The moka pot is a quintessential symbol of Italy – of postwar ingenuity and global culinary dominance. Units can be found in the Museum of Modern Art, the Cooper-Hewitt Smithsonian Design Museum, the Guinness Book of World Records and in most countries on the planet.
Italy’s place in the history of global coffee culture is substantial. Coffee as a beverage first shows up in what in now Yemen. It spread quickly throughout the Middle East, North Africa, Turkey and Iran. Until the late 19th century, Italians drank coffee from a long-handled metal pot called a cezve . Coffee and water were combined and held over a heat source and after boiling the liquid is poured into small cups where the grounds settle to the bottom.
Jeffrey T. Schnapp outlines the history of the moka pot in a 2001 paper called “The Romance of Caffeine and Aluminum”. In 1918, he writes, a Piedmontese metalworker name Alfonso Bialetti returned home after a decade spent working with aluminum in France. He opened a shop crafting strong, lightweight aluminum versions of pots and pans that previously had only been available in iron.
Legend has it that the idea for the moka pot came from a laundry boiler. Bialetti first used the napoletana (a unit with three sections – a chamber of water, a small area for coffee in the middle and a lower container for the brew). Water was heated with the water chamber on the bottom and then the device was flipped upside down, allowing the hot water to drip through the coffee beans with no pressure. Another device, La Pavoni, was popular and used steam power to force hot water through the coffee. Bialetti combined the two and patented his Bialetti Moka Express in 1933.
The moka pot creates a cup of strong coffee with very affordable equipment that is a functional example of mid-century modern design. Moka pots cost about $20.00.