Moka Bar

By Antony Clayton


In 1953 a major catering and cultural event took place at 29 Frith Street when Italian actress Gina Lollobrigida opened the Moka Bar, which was the first coffee house in London to install the revolutionary Gaggia espresso machine.  This gleaming dispenser of strong, black espresso and sturdy provider of milky, frothy coffee was soon to become an indispensable feature of the capital’s coffee bars.  Indirectly, it helped to stimulate a burgeoning music scene that quickly broke out of the cramped bars of Soho and would later make London, for a brief period, the pop music capital of the world.  The fifties saw the emergence of the teenager as a cultural and consumer phenomenon.  Teenagers had more disposable income to spend on smart clothes, records and socializing, but suffered from a dearth of places in which to get together.  Too young to drink in pubs and uninterested in ballrooms and youth clubs, many of them saw the new espresso bar as an escape route from their parents’ traditional meeting places and as a venue where the latest music could be heard, either on a jukebox or, more excitingly, played live by musicians standing just a few feet away.  The drink of choice to accompany this experience was coffee - Italian and served in a way that was a new aural and oral experience.  According to John Sutherland, “the Gaggia machine, a great burbling, wheezing, spluttering monster, would grudgingly excrete some bitter caffeinated essence.  It would be swamped with steamed-milk foam and dusted with chocolate to form its ‘cappuccino’ hood…Glass cups and brown sugar (lots of it) were de rigueur.  Frankly, 50s espresso was no taste thrill.  But it felt smart as hell.”
Although it only sold coffee, cakes and sandwiches the Moka Bar proved extremely popular and was soon serving over one thousand cups of coffee a day.  Its Soho location was a valuable asset, as the Moka could attract customers who might be visiting the nearby theatres and cinemas, whilst also catering for the large indigenous Italian population and enticing in curious tourists.  The interior was bright and welcoming.  Extensive use was made of a new interior design product – Formica.  An American invention, Formica had been sold as a laminated surface covering since 1927, but it was not until 1947 that London’s De La Rue Company was licensed to make and sell these decorative laminates in Europe; within ten years Formica had become almost ubiquitous.  As it was heat-resistant and hard-wearing, Formica was used to replace virtually all the old enamel-topped tables in kitchens and restaurants and was available in a wide variety of colours and patterns, from abstract designs to simulated wood grain and marble.  The Formica-covered counter was dominated by the Gaggia machine, which proved to be an aesthetically pleasing object in its own right.  Sleek and shimmering with a chrome and gold finish, and oozing European sophistication the Gaggias produced the coffee that was to become one of the favourite drinks for a new generation of consumers.
Whilst black espresso was drunk by many of the Moka’s customers, its most popular drink was the cappuccino, so named because the drink’s cap of foam is supposed to resemble, in shape and colour, the cowls of the habits of Italian Capuchin monks.  In order to make cappuccino, milk is brought to boiling point in the Gaggia machines by steam injection at approximately twenty pounds per square inch.  Unlike milk boiled in an urn, it developed no surface skin by this method and thus could be smoothly added to the freshly-brewed espresso for a ‘frothy coffee’.  A light sprinkling of powdered chocolate over the milky froth provided the final appetising touch.  The correct proportions of liquids for the perfect cappuccino should be one third espresso, one third steamed milk and one third frothed milk on top.  The Moka Bar was soon selling 100,000 cups of cappuccino a year.

This page was added by Tim Devitt on 29/03/2010.

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