Italian

The Art of Making Coffee the Italian Way

by:
October 27, 2015

The morning moka: a bleary-eyed ritual involving an aluminum pot (also known as a stovetop percolator or espresso maker), a small mountain of ground coffee, and that gurgling sound that sends people rushing to their kitchen as the coffee begins sputtering and pouring into the top chamber of the pot and sending out wafts of that incomparable, comforting aroma of freshly made coffee. 

And while it is a vital morning ritual in Italy, taking pride of place over any other activity as the first thing to do after getting out of bed, it is also an after-meal ritual, a mid-afternoon ritual, and even, for some, a before-bed ritual.

It's a sign of good hospitality to offer guests—even those who pop around unexpected, and especially those who have come to dinner—a homemade caffè. In short, it's the lifeblood of the Italian household. 

And like anything as important as coffee, there is an art form to making the perfect stovetop espresso. Here's how:

1. Know your moka. 
Patented in 1933 and made famous by Alfonso Bialetti, the moka pot has three main components: the bottom chamber or the boiler, which is filled with water; the funnel cup, which sits snugly on top of the bottom chamber and which holds the coffee grounds; and finally, the top chamber, which is where the coffee is drawn as the boiling water in the boiler is forced through the filter holding the coffee grounds.

Moka pots come in all sizes (1, 3, 6, 9 and 12 cup). Take note, this refers to espresso cup sizes, not measuring cups. The 1 cup moka pot produces 60 milliliters or 1/4 cup (2 ounces) of espresso.

2. The water. 
Italians love their bottled water and some will even use it over tap water for making coffee (particularly in areas where the water is very hard). Some say the temperature of the water makes no difference, while some insist on using hot water (not cold) to fill up the chamber and others say the opposite.

Whatever you end up using, do not fill it all the way to the top—stop when you reach the level of the small valve of the boiler. Too much will result in watery espresso.

3. The coffee. 
Use a medium ground coffee for stovetop percolators, whether grinding yourself or using pre-ground coffee (the latter will often have an indication on the packet of whether it's suitable for stovetop percolators). Coffee that's too finely ground (for espresso machines) won't allow the water through properly, making the final drink too bitter, while coarsely ground coffee will result in a more watery, less flavorful espresso.

Place the coffee into the filter using a small spoon. A Calabrian friend of mine who prides herself on making the best coffee in her family says her secret is to pile the coffee into a small pyramid-like mound. Others say to keep the coffee level. There's an old fashioned practice to poke three holes into the leveled coffee grounds with a matchstick or a toothpick; many a nonna will do this, though I've still to find out exactly what it does. All agree that you should never press the coffee down. Wipe clean the sides of the chamber so there are no stray coffee grounds. Twist the top on and make sure it's twisted tightly.

4. The heat. 
Use a low, gentle heat on your smallest burner to avoid burning the coffee (or melting the handle). This also allows the water to be drawn through the coffee grounds slowly, making for a more flavorful beverage. When you hear that distinctive gurgle of the coffee coming into the top chamber, lift the lid to check, and turn off the heat just before it has finished. The coffee will continue coming through, but you'll lower the risk of burnt coffee.

5. Stir. 
As the top half of the coffee is more watery and the bottom half is thick with sediment, a very good stir with a teaspoon ensures that everyone gets a uniformly good espresso. 

6. The cups. 
Like wine, you need the right vessel to enjoy coffee. First you need little espresso cups because this coffee is to be drunk (no, sipped) in small amounts. Ceramic or glass are both common, though Pietro Semino, who wrote an entire book dedicated to coffee, Sua Maesta' il Caffè, says porcelain is ideal not only because it maintains the temperature evenly, but also because it is pure pleasure to drink from.

If you really want to impress, before serving the coffee, warm the cups. You can do this simply by filling them with hot water while waiting for the coffee. Tip out and dry off just before serving. 

  

7. Serve.
Bring the coffee pot out to your guests with the warm espresso cups, sugar for those who take it (raw sugar is highly recommended), and teaspoons. Serve boiling hot. 

8. Variations.
If you like your morning coffee milky, then look no further to this adorable video of how to make the perfect cappuccino at home with your moka.

If serving an after-dinner coffee, some may like a splash of booze in it for a caffè corretto or “corrected coffee”; grappa, sambuca, brandy, or rum are good choices (or you could make its Tuscan relative, a ponce).

A special after-meal coffee is con panna, where you top the espresso with a spoonful of sweetened whipped cream. Or, serve your freshly made espresso as an affogato: Use it to drown a scoop of good vanilla ice cream. In hot weather, there's nothing like a caffè shakerato, espresso shaken with ice till frothy and creamy.

What's your morning coffee ritual? Share with us in the comments below!

Espresso cup photos by Bobbi Lin and James Ransom; all others by Emiko Davies

10 Comments

kckowshik March 28, 2016
"In short, it's the lifeblood of the Italian household. "<br /><br />I agree with you. Last time when I visited one of my cousins home to meet her, I lost my way to her home in an afternoon. So I had to pop up in a resident home to ask for the way back. They showed me the way and surprisingly asked me if I want to have some coffee as they were having afternoon snacks.<br /><br />I read about this hospitality in the blog ( http://www.coffeemakerlab.com/ ) later
 
Vincent S. March 4, 2016
Great advice!
 
David C. February 15, 2016
Or check out the American Press on Indiegogo, a sleek hybrid of the French Press and the Aeropress: http://igg.me/at/itsamericanpress/x/6753894
 
Meg S. February 10, 2016
We have a 3, 6, 9 and 12 cup... Love Love Love the coffee. I preheat the water in an eclectic tea kettle. We have a burr grinder. I'd love to grind fresh daily, but just do not have time. First thing in the morning I get up, feeling much like the little girl in the video at 4:45, hit the switch on the kettle and start an inch in the bottom half. I measure out the grounds, feed the puppies, and don my heat gloves, fill my hubbies Stanley thermos travel mug with hot water, fill the bottom with water... a tiny bit over the valve for just a bit more, screw on and set the burner in between low and 1. I prep my travel cup with trader joe's coconut cream, litter vital protein collagen peptides, 1/8 a teaspoon of coco powder, and 8 drops of stevia. hit the shower, run out to trun to low and move to only part way on the flame, dress, hit the kettle, stir the pot, pour 3/4th a cup in my mug whip till frothy, add water to the top stir and enjoy. On the weekend I watch and listen to keep the heat better monitored. we even take our pot with a backing stove to hotels. Our local coffee shop now makes a custom blend of 2 coffees for us. We have so enjoyed our pots.
 
swagv January 22, 2016
This is wrong, wrong, wrong. Illy training will tell you so firsthand. The sound of the gurgle - let alone waiting for all the coffee to brew to finish - is the sound of steam escaping. That means the water temperature is too high and you are scalding the coffee, making it bitter.<br /><br />You should cut it off before then -- even if it's brewed only half-way -- to ensure the brewing temperature doesn't reach the scalding point to ruin your coffee's flavor.
 
Chef B. November 1, 2015
I like to top my morning espresso with a little milk, which I hand froth, and serve in a glass vessel. Soooo beautiful and delicious!
 
otterenko October 28, 2015
Yes, please tell us more about the cups!
 
mrsfurious October 27, 2015
Yum! What is the China pattern on those lovely blue and white porcelain cups?
 
Anna F. August 15, 2017
This is my question too! I read this article about a week ago, and I kept thinking of these cups. I just found the article again and am dismayed there's no info or link! Have you found anything similar?
 
Author Comment
Emiko August 15, 2017
Wish I could be of some help, unfortunately they belonged to my old landlord in Italy and I didn't get to see where they were from before getting these comments!