From the Coffee Issue
It may be known for its iconically hexagonal shape, but the moka pot represents a more modest—though no less impressive—number of Italian traits: ingenuity, resourcefulness, whimsy and style.
Like all great inventions, that of the moka pot is the culmination of a conflation of social, political and economic factors, including the rise of fascism, a government-promoted reliance on natural resources, and a recession that prompted coffee drinkers thirst for less pricey, at-home options.
While the United States was experiencing the Great Depression, fascism was on the rise in late 1920s and early 1930s Italy. It was Mussolini’s hope that his country, with its rich supplies of bauxite and leucite, would favor aluminum as the metal of choice (a wish he essentially forced into reality after placing an embargo on foreign stainless steel).
Meanwhile, the people of Italy were still making dirty laundry—which meant women were still cleaning up after them. Italian machinist Alfonso Bialetti observed the mechanics of these laundress’ equipment one day—the way in which the water was pumped up over the clothing—and wondered if the same principles could be applied to coffee making.
Armed with his expertise and the abundance of aluminum (known for its versatility, strength and style), along with this simple but powerful light bulb moment, Alfonso collaborated with inventor Luigi de Ponti to create the moka pot—and revolutionized life on the peninsula. Café culture was central to Italian life, but the moka pot democratized drinking coffee, making it more economical for everyone to enjoy at home—including women, who prior to its invention were rarely consumers as they were not often able to leave the home where they spent most days cooking and caring for families.
Of course, a great idea is only as good as its reach. While Alfonso did have success with his product, the company’s progress was halted during World War II. It wasn’t until after the war under the helm of his son, Renato Bialetti, that the moka pot was marketed and globalized, making it a massive international hit—in no small way creating an icon of the humble little pot and its quirky mascot. The little mustachioed man (called L’omino coi baffi, or “The little man with the moustache,” in Italian) is rumored to be a caricature of Alfonso in tribute, while other accounts claim it is Renato himself.
Today’s baristas have many varied opinions on the pot; its coffee is quite different than the precision-brewed espressos in coffee bars—the extraction being quite a bit lower and the flavor inconsistent at the hands of at-home brewers. But few deny its influence in getting espresso-based drinks into homes all over the world.
Today, the design is featured in New York’s Museum of Modern Art as well as London’s Design Museum. The fact that its construction has remained largely unchanged over the last eight decades speaks to the timelessness of the simple, efficient blueprint.
Personally, the moka pot has special meaning. I cannot remember a family gathering that didn’t end with the little vessel signaling the transition of a meal into the conclusion of the evening. As a kid, it meant the grown-ups were about to start the long slog that I’d later come to appreciate as “conversation.” And when I later moved into my first Brooklyn apartment, it was a housewarming gift from my mother that felt like a rite of passage. I use my moka pot often and feel connected not only to my family—my mother and ancestors here in the States—but to generations of Italians. To this day, it is a favorite gift of mine to friends of my own—one that my Italian ancestors gave the world, imbued with the characteristics I’m only too happy to carry on.