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Espresso is a way of life, says Mokitalia’s founder and MD Ettore Altamura

KUALA LUMPUR, Malaysia – A click and a clack and the machine begins to wheeze as it fills an espresso cup with hot steaming water.

This quickly humidifies the small one bedroom apartment-turned-office where the living room is taken up by stacks of coloured boxes against one wall and a large shelf against the other with various coffee machines on it.

As I eye the hot water in the cup inquisitively, Ettore Altamura, my host, who’s also the founder and managing director of Mokitalia, smiles and explains: “The cup needs to be warm before you fill it with coffee. If the cup is cold, it’ll spoil the taste. It’ll also cool down the coffee too fast. This is the right way to make a good cup of espresso at home. It’s the Italian way!”

Lifting a lever and then inserting a tiny white capsule pod into the crevice on top of the machine, Ettore urges me to push down on the lever until I hear a click. Gritting my teeth, I push with trepidation and am surprised that it clicks into place fairly easily.

With a touch of a button, an aromatic rich scent permeates the air, instantly transforming the tiny space into one of the thousand coffee bars that’s scattered across Italy.

The dark liquid fills the warm espresso cup and finishes with a smooth crema (a silky creamy coffee froth) on top. Passing me the minute cup, Ettore shares: “This espresso is a special blend of half Arabica and half Robusta by Covim.

I’ve chosen Covim particularly because they’ve more than 40 years of experience in roasting beans in Genoa, Italy and its product is of premium quality. Smell it. It’s going to be a kick! No?”

Making Malaysia Home

Mokitalia, an importer of Covim coffee beans and hand-assembled coffee machines by Espresso del Capitano, may be a new player in the local coffee market but the passionate Italian behind the brand isn’t. Ettore has been in the coffee business for more than a decade and isn’t unfamiliar with Malaysia for he has made our country his home for the past 21 years.

“The first time I came to KL, I was only 19. I followed my parents here for a holiday, but decided to stay on longer. Back then, my sister was also around because my brother-in-law worked here,” he reveals.

His intentions of learning English for three months soon turned into a year-long stint. “The months just snowballed without me realising. Even when my sister’s family decided to go home to Italy, I stayed on. I kept telling myself that I’d go home after this period, but it never happened,” he confides, chuckling. Before he knew it, he was working for Lavazza, another Italian coffee brand.

“It was in 2000 when Lavazza hired me to help them set up an office here. They wanted to bring in the capsule coffee machines and it was very new then.

It’s through them that I started gaining knowledge about these machines that changed much of the landscape of Italian coffee,” says Ettore, adding humbly: “Being an Italian who isn’t a coffee bar tender, I never really looked into the minute details. I didn’t think twice about what makes a good cup of coffee then. So, I had no choice but to study it on my own.”

From taking courses in Hong Kong under Lavazza to reading manuals and how-to books, Ettore slowly and steadily found himself mastering the simple yet effective capsule coffee machines and the coffee beans made for it.

These convenient machines have brought premium-like cafe coffees to homes and offices san barista experience. Just the thought of infusing it into a new market like Malaysia excited him.

Coffee Breaks

Coffee to Italians is like what iced chocolate is to us. It’s a breakfast drink, an afternoon pick-me-up, and a fitting conclusion after dinner. It’s a poignant part of their lifestyle that’s synonymous to their identity. And the Italian espresso is the base to every other Italian-styled java you can name on menus in cafes across the globe.

“Italians are introduced to the drink as young as 12. I remember my mother making a cafe latte for breakfast one day instead of the usual milk and chocolate. It then became a ritual every morning. She’d put on the Mokka pot and pour a little of the espresso into my milk,” recollects Ettore.

However, it was actually his aunt who lived in Bari, a small seaside town in the south of Italy where he was born, who really inculcated in him his love of coffee.

“She really loves her coffee and every time I visited her in summer, she’d ask me to join her for a cup (of coffee). She’d put on the Mokka pot every couple of hours and I would drink with her. That’s because when you have coffee in Italy, you don’t have it alone,” he says.

Socialising over a cup of coffee is a way of life for the Italians. It may be a quickie when it comes to having a cuppa for them, but an important social quickie nonetheless.

“Usually, when we pop into the coffee bar for our cup of espresso, it’s for a little pause in life. Only 1-2 minutes. And most of the time, we go to the same bar over and over so we don’t even need to order. The bartender will remember what you like. Even then, we still take time to say hi to the people in the bar,” shares Ettore.

That said, it’s understandable to assume that coffee is grown in Italy but in fact, it’s not. Coffee roasters in Italy actually source their beans from around the globe, some even as far as Indonesia. However, they’re the pioneers in producing the perfect espresso, a process where very hot water is forced under high pressure through finely ground and compacted coffee.

“That’s why people always ask me, ‘how did you all cheat the whole world?’ when they discovered this fact,” says Ettore with a hearty laugh.

Changing Coffee Landscape

It took Ettore months to source for the right coffee maker to pair with his choice of coffee grind. “There are more than 500 roasters in Italy and even more coffee machine makers,” he says. Though, his choice to import capsule machines instead of a traditional one is simple, these machines can easily bring the Italian coffee culture to local homes effortlessly.

“When I first came to Malaysia, espresso was hard to find here. Of course you have your Malaysian coffee like Ipoh white coffee, but I don’t consider that to be in the same category as our espresso,” asserts Ettore firmly.

As Malaysians become more appreciative of coffee the Italian way with cafes mushrooming across the country, Ettore reckons that a capsule system coffee machine that’s much studier with a more beautiful workmanship would be a great addition to enhance the culture further.

“To make a good cup of espresso you’ll need all three elements to align – a good barista, good beans and a good machine. But when you want a good cup of espresso at home, you won’t be able to have all of them. And Mokka pots aren’t something usual in Malaysian homes. That’s where the Mokitalia machines can help,” he enlightens.

It’s a surefire way of perfecting a cuppa whenever you need it. With simple digital functions and quick technical assistance from Ettore himself, you’re promised the best Italian coffee experience right at home. “Most of the machines apart from the Espresso e Cappucino have a digital memory that’ll remember your favourite settings so it’ll make you an espresso the way you like it,” he says confidently.

Before I take my leave to allow Ettore to prepare for his next meeting, he imparts an Italian tip : “It’s blasphemous for an Italian to see anyone put more than one packet of sugar into their coffee because we have this belief – If the coffee is good, don’t put sugar. If it’s so-so, put a little sugar. But if it’s no good, put sugar and milk! Fortunately with Mokitalia, you can have your coffee however you want it.”

Sulyn Chong