If you’ve ever been to Italy, you know the right thing to do – enjoy a nice cup of coffee as soon as possible. You can get a good “caffe’” at the airport and even at the Autogrill, the Italian motorway rest stops.
You may have fallen in love with espresso in your travels. But Italians’ intimate relationship with coffee goes way back. It was a beverage made by infusion in the halls of Venezia. In Napoli they made it in a small pot.
Espresso as you know it was born in 1884. Angelo Moriondo designed the first espresso machine for the cafés in Torino, a city in the Piemonte region in Northern Italy. It was a device that allowed the preparation of a highly concentrated coffee through a system of winding tubes. The result was a richer flavor.
But why-oh-why is coffee so different in the rest of Europe? Even France!
From Ethiopia to Venezia
Where coffee comes from is actually a mystery. In 1891, food writer Pellegrino Artusi wrote in The Science in the Kitchen and the Art of Eating Well (La scienza in cucina e l’arte di mangiar bene):
From there, coffee spread to the whole ottoman world to Constantinople. The merchants from Venezia introduced it in Europe and Italy around 1570. Prospero Alpino, a medical doctor and botanist from Padova, was the first to describe its quality.
At the time, coffee was a very expensive beverage only aristocrats could afford. It was an acquired taste. Yet people appreciated most of all its energy-giving properties.
Coffee “brightens the mood, wakes the mind, for some it’s a diuretic, for many it keeps sleep at bay, and it’s particularly useful for people who move little and cultivate the sciences,” wrote Pietro Verri in coffee (Il Caffe’) in the eighteenth century.
According to legend, it was Pope Clemente VIII who won over any opposition over the Muslim origin. It seems that he decreed it a sin to let the infidels alone enjoy coffee after he took a sip. He thus proclaimed it a “Christian beverage.”
From the first café to cappuccino
The first café was in Venezia in 1683. But in Paris, Italian Francesco Procopio de’ Coltelli opened the famous Cafè Procope. (The Café created an international success for another specialty of the made in Italy – gelato.)
Cappuccino was born in Vienna that same year thanks to another Italian.
Marco da Aviano brought it from the northern Italian region of Friuli as a diplomatic envoy of the Pope. Austrian coffee was too bitter for hi taste buds, so he had the idea of mixing in some milk to make it milder.
They liked his original idea so much that they baptized the beverage “kapuziner” because it was the same color as the habit of the Italian cleric.
Venezia continued to be the coffee capital of Italy in the entire eighteenth century. In 1763 you could count 218 cafes in the city. In Casanova’s heyday, a tray with coffee and chocolate was one of the love gifts that pretty much guaranteed success.
Napoli was the turning point
From Venezia, the fashion of coffee began to spread to the rest of Italy. Napoli had the most European of the Italian courts of the Ancient Régime. It was in the nineteenth century that you could begin to see traveling coffee people throughout the city.
People walked up and down the streets carrying two containers – one had coffee, the other milk – and a basket with cups and sugar. They called them “caffettieri.” In addition to offering a quick breakfast, they broadcast the name of the saint of the day so people could remember whom to celebrate.
This was possible thanks to the invention of the famous Neapolitan coffee maker. Cuccumella was built by Du Belloy in 1691. Before the coffee maker, people used to make coffee in the same way the Russians made tea – by immersing a cloth satchel with coffee powder in water.
But you could feel the grounds in the mouth. It was the right incentive to innovate.
Birth of the coffee maker
The moka was the work of engineer Alfonso Bialetti who acquired Luigi De Ponti’s invention in 1933. The name comes from Mocha Yemen.
You can find moka pots in a variety of styles, all based on the same operating principle. Water is heated in a lower chamber. Vapor pressure approaching two atmospheres pushes the water up through ground coffee in a filter, which collects in the upper chamber as liquid coffee.
In 1919 Alfonso Bialetti opened a workshop in Crusinallo to make semi-finished goods in aluminum, which turned into a studio for designing and producing finished items using shell molding.
Technology innovation for social change
The stovetop espresso maker spread thanks to the social, technological, and economic changes in Italy in the 1930s. Coffee and aluminum spoke to the desire for newness – they conveyed and gave strength, energy, and mobility.
According to Prof. Jeffrey T. Schnapp, the reason why every home had to have a Moka Express maker was the fascist drive to make Aluminum the national metal. It was a suitable material for Italian craftsmen.
Bialetti made the Moka possible. But his construction borrowed from an invention by women. In the 1920’s Bialetti noticed the laundry methods used by local women. They boiled the wash in tubs with a central pipe in the middle. This pipe would draw the soapy water up and redistribute it over the laundry. Voila’ the same could happen with the coffee. Bialetti drew inspiration for the design from the shape of silver coffee services popular in well-to-do homes.
The express claim of Bialetti was that “without requiring any ability whatsoever” one could enjoy “in casa un espresso come al bar” (an espresso in the home just like one in the bar.)
It was Alfonso’s son Renato who took the Moka to success after returning from WWII with a big marketing campaign – billboards, radio, newspapers and magazines. He was also the inventor of the man with moustache mascot you see on the Moka.
The first coffee you make in a brand new Moka is not going to be very good. It’s the residual oils that make the coffee better. So don’t wash it too well in between uses.
Italian baristas can make it long (more water), short (a shot of caffeine), “macchiato” (with milk), “corretto” (corrected with liquor), or “marocchino” (with cocoa and milk foam.) As for cappuccino – it’s a must for breakfast or mid-morning pause, but no-no after lunch.
Today, Italians drink their first espresso at home and take their second with company in one of the many cafés in the city center. If you’re looking for a caffeine-free alternative that is all the rage now, order caffe’ d’orzo. Often shortened to simply orzo, this is a type of hot drink made from ground barley, originating in Italy.
- La Cucina Italiana
- Bialetti history
- The Original Bialetti Moka Express Made in Italy 3-Cup Stovetop Espresso Maker with Patented Valve
- Lavazza Crema e Gusto
- Caffe’ d’Orzo or Orzo