The Bialetti Moka caffettiera (coffee maker) is an icon of Italian design, along with the Vespa and Fiat Cinquecento. An economical, easy to use product, the Moka revolutionized the coffee habits of Italian households around the world. It is a time-tested piece of functional art and part of the permanent collection of MoMA, the Museum of Modern Art in New York.
Alfonso Bialetti spent 10 years in France working as a smelter, learning to cast aluminum shells. These were cast iron molds able to produce multiple copies of the same object. When Alfonso returned to Italia in 1919, he opened a workshop producing aluminum parts.
In 1933, Bialetti built his first coffee maker or caffettiera all thanks to ….laundry! He was inspired by watching wife Ada use the lisciveuse, a French ancestor to the washing machine. It was a steel tub, an insert with a central perforated chimney, and a lid. Clothes and soap were placed inside, then it was filled ¾ of the way with water and placed on the fire. Boiling water ‘percolated’ up the chimney and fell on the wet clothes.
Bialetti’s caffettiera had 3 parts: a cast aluminum boiler with an octagonal base, a funnel shaped strainer and an angular pitcher with a hinged lid. Pressurized-water heats in the boiler and steam forces water upward through coffee grounds in the funnel and into the top pitcher chamber. His design was inspired by Art Deco architecture and Signora Bialetti! Her broad shoulders, narrow waist, pleated skirt, and arm on her hip are reflected in the Moka design.
Bialetti produced at an artisanal level, selling 10,000 caffettiere per year at markets all over Piemonte. Sales were interrupted by WW2 and a shortage of aluminum. Alfonso’s son Renato was a prisoner of war in Germany for 2 years and took over the company when he returned. Renato had a modern marketing vision, with an ad strategy that included the 1948 Fiera di Milano, installations, billboards and an export plan. He took production to an industrial level.
Renato named their product ‘Moka Express’. ‘Moka’ for the city of Mokha in Yemen, a historic exporter of quality coffee, and ‘Express’ because espresso could now be made at home, without having to go to the bar. The Moka design and safety valve were patented in 1950.
In 1953 Renato became the actual face of his product with the famous cartoon logo printed on every Moka. ‘L’Ometto con i baffi’– the little man with a moustache. His finger is raised, as if ordering an espresso. Billboards and TV commercials made him an advertising icon. By 1956 18,000 Moka per day (4,000,000 per year) were produced. To date, 300 million have been produced.
The original Moka was a 3 tazze (3 espresso cups) size, for single or small family use. Now it is available in the tiny ½ tazza Mokina to the 18 tazze Moka Express. Also available are stainless steel models, the cow-hide patterned Mukka Express that froths milk at the same time-making a cappuccino, electric plug-in models, and even a red Dolce & Gabbana patterned Moka! I so need one of those! I love Franco’s green ‘Alpina‘ model with the Alpini hat and feather!
When Renato Bialetti died in 2016 at age 93, his ashes were placed in a specially made large Moka. It was about the size of this one…..
My 3 cup size, in the following photo, and the red one in the olive grove are the ‘Moka Dama‘. A few of the features are different, but the design always remains similar to the original ‘retro’ look.
1 Pour room temperature water into the boiler until it reaches the safety valve. More water will result in watery caffè – or ‘acqua di cicoria’, as mamma calls it!
2 Drop the funnel into the boiler and fill generously with espresso ground coffee -avoid pressing it down
3 Place Moka on a small burner with a low flame
4 When you hear the gorgoglio – the gurgling sound, caffè is ready. Remove from the burner and enjoy.
Since aluminum is porous, it absorbs the coffee aroma over time and improves its taste. With a new Moka, ‘season’ it by making 2 consecutive pots and throwing out the caffe. If the Moka has not been used for a long time, make a pot with just water, and also throw out the first pot of caffè. Do not clean with detergent, just warm water. Do not put your Moka in the dishwasher! A well-used Moka with a patina makes the best caffè. The rubber gasket needs to be replaced every year or so, depending on how much it is used. If taken care of, the Moka will last a lifetime.
The Moka is an eco-friendly, sustainable way to make caffè. There is zero waste -the grounds are 100% organic and compostable, no detergents are needed, it is long-lasting and made of 100% recyclable aluminum.
90% of Italian kitchens have a Moka. Alfono Bialetti described the Moka as ‘fast, strong and resistant, like caffeine’. With the Moka, a daily act was revolutionized, as caffè almost as good as you could get at the bar was brought into homes ‘in casa un espresso come al bar’.
The photos in this post are of Moka caffettiere that belong to me or family members, and some were taken at the Bialetti store at the Centro Commercial GrandApulia. The cartoon is from the Bialetti website. Do you have a Moka?
***Somehow, I missed the fact that the previous post was my 200th! So……to celebrate this milestone, I am giving away 2 signed copies of my linocut edition on handmade paper ‘Espresso per uno’. Next week, I will put the names of everyone who left a comment on this post into a hat and draw 2 winners. In bocca al lupo! Ciao, Cristina