A French tinsmith invented the macchinetta Napoletana in 1819. Not much is known about its history beyond that, including when it was introduced to Italy. But in 1946 Eduardo De Filippo, who published thirty-nine plays and acted beside Sophia Loren in the 1954 classic L’oro di Napoli turned the coffee pot into a Neapolitan original through his comedy Questi Fantasmi.

In the movie, De Filippo sits at the balcony, presumably already having boiled the water and flipped the macchinetta Napoletana over. He then waits while the water drips down through the filter and into the second pot. Pretending to talk to a professor neighbor, he explains that a paper cone put over the spout is essential; this keeps the aromas from escaping.

In the 1970’s, Alessi asked the Neapolitan architect, Riccardo Dalisi, to create a new version of the Neapolitan Flip-Over Coffee Pot. After roaming for many years through junk dealers and tin-smith shops, Dalisi’s design ended up winning the Golden Compass, the most prestigious Italian industrial design award.

Today, the macchinetta Napoletana isn’t used in households as much as the moka pot (a similar stove top coffee maker, but simpler).  Mostly, it’s sold by souvenir shops as a distinctly Neapolitan trinket.  Still, for those who want to make authentic Neapolitan coffee in their home, a tin pot can be found throughout Campania and costs a mere 10 Euro, più o meno.

Here are the instructions on how to use the macchinetta Napoletana:

  • First, take the top pot and fill it with water.
  • Next, add fine grinds to the filter and place it inside the water. (You can add more or less grinds depending on the strength of coffee you like.)
  • Add the second pot to the top. Place the pot on the stove and let boil.
  • Here’s the first catch: once the macchinetta Napoletana is on the stove, you can never see the water boiling. Instead, you must decide this intuitively.
  • When the water is ready, take the coffee pot off the stove and flip it over. This is both art and skill. If not done properly, the boiling water can end up all over the floor.

When the macchinetta Napoletana is flipped, the pot with the spout will then be on the bottom. The water from the top pot slowly drips through the filter. Again, you will have to know intuitively when all the water has drained to the bottom and if you use De Filippo’s advice, you’ll put a little cone on the spout to keep the aromas from releasing into the air. When the coffee is finished, heaping spoonfuls of sugar are stirred into the cups.

(Thanks to Gilbert Milone who found his grandmother’s macchinetta napoletana and sent me this picture.  She used this pot during the 1940′s and 1950′s — a pot that is no longer available for sale in Naples or world-wide.  It’s a true antique!)