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Rest Day Reflections: How Italians *Really* Get Their Coffee

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The Bialetti Moka Express is the real local way to make great coffee

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Bialetti Moka Pot, Grinder and Coffee set

Since there isn’t a lot to say about Simon Yates at the moment, besides wow...

Last year I got into the idea that the perfect espresso was a worthwhile pursuit, and one that might be in my interests to pursue. I went to some renowned espresso bars in the world’s best espresso city (Napoli), and came home to order an old, used manual espresso machine to try to perfect my craft. It’s been fun and educational, because you don’t necessarily learn much from an automatic machine about the essence of... anything. Good times.

But beyond the fundamentals of coffee-making, there is simplicity. A good cup of coffee can’t be that hard to make. Italians, people all over Europe, they know and like good coffee but lead busy lives. Despite the impression you might get from observing Starbuck-Americans larding up their drinks with lord-knows-what, coffee is itself one of the simplest substances among those which rule the lives of so many. Just a roasted, ground-up bean steamed to release its gifts. So it’s time to acknowledge, and appreciate, the reality of coffee preparation the way the Italians do it. The Moka Pot.

When we were in Naples, we rented an apartment, and talked to the owner about coffee. “Sure!” he said, “we have everything you need here,” pointing me in the direction of the moka pot. Same with the place we rented on the beach, and in the mountains. I don’t have any statistics, but of the hundreds of millions of moka pots in existence, a lot of them seem to be in Italian homes.

I resisted then, still hung up on having a professional give me their best stuff, and have no regrets, but back home I’ve had my mind opened to the idea of moka pot simplicity, Italian style. The Bialetti Industrie company sent me a care package consisting of their ubiquitous Moka Express, the one designed by Alfonso Bialetti in 1933, the kitchen device that you can find from Milan to Montevideo to Montreal to MoMA in New York, where its famous design sits alongside Matisse paintigs, Noguchi coffee tables and a display about Minecraft.

UIG via Getty Images

There are more than a few moka pot makers around, but Bialetti made the original design, marrying aluminum to pressurized steaming of finely ground coffee in a small, single-serving, hexagonal device. The way it works is shown below in this dorky but essentially effective little gif:

How the Moka Pot works

This idea was actually the brainchild of one Luigi De Ponti, who then brought to to Alfonso Bialetti to mass-produce, though Bialetti’s design is the one that survives to this day. De Ponti named it the Moka after the city of Mocha in Yemen, a port city on the southern end of the Red Sea, the epicenter of the Arabica coffee world so influential in Italy. Aluminum is ideal for its quick heat conductivity and its strength, which leaves it totally unruffled by the high pressures under which the coffee is made. Also apparently the Fascists in Italy wanted to make aluminum the national metal and a staple of every Italian home. The fascists didn’t last, not in numbers at least (insert Lazio reference), but the mokas are still there.

[Aluminum is fascist? I mean, it’s rigid, and definitely needs some other material to dampen its unpleasant side. So maybe?]

Legend has it that the idea for how to design the Moka Express came from washing machines, which would boil water from below the container of clothes and shower them with water and soap through a central tube. For the Moka Express, this meant coffee rising up to a chamber separated from the grounds. No filters, no lost flavor.

Coffee from a moka pot is a lot like espresso, but dialed back a bit in intensity. If you love strong coffee with a smooth taste, it doesn’t get much better. Espresso happens at a slightly lower temperature and higher pressure, and as you may have heard it’s completed many a morning for me, along with a few afternoons. But absent a full-on espresso machine, this is the way to make strong, delicious coffee. Millions of Italians can’t be wrong.

Bialetti has expanded its line of products to mokas of all shape and size combinations. They also sell manual grinders (shown at the top) which do a solid job of grinding evenly without anything more than a bit of elbow grease. And if all that isn’t enough, they sell cans of grounds ready-made for the Moka Express. It’s ultra-smooth Arabica, of course, and coffee cans are pretty standard fare in Italian households as far as I can tell. So it all fits together.

And then the fun begins. Bialietti have designed more than a few particularly fun designs, tricolore versions and whatnot. They get bigger, way bigger, and enormous. But this is genius.

Moka Express for the Alpini Patrol

I love Italy. Probably my favorite part of the Bialetti story is how Alfonso’s son Renato had his ashes placed in an oversize Moka Express upon his death in 2016. Worth considering.

Any of this news to you? I was pretty surprised to learn this, thinking everyone in Italy would have manual espresso machines polished and ready for action in their kitchens. If they have opinions about what makes the best coffee and why you should settle for nothing less, this makes sense, right? Not in the practical world, and not when something as simple as the Moka Express will do a stunningly good job.

One last thought: I’ve been through a few of these over the decades. They’ve gone on more camping trips than I can count, and I’ve sipped great, strong coffee while looking down on glaciers and up at 2000-year-old trees. If carefully placed, it can handle being gently placed by the fire, though the chance of melting the handle, or worse, burning the coffee is a threat. The point is, though, the Moka Express can go anywhere and still do its thing.

So there, that’s my salute to the real Italian way to make coffee.