That’s the Bialetti — homely but reliable, and charming for its imperfections.
Is there anything that I can say about my Bialetti that has not already been said? I know that in the Italian context one should not call it a Bialetti, but in the English language context this is how one always refers to it. What I will do is sift through the usual appreciation of its charms and features until, I hope, I come across something new and original to say.
Italians of every generation often testify to the making of coffee using the stovetop coffee pot as a family ritual, something that happens after pranzo on a Saturday or Sunday in particular. The image associated with these stories is always of the eight sided pot, in two halves that screw together, in the plain aluminum finish, with the little man with the big mustache on the side, with one arm raised, his index finger singling number one in reference to the pots ranking, pointing at something unknown and unseen above him, or possibly something else which is culturally obscure or undefined or perhaps merely whimsical. Because the Moka Express (the pot’s official name) consists of a top and bottom screwed together, the facets are often misaligned when the pot is assembled and set on the stove. This imperfection in design is part of its charm, so perhaps it is more accurate to identify the imperfection as a perfection.
If you have ever seen Kaos, the film adaptation of a collection of short stories by Luigi Pirandello, made by Paolo and Vittorio Taviani, better known as the Fratelli Taviani, you will have seen examples of this particular design aesthetic. In the episode titled Mal di Luna (Moon Sickness), there is a scene in which the protagonist of the story, as an infant, is left lying in a field while his mother works. There is a full moon that night, and we see the baby gaze at the spectacle with big eyes set in a face that is full, round and pure white… except for a tiny blemish on his left cheek. The beauty of a newborn infant’s face is made even more beautiful by allowing for, and showing, the tiniest imperfection. Another more classical and more notable version of this artistic practice is the bust of Cardinal Richelieu, completed by Gian Lorenzo Bernini in 1641, in which the button of his mozzetta is fastened only halfway.
Then there is the gurgle. Again, in some cultural contexts, such a feature of a design might be considered a defect. Some might have found it to be too noisy, too disturbing, and would have engineered it out of existence, so that the coffee flowed out of the spout without making too much or even any noise. But with great wisdom, or perhaps by accident, who knows, Alfonso Bialetti left it as it was, and it has since become a feature of the pot with strong cultural resonance, namely in the form of great affection for the cozy atmosphere it creates and great nostalgia for the warm and familiar memories it evokes. Danes call such a general condition hygge. Of course, you find an appreciation for imperfection in other cultural contexts: think of the noisy, slappy valves on old Volvo engines, the clacketty-clack that is so in keeping with the car’s reliable but less-than-sleek reputation, something so resonant of Sweden in the 1960s and 1970s one might say. Or think of the Japanese practice of kintsugi, which involves using gold to reassemble broken pieces of pottery, a practice that is redolent of thrift and care and nurturing, in its capacity to turn a flaw into a virtue.
That’s the Bialetti — homely but reliable, and charming for its imperfections. Does it burn the coffee? Who knows. I always use the darkest roast I can find, so the beans are burnt already. Is burning coffee bad? Who knows. It all depends on what you mean by ‘burn’ and ‘coffee’ and ‘bad’.
I am currently in the process of restoring my family’s home after many years of quiet neglect. The landscaping in particular needed a lot of attention, so I called my cousin, who is a professional landscaper, to come over and help me sort it out. At one point, as we were strolling around and deciding what to do, he said to me, about some aspect of the job or another: “It all depends on how Italian you want it to be.” It was a funny line, but one that I understood immediately: it is always good to avoid being too fussy about something. There is a lot of charm and a lot of wisdom to be attained by doing something in a way that is ‘good enough’. This could be a feature of immigrant culture and identity (I am third generation), but Italian we are, however we conceive it.
Of course, as I mentioned earlier, you find this design aesthetic in all cultural contexts. One of the more popular places for Silicon Valley tech workers to go for a break, say on a weekend, is a scrubby little patch of houses in a decidedly unglamorous beach town, where little if anything is carefully curated, meticulously maintained, or elegantly designed. Everything is clean and functional, but don’t expect to see lots of polished glass and aluminum, the surfaces that surround them everyday. “Every once in a while,” as one Irish window washer once said to me, “you have to let the dog out of the house.”
I think one of the reasons why non-Italians like to visit Italy so much is that it has retained many of its vernacular imperfections. Especially in the countryside, one encounters rustic charm that exists without much conscious effort, and one senses that this is because such a quality still exists in the culture of the place, and in the spirit of the people who inhabit it. You see it everywhere, in the bar, in the edicola, in the campo, in the forno — things are arranged in a way that works, but no one is going out of their way to make anything perfect. And this exists also at la tavola, in material form but also as a performance. What wine will we have with our meal? Quello che c’è. In fact, in most situations, particularly at home, and particularly in the countryside, the question would never even arise in the first place.
One of my fondest memories is a visit to a tourist feature somewhere in the middle of Sicily. As I approached it, I saw two women sitting at a small folding table. They had a small cash box in front of them, so I asked what the admission was. “Due euro, direi…” said one of the women. I paid her and she gave me a ticket, and let me enter. I loved the ‘direi’ for all of the casual imperfection it implied, for all of the nonchalant, devil-may-care, non-acquisitive and fully human dereliction of duty and benign neglect it conveyed. Due euro, direi…
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