As an American, one of the most perplexing obstacles of moving to Italy is figuring out how to make coffee. It usually goes something like this: you wake up your first morning in Italy, completely jet lagged and exhausted from your 12 hour flight across the world. Making your way to the kitchen the only thing you can think about is a seemingly simple thing: coffee. Yes, all I need is a nice cup of coffee and I’ll be ready to take on Italy! But when you arrive, your exhaustion turns into confusion..huh, where’s the Coffee Mate machine? You start opening cabinets and drawers, looking for some sight of “coffee life”…filters, a coffee pot lid, anything? Then you notice something strange sitting by the stove:
It looks like it could make coffee…but how? You unscrew the tiny silver contraption, hoping for a set of instructions inside, but when you open it, all you find are three parts and you have no idea which one is for the coffee and which one is for the water and besides, there’s no way that this little tiny pot is going to make a cup of coffee big enough to help cure your jet-lag exhaustion. Only one thing can solve this problem: to the bar!
But wait! I tell you, don’t panic! It’s really not all the complicated. After all, if an Italian can do it…(I joke). But seriously, its not that hard. So whether you’re in Italy or abroad, let me break things down for you.
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The Moka Pot: An Overview
Italians drink espresso. Also, generally speaking, Italian kitchens are very small. Therefore, there is no need for a giant*ss coffee pot that takes up half the room. No, instead, here in Italy they use what is called a Moka Pot – a small silver contraption that is comprised of three main parts:
Now, not all Moka Pots are the same size. There is a 1-cup, 3-cup, 6-cup, 9-cup and even a whopping 12-cup sized Moka Pot. These “cups” refer to the number of *espresso cups* they make. So, for us Americans, the “3 cup” size makes about 1 American cup of coffee.
Another thing you should know is that an espresso made in a Moka Pot is very different from espresso made in an espresso machine – the kind you might find in a typical Italian bar. The pressure is much lower in a Moka Pot, so the coffee is generally not as strong as the rich, thick and almost creamy espresso that comes from the bars. Still, most Italians drink Moka Pot espresso in their homes and don’t have a fancy shmancy espresso machine. I personally prefer the Moka Pot espresso, particularly in the morning when I want a longer coffee.
How to Make the Perfect Cup of Italian Coffee using a Moka Pot
1. Fill the base with water.
2. Place the filter on top of the base. Fill the filter with espresso coffee grounds (not regular coffee grounds which are different from Italian espresso grounds – I explain this below). Do not press down on the grounds, but rather spoon them gently into the filter. Fill it all the way up until you have a nice mound like this. Again, NO PACKING!
3. Screw the top on tightly. This is probably where things get a little messy and some coffee grounds might spill out (or explode onto the kitchen floor if you are like me). Don’t worry – as long as more coffee grounds stayed in than out, you’re fine.
4. Place the Moka Pot on the smallest burner on the stove. Turn the heat on medium-low. Watch the pot anxiously, waiting for what seems like forever, but in reality is only a few short minutes. You can keep the lid of the pot open. Slowly but surely, a dark brown liquid will start to ooze out of the top, like a trickling fountain. If it’s moving rather quickly, you want to turn the heat down or temporarily remove the pot from the stove until it slows down. The idea is that the water mores as slowly as possible through the grounds to absorb as much flavor as it can.
Mt. Etna erupting versus the saddest fountain in Florence. You want your coffee to move like the sad Florentine fountain.
Voila! Once its done, pour yourself a nice cup o’ joe (can I say cup o’ giuseppe?) and relax – mission accomplished.
How to Make the Perfect Cup of American Coffee (using a Moka Pot)
Now, here’s where things can diverge a bit. Let’s say you’re in Italy but you’re desperate for a cup of American coffee and all you have is this damn Moka Pot. No worries, you can still make your American coffee using the Moke Pot. In fact, the only thing you need to do is add one more step.
1. Follow steps 1-3 of How to Make the Perfect Cup of Italian Coffee.
2. Relax – whew!
3. Boil some water in either a tea kettle or a pot on the stove. Pour a shot of espresso in a mug, then add the hot water. You may want to start with a small amount of hot water and taste it before adding more. The more water you add, the less strong the coffee will be.
How to Make the Perfect Cappuccino
1. Again, follow steps 1-3 of How to Make the Perfect Cup of Italian Coffee.
2. Heat about 1 cup of milk in a steel milk frothing pot
on the stove on low heat (there are little steel pots especially designed for heating milk that look something like this). Right before it starts to simmer, remove from heat. You could also heat your milk in the microwave, but you have to watch it very carefully to make sure it doesn’t burn. I prefer doing this step on the stove so I can watch it carefully.
3. Now it’s time to stir things up a bit! We need to make our milky foamy, otherwise we’ll just have a flat latte instead of a frothy cappuccino. An electric milk frother
works really well for this. Again, if you don’t have one you can use a small whisk or fork, but it won’t be quite as foamy. So if loooove cappuccinos like me, an electric milk frother is a good investment. I found this IKEA one on Amazon for only $6!
4. Pour a shot of espresso into a mug. Slowly add your hot milk, using a spoon to top it off with a bit of foam.
Bravo! Now you’re a real barista!
Now let’s imagine you’ve just got back from Italy and you’re craving that amazing Italian espresso and cappuccinos you had while there. You could go to Starbucks to try and satisfy your Italian coffee addiction, but if you’re like me, you’ll be disappointed by Starbuck’s overly sweet cappuccino that costs $5. OR you could invest in just a few items to make really good Italian coffee, just the way you like, whenever you want. Not to mention the cost savings will quickly add up.
What You Need to Make the Perfect Italian Coffee:
1. A Moka Pot – Like I said before, there’s really no need for fancy shmancy espresso machine. Some people prefer the taste of an espresso machine espresso, but most Italians simply make espresso in a Moka Pot. It’s small, it’s simple and very inexpensive. The most popular brand of Moka Pots is Bialetti – I have at least two Bialetti Moka Pots (I keep one at home in the U.S. and one here with me in Italy). Apart from the fact that they are high-quality Moka Pots, they also come in adorable little colors like this cute retro one here:
I like the 6-cup size because sometimes I like to make a longer “American” style coffee using Italian coffee – it’s stronger but not as strong as espresso. Plus the bigger size is good for when I have company.
2. Good quality Italian espresso – Believe it or not there’s a difference between regular coffee grounds and espresso coffee grounds. When making Italian espresso, you need to have the right grounds, otherwise it will come out tasting like dirty water. I personally love (and many Italians agree) two brands. The first is Lavazza – which is the brand I use everyday. I typically buy their Crema e Gusto:
however, the highest quality espresso they offer is the Lavazza Oro, which is made from 100% arabica coffee beans:
I typically give the Lavazza Oro
as a gift to my Dad who loves espresso.
3. Replacement Gaskets and Filter– If you buy a Moka Pot and use it often, you’ll eventually have to replace the “gasket” – a small rubber ring that is placed between the filter and the top, as well as the filter. Fortunately, they’re easy and cheap to replace. You can buy them on Amazon for about $5. I always keep a few on hand and when I notice that it’s looking a little brown and worn, I replace it. Just make sure you buy the right size for your Moka Pot!
4. A Milk Frothing Pot – If you’re planning on making cappuccino or espresso macchiatos, then you’ll need something to heat and froth your milk in. The simplest and cheapest way to do this is to use a stainless steel milk frothing pot. They work really well to bring the milk to the right temperature without burning it. A normal pot will work just as well, however I like having a pot just for my cappuccino milk because sometimes other pots give off weird flavors (garlic cappuccino anyone?) from things I’ve cooked in them before and the stainless steel pot doesn’t get stained as quickly from the milk.
5. An electric milk frother – Again, unless you really love cappuccinos, an electric milk frother is not extremely necessary. Still, they do work really well to get that nice foamy milk on top – something that not even the fastest whisker can do.
6. Espresso Cups – This last item is entirely optional and really depends on how much you enjoy drinking espresso. If its something you plan on really developing a taste for and sharing with others, than I’d recommend investing in some nice espresso cups, saucers and spoons. Last year I bought my Dad a set of simple white espresso cups and saucers from Amazon. Even though they are really plain looking, I like their simplicity. After all, it’s all about what’s inside the cup, right? Of course, it’s all a matter of tastes and you’ll have to find what suits you and your kitchen.