup to make coffee for dinner parties, and it's the best.
We're still dating long-distance, this November will be three years, and while making my morning coffee, I think of him and how wonderfully thoughtful he is.
Ted Canada - US -
I would like to thank my fellow posters here for the occasional burst of high comedy in their comments above!
A bialetti is made of steel and is a beautiful thing once you figure out how to use it right. Check your materials as the cheap imitations are almost always made of aluminium.
Forgot: as someone said, low and slow, Italian stoves actually have a tiny burner for the Moka. Remove from the heat as soon as it's done, if it boils it's ruined. Give the pot a little stir w/ a demitasse spoon to even it out before pouring. That's all.
I'm Italian, here goes: Not a single person in Italy expects the Moka to make coffee the same as at the bar, though different both are equally valid, equally good. It's nice to smell the coffee and have the communal Moka pot come out on the table at the end of a meal, a ritual destroyed by modern home bar machines and seeing a $800 yuppie bar machine in a home I feel the same discouragement as seeing a Hummer. When I left home my mom gave me a 3 cup Bialetti and told me if I need to replace it buy a Bialetti and nothing else, the rest are all poor copies that make poor coffee. If you have trouble with off flavors first check if your machine is a real Bialetti. The aluminum vs steel debate is a a toss up in Italy and most use the aluminum ones. Italians know their coffee, I doubt tens of millions of them are unaware and drinking metallic off tasting brews twice a day. Extremely food savvy old timers (like my grandparents) have used it now for close to 100 years, people nowadays may be clues to what tastes right, the old timers weren't; it's been vetted. Tips: When new you need to make a few pots and throw them out first. You don't pack down the coffee in a Moka, fill the basket, tap it on the counter, add to make it level, that's it. Use the right grind and it's not the bar grind, if you buy Italian coffee in a can or vacuum pack it's usually the right grind, it might even say 'for Moka'. Use the right size Moka, most Italian families own 3-4 sizes, making yourself a mug with a 6 cup Moka is just gross, use a Melita if that's what you want. Bialetti itself says don't wash it with soap, I say bunk, some kin never wash theirs and their old pots smell rancid and make nasty coffee. I wash mine with soap, rinse very well, once a week I pop the gasket and clean behind the filter too, always get perfect coffee. You use the thin porcelain old matron demitasses with Mokas, not the heavy stoneware bar cups which will suck all the heat out of your ounce of brew.
Sonatina Lake Candlewood
Use a french press, and love it. Our french friends, however, use this, and we love it too!
Forget the individual pods - what a hoax! Tied to a single brand forever, not to mention filling up landfills! Proof that consumers want to believe...Trac 5, anyone?
jt New Jack City
Whoever started the rumor that the french press makes a good cup of coffee was brilliantly audacious. The humble stovetop espresso maker makes a much better cup.
You can warm your milk without using any more energy by pouring it into the hot top chamber after you've poured out the coffee. This also cools off the metal for the next round. Ingenious design.
piersanti new york, ny
truly, italians will produce, especially under constraints and some adversity, an object that simply solves a problem...beautifully.
Patrick Venice CA
It's important to use a stainless steel pot. They're more expensive but they last a lot longer and the metal does not contaminate the flavor like it does with the aluminum ones. I have used mine for about 15 years, periodically changing the rubber gasket. And it looks great on the stove when it's not in use.
jacqueline Sergio jenkintown pa.
This commercial was simply plain fun....typically whimsically Italian!
wentworth new haven
am i alone in having set one on fire twice? but i love the process...and my espresso.
The moka pot consists of three parts: the water container, the filter and the top piece of the pot. Heating produces steam and, by using pressure, the water is being pressed through the filter into the top piece of the pot.
The preparation of a “perfect” caffè is easy if you pay attention to the following rules:
- Choose a high-quality brand you like and keep the coffee ground in a sealable glass- or ceramic container. The coffee ground should be kept in a hermetically sealed container and away from food emitting strong odors (teas, cheeses ,...) because the coffee has the property of absorbing odors, which would alter the aroma.
- Use fresh water with a low lime content, which has to be cold. Don’t cut the preparation time by using water that has already been heated!
- Fill the water container completely with water. Attention: The water level should never be higher than the valve of the water container, or you get a tasteless “diluted caffè” (long coffee as Italian say).
- Fill the filter with an ample amount of coffee and don’t press the coffee ground (some Italians put three holes in the coffee ground in order to enhance the taste: this should facilitate the ascent of the water). The amount of the coffee ground is already determined by the capacity of the filter. Always prepare the maximum amount of coffee as indicated on the moka pot. Even when you need less, the water container and the filter always have to be completely full, otherwise you will get a long coffee, while Italian like strong coffee.
- Put the moka pot on the burner (electric kitchen stove: approx. level 2). The burner mustn’t be too hot because the water has to rise slowly. The moka pot has to stay on the burner until the coffee rises through the filter into the top piece of the pot. When it does, it makes a bubbling sound that you can hear.
- Open the lid of the machine as soon as the coffee starts rising. That way the condensation water doesn’t get into the coffee (otherwise that might dilute the coffee).
- Take the moka pot off the burner several seconds before all the water has completely risen (it doesn’t matter if some of the water is left in the water container). Attention: The coffee must not start boiling!
- Drink the caffè hot and add sugar to your taste.
- Clean the machine well with hot or boiling water, but don’t use dishwashing liquid and never wash the pot in the dishwasher.
Finally some more maintenance tips:
During use on the interior walls of the water container, filter and upper chamber is deposited a thin layer of greasy residue of coffee. This coating protects the coffee from the contact with the aluminum walls, which might otherwise give a metallic taste to the coffee. For this reason you should not use the dishwasher or soap to wash the moka pot, otherwise you could remove that layer of greasy residue.
If you get a new moka pot or you replace the rubber seal, the coffee could get a bad taste caused by new rubber or uncoated aluminum walls. In this case use the moka pot two/three times with water only or with used coffee ground. And if you do not use your pot for a long time, would be better to waste the first coffee (maybe you could use used coffee ground again) or clean the pot with an hot solution of water and vinegar (after you have first removed the rubber seal).