L’omino con i baffi – “the little man with the moustache” – is closing shop and leaving Italy, much to the consternation of both stovetop espresso and Italian design purists. To cut costs, Bialetti announced it would close its Moka Express production plant in Omegna, 50 miles northwest of Milan, and move it – and its mascot logo – to Eastern Europe. Outsourcing to manufacturers in Eastern Europe and China threatens the survival of the prestigous and once thriving kitchenware industry in the hometown of Bialetti, Alessi and Lagostina.
Ubiquitous in Italy for over 50 years, the moka pot was invented in 1933 by Alfonso Bialetti, a metals craftsman who experienced his eureka moment while watching his wife do the laundry. He imagined the washing machine she was using in miniature, with its metal basket for clothes replaced by a filter basket for ground coffee. As water boiled in the closed lower vessel of Bialetti’s two-chambered aluminum prototype, steam pressure would force hot water up through the funnel-shaped basket of coffee grounds, forcing intensely flavored coffee up through a center nozzle, only to gurgle down like a dripping fountain to collect in the bottom of the upper chamber. Aromatic fumes would be released through its pouring spout, rousing all within the same walls from their morning slumber.
Lacking the pressure of a modern, pump-driven espresso machine and therefore unable to produce crema, Bialetti’s Moka Express was nevertheless revolutionary for its time, achieving its inventor’s stated goal of “in casa un espresso come al bar” – “an espresso in the home just like one in the bar.” Its ease of use and distinctive Art Deco outline, with octagonal upper and lower chambers tapering gently inward towards their meeting point, made it an icon of Italian design. Refinements and variations notwithstanding, the mechanism is fundamentally unchanged some 75 years later.
Having been guided through Bialetti’s Omega plant by its manager in 2008 it is hard for me to imagine it idle for an hour much less forever. The Moka Express’s cast-aluminum components were lined up by the thousands on a series of conveyer belts. It was as if the survival of a nation depended on their production. 2.8 million units were packed there annually, supplying the estimated 9 of 10 families in Italy who keep at least one little man with a moustache tucked away at home.