"Morning coffee" for most of the worlds´ caffeine addicts doesn´t come from a brewer, a dripper, or even a fancy espresso machine. Instead, hundreds of millions of people all over the world turn to moka pots—stovetop devices that produce a brew stronger than a press pot and weaker than espresso. To coffee drinkers in southern Europe and Latin America moka pots say "home cooking," and the purr of coffee bubbling up into the top bowl is the most beautiful of gastronomic sounds.
Living as I do in the land of electronically controlled brewing devices and two thousand dollar espresso machines, I´ve come to learn that my love of moka pots is viewed as irrational by most. Serious enthusiasts call them "steam toys" and the average joe crowd prefers a pot with a built in alarm clock and two USB ports. I´ve stuck to my guns and I drink coffee from one of my many moka pots as often as I can.
There´s a store on Ferry Street in Newark that reminds me that I´m not alone; it´s called Socafe and you can find it at number 156. Like so many Ferry Street storefronts, it´s a beacon of hope for lost gastronomes in search of something or other—the perfect charcoal grill, top-notch salt cod, or in this case, a real moka coffee pot.
Ferry Street is in the heart of a Newark neighborhood called "The Ironbound." A while back, its´ claim to fame was the largest Portuguese community in the New York area. Things change quickly though and Portuguese became Brazilian and Brazilian became Latin American and anything this close to Hoboken/New York City/Jersey City is going to be gentrifying at an alarming rate.
Lots may have changed around here, but Socafe is one of the originals. A recent visit found it going as strong as ever, even though some shelf space has given way to more modern espresso machines. Moka pots from one to twelve cups still dominate and there´s an area devoted to pot gaskets that´s roughly the size that most places devote to the pots themselves.
Still, something was missing; those frilly, fancy pots with porcelain tops and China or cow patterns, and I was a bit sad. Why? They were the pots I loved to hate. A good, cast aluminum moka pot is iconic. It says "good morning!" in an Italian farmhouse or Swiss mountain hut. It´s the coffee you got when you slept on the floor of a friend´s apartment on the Costa del Sol. And of course, it´s the coffee you get at my house. A porcelain-topped, pink or yellow pot doesn´t say "good morning!" it says "somebody gave me a fussy, somewhat expensive gift" and cursing at such pots was always good fun.
So how do you use these things? Here are instructions lifted from my second book Cucina Piemontese (by Brian Yarvin and Maria Grazia Asselle, Hippocrene Books 2005.)
"Making coffee this way is simple. First fill the bottom reservoir with water; there should be just enough to touch the little valve on the side. Next put the basket in and fill it with ground coffee, add just enough to reach the top rim. There´s no need to tamp it down as you would in an espresso machine. Screw on the top and put it over a burner on medium heat. A few moments later, you´ll hear the bubbling and gurgling that means your pot is ready. Take it off the heat and serve."
There are debates in the moka pot world. Some people prefer the ones that dispense coffee right into a cup, others insist that steel is better than aluminum or vice versa. I myself go back and forth on the first point and side with aluminum on the second. Luckily, these things are so cheap that anybody with twenty bucks and a free burner on their stove can give it a try. Feel free to form your own opinions.
By the way, few New York area neighborhoods hide their good, cheap food as well as The Ironbound. Skip the overpriced, over-gentrified restaurants and instead check out the meals available at what look like pastry shops. My own recommendations will be the topic of a future dispatch.
156 Ferry Street, Newark NJ 07105 (map)