The Moka pot is inextricably linked to Italian tradition and daily life. It is in every Italian household. My last two apartments in Italy came with a Moka pot. The first came with three. In the second the landlady gave us one as we moved in. In all the airbnbs I have been to in Italy I can always count on a Moka pot being in a cupboard. It is simply everywhere in Italy.
The Moka pot is a sort of stove top Espresso machine. The term Macchinetta literally translates to small machine. Another name for it is a Caffettiera, and if you are an English speaking nerd, you might call it a Percolator*.
The Name Brand of the Moka pot is “Bialetti”. Alfonso Bialetti is credited with making the existing design (Grimes). He, and later his son and company, created a fortune selling these to every family in Italy. In Bologna alone, there are 2 Bialetti monobrand stores.
As could be expected, they have tended to lead the way in other innovations to this classic. There is a Mucca, playing on the Italian word for Cow. It makes a cappuccino by foaming the milk with the pressure of the incoming coffee. They have ones tailored to creating spuma, the creaminess on top. What I find super comical is the existence of electric versions. I always thought this was so silly. I have since heard of them being used in offices and outdoor meals.
As with many other things, the actual pot tends to be a bit expensive outside of Italy, but within Italy generic brands can easily be found. In addition, used ones at vintage or secondhand stores are often for sale. The Moka pot is essentially indestructible. However, since it is Italian, there are also some amazingly designed ones with skyrocketing price tags to match.
The Actual Coffee
The portion served from a Moka is usually a bit more than an Espresso and it tends to be a bit more diluted than a Cafe-Bar Espresso. The brewing process of the Moka diverges in pressure and extraction resulting in a different flavor profile.
In Italy, commercial coffee brands will have a different blend for home Espresso and Moka.
Presumably the grind is different too. I am hesitant to recommend a type of roast for this since it is just a style anyways. As always I would recommend a better blend in general. Far too many people think Espresso must have dark flavors when it really has to do with a trend of buying Neapolitan-style dark roasts.
How does it work?
The process actually works against gravity. Rather than an Espresso machine or an Aeropress it is not technically being pushed either. The process is as follows: heated water expands and wets the coffee grounds; The wet grounds begin to swell up and this expansion forces the water, which has since become coffee, up and escaping through the top. In effect it is the coffee grounds themselves making the cafe.
The Moka comes in many sizes, each one resulting in a larger or smaller portion. A Moka cannot be half filled, it only functions when full for the aforementioned chain of events to take place.
When I am not in a rush I heat the water up in an electric kettle first before putting it in, a habit I picked up from a Youtube video.
Once placing it on the stove, it is best to keep the fire on the lowest flame. It will take a bit longer, but if you are taking the time to read about coffee then you probably care enough to spend a few more minutes making it.
Another tip is to turn the heat off once the coffee starts exiting the chamber. About a third of the coffee will be lost, however a smoother coffee will be the result.
More tips or Simply Superstition.
There are a bunch of tips (or rules) that I have heard from Italians. I have begun to take these with a grain of salt. For instance, I have been told to never eat while walking. Once when I took a bite of a slice of pizza while walking, everyone kept talking about how I was going to throw up later on that day. Of course I did not.
Italians never clean their Moka pot. They may rinse it out with water, but they actually will even say that for the first month the coffee will taste bad until the Moka has oxidized, black inner walls. I was even told I will be thrown out the window if a grandmother sees me cleaning a Moka pot! This sort of seems like how French skillet pans should not be washed. This isn’t unhygienic either, no additions other than water and coffee touch the Moka. Any sugar or milk is added after.
Another superstition is to not open the lid. However, on the Illy site and at a food science exhibition in Padova I went to, it was proven this has no effect. I assume it is sort of like how walking under a ladder is bad luck. It just isn’t a good idea. An open Moka pot may splash hot coffee on the counter or you. Also a watched pot never boils!
Following this train of thought. Italians will say to wait a bit before pouring. Something about the flavors settling down. However with the coffee and the pot being hot, this also just seems reasonable.
To Mix or not to Mix, that is the question.
A difference of opinion between the North and South of Italy. The Sicilians make sure to put a spoon in and mix the coffee that is in the Moka. My friend from Turin in Northern Italy had never heard of this. It makes sense since generally different rates of extraction will come out at different times and thus layer themselves. However, for a mono-portion it will be the same.
A friend told me about her Italian colleague that often travels throughout Asia for business. Being Italian she has a natural predisposition to needing coffee and also a culturally predisposed allergy to bad coffee. Thus she brings her Moka pot with her and brews it in the Hotel room with an upside down clothes iron!
Speaking of electrical heating, they also have Moka pots that are specifically for electric stoves. Essentially the same thing but with a wider bottom to gain the different type of heat.
Cafe del Nord
Another friend told me of her college roommate from Trentino in Northern Italy. They are known for drinking a lot of Grappa in Northeast Italy. So much so, that when I visited, you had to specifically ask that the Espresso did not come with some Grappa in it! For the Cafe del Nord one prepares the Moka with Grappa instead of water.
After hearing this I became fascinated. One night with friends we made it. I was honestly scared that it might explode. It did not. It was hot, rough, but secured the night! However a second time we did this before a graduate school finals party. My fears became true and the moka pot was shooting out lit up alcohol fumes!
* Before drip coffee machines became widespread in the States, electric coffee machines that were larger but tended to work on the same basis as the Moka were supposedly widespread. They were known as Percolators.
Grimes, William. “Renato Bialetti, the Mr. Coffee of Italy, Dies at 93.” New York Times. N.p., 20 Feb. 2016. Web. 30 Jan. 2017. <https://www.nytimes.com/2016/02/21/business/renato-bialetti-italian-marketer-dies-at-93.html?_r=0>.