Felicities of the moka

photo by Carlos Osorio

by SAL DIFALCO

While it may be true that progress is impossible without change, perhaps we can all agree that some changes are less desirable or transformative than others. Take the moka—aka the caffettiera or macchinetta—that fixture of post-war Italian households in Italy and abroad. Invented by Luigi De Ponti and patented by Alfonso Bialetti in 1933, the humble stovetop percolator proved to be the little engine that could.

A battered aluminum Bialetti, its base blackened from repeated encounters with gas or electric burners, is an image that likely strikes a chord with anyone raised in an Italian household. And though, for a time, it symbolized the post-war modernization of the Italian family, for many it came to represent an essential link to their families and their culture.That said, while the moka brews an acceptable cup of coffee—notwithstanding the quality of grounds, the water and perhaps the love bestowed in the making—purists have argued that it really isn’t espresso, just strong coffee.

 

Traditionally, the best espresso has been brewed in coffee shops with industrial-grade equipment. So, in the name of progress, the change took place; the Bialleti and its tinny imitators gave way to shiny, newfangled machines that promised espresso of genuine, bar-café quality, complete with crema. And while many Italian stovetops still host the coffeemaker of the ancients—perhaps nostalgically, though it remains popular in Europe and Latin America—a new wave of home espresso machines has invaded more affluent kitchens, sporting names like exotic sports cars, often with commensurate price tags: Breville BES870XL, Gaggia Classic Semi-Automatic, De’Longhi Magnifica ESAM 3300 Automatic.

Louie Chiaino, who has collected more than 120 unique mokas over the years, remarks on the change with resignation. “The Italian family has become nuclear,” he says. “The need to brew a big pot of coffee for an extended, large family has lessened over time. Fewer kids, fewer in-laws—the new machines make it extremely convenient to brew one or two cups of perfect espresso. But the moka served poor immigrant families very well for more than 50 years, and something essential is being lost.”

Chiaino, who has roots in Salerno but grew up in Toronto, developed his passion for the moka on a visit to a Naples ghetto.“I spent time there with cousins who were 10 or 12 years older than me. They brewed and drank coffee ritualistically throughout the day. That really triggered my interest in the social angle. Then I started noticing coffee pots—how different ones often reflected the character or personality of their owners. Simple equaled simple. Someone with an ostentatious personality likely owned a fancier coffee pot.”

Intrigued, he began to gather discarded or unused coffee pots from relatives.“Bit by bit,” he says, “when someone passed, an aunt or cousin, I’d ask for their coffee pots, often well-worn and headed for the trash bin—but also representing decades of shared ritual and a dynamic component of Italian culture. As I collected more, the whole world of coffee pots opened up to me: the different designs, the social significance of differing sizes, styles and materials —coffee pots often reflected social status.”As Chiaino’s passion for the moka intensified, he moved beyond relatives for collectibles. These days he locates his pots combing Italian neighbourhoods for garage sales and scouring internet sites like eBay. Many of the pots come from the U.S.“The first migration of Italians,” he says, “to places like Virginia, Pennsylvania, Ohio—that’s been a source for some of the most interesting pots.”He mentions a vintage Robbiati Atomica, with its echoes of Futurism, and the voluptuous La Signora Caffettiera as his two favourites.

Chiaino sends an invitation to anyone who wishes to contribute to the collection.“My ultimate goal,” he says, “is taking the show on the road and visiting Italian cultural centres across Canada to celebrate this iconic commonplace of Italian culture.”