La Macchinetta, the Moka Bialetti

Any home in Italy, 7am. The alarm sounds and soon the scent of caffè wafts throughout the house leading to the kitchen, where the bubbling sound of percolation emanates from an eye-catching stovetop caffettiera (coffeemaker).  Sleek, silver and shapely, the Moka Bialetti is the symbol of Italian creativity… and breakfast.

La colazione italiana is a simple and beautiful practice.  In its essence, colazione is  caffe e cornetto – a straight shot of espresso with a pastry, or a caffellatte (caffe and milk) with biscuits, and it is all centered around the moka pot. The famous Bialetti macchinetta (little machine) as it is affectionately known, has done more than just brew coffee since it was invented 87+ years ago – it’s made everyone in the world feel Italian, even if just at breakfast.

 The first of its kind, la Moka Bialetti had a humble start. Created in 1933 by Alfonso Bialetti, an engineer and owner of a workshop of semi-finished aluminium products in Piedmont’s Crusinallo area, he was inspired by the mechanics of his wife’s washing machine. Bialetti envisioned creating a speedier and more simple way of making coffee than the traditional Neapolitan coffee maker that most people used. His design incorporated three easy-to-assemble intuitive elements – the lower round “boiler” part, the central filtered funnel to hold the coffee grinds and push the water through and the distinctive octagonal aluminium upper body to collect the hot brew. As the water boiled in the bottom, it passed through the filter containing the coffee grounds, rising through the upper container’s small tube and eccolo, a perfectly brewed caffè! Small modifications were made over the years, mainly to do with the handle and lid knob, but Bialetti’s original design remains relatively the same.

50’s Moka Express Bialetti, image courtesy of Bialetti Industries Historical Archive

Bialetti first promoted the modest Moka together with his other products in Piedmont’s weekly town markets until his son, Renato, took over in 1946 and decided it was about time to bring it home, literally. At the time, most espresso machines were large, expensive and complicated. It was easier to enjoy a caffe at the local bar. Renato revolutionised the mornings by focusing solely on the Moka Express and its ease at making coffee at home, and after a lucky encounter with Greek shipping magnate, Aristotle Onassis, the Bialetti brand was launched internationally.  By the 1970s, the small company was producing one million coffee makers annually.

A style icon since the 1950s, la Moka is one of the most awarded Italian design objects in the world. It is part of the permanent collection at Milano’s Museo del Design Italiano | Triennale Milano, New York’s MOMA collection, and Cooper-Hewitt Smithsonian Design Museum.   The  Guinness Book of World Records ranks the machinetta as the world’s most popular coffee maker and Shanghai’s 2010 EXPO named it one of the top 10 Italian inventions that changed the world. By the way, have you ever noticed that Bialetti’s cute mascot  l’omino coi baffi (the little man with the moustache)? That’s Renato, immortalised in 1953 by designer Paul Campani.

The Moka Bialetti is the hallmark of Italian hospitality.  It’s found at the center of every kitchen table and every debate on how to brew the best espresso – mountain or smooth, top open or closed. No two Italians can agree, unsurprisingly.  One thing you can count on: as soon as you enter an Italian home, you’ll be asked “vuoi un caffé?” and 9 times out of 10, it’s made with la Moka Bialetti.

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