Interview with Enrico Maltoni

by Simone Forgia, Claudio Santoro

Enrico Maltoni with two Marzocco Rondine - Officina Maltoni

Hi Enrico, your name certainly precedes you in the world of coffee, even more so when we talk about historical espresso machines, but would you still like to tell us briefly something about yourself, who you are and where you come from?

I was born in Forlimpopoli the city of Pellegrino Artusi, and I attended catering school so a connection with food and taste were already in the air. At 14, during school vacations, I worked at a coffee and pastry shop where I started learning about coffee machines, thanks to a Faema E61, one of the most successful models in the history of Italian coffee bar machines. It ran on gas and every morning, at 5 o'clock, I would turn it on with a match, often burning my fingers. Then, coming from a family of antiques enthusiasts, I was passed on a passion for the history of the 1900s.

How did your passion for vintage machines come about? Was it love at first sight or something that started quietly and then exploded?

When I started collecting bar machines, in 1988, there were very few of us in the world, two or three, and I, with my 18 years of age, was certainly the youngest. It all started with a first purchase at the antiques market in Arezzo, initially just for the aesthetic beauty, the design. At that time, I had not yet developed an interest in the technical, the mechanics, the history, the culture and the incredible fascination that these instruments possess. The technical and aesthetic evolution went hand in hand with the technical and artistic innovations, creating real sculptures that have taken up the lines dictated by the Art Nouveau style, the Art Déco and then of the industrial design developed from the 1960s and 1970s finding in Italy its greatest expressions.

What would you have wanted to do when grown up? And currently?

As a teenager I thought I would be a baker or a pastry chef, then instead I got into fashion, starting as a clerk in a men's clothing store that dictated the style in those years, and where I worked for 10 years, eventually becoming store manager.

From 1999, collecting and history research - and for the past few years also the restoration workshop - have become my full-time job, along with writing books always on the subject of coffee machines, both for commercial and domestic use.

"Espresso made in Italy", the collection that also lends its name as the title of my first book, has been at the centre of the project of 44 exhibitions that up to 2011 have touched 14 countries in 3 continents, gaining wide acclaim and bringing, for the first time, espresso bar machines inside museums, helping to divulge the culture of espresso and made in Italy.

In your renowned workshop, you really restore many kinds of vintage espresso machines: do you personally like lever machines or pump machines better? Can you explain why?

In my Officina Maltoni, in San Leo in the province of Rimini, in the green Marecchia Valley, I like to restore lever-operated models, for these machines the 1950s were a fantastic period! I opened it in 2013 (so we are already celebrating 10 years), together with Matteo, who has now been joined by Blady, a very competent Albanian specialised mechanic and with the advice of Alberto, a specialised technician who on many of those machines took care of service and who passed on his experience to us. We are now fully equipped (even with vintage equipment) to carry out restorations of all machines, from 1900 to 1960, and every day we face new challenges, because doing a complete restoration that returns an effective functionality to bar machines requires a lot of effort, it means often having to rebuild parts and spare parts that cannot be found; we have also learned how to remake heating elements, acquiring equipment from a company that has recently closed. For special operations, such as chrome plating and work in plexiglass, we have over time selected partners of absolute quality who follow us with passion even in the most arduous undertakings.

If we were to ask you what are the 3 most beautiful lever machines of all time, what would you answer? Can you explain what you find so interesting about them?

Very difficult answer. I would begin by mentioning La Pavoni, a forward-looking historical company, which in 1956, together with the "Domus", "Casabella" and "Stile Industria" magazines, invented a competition for the design of a coffee machine. Designers Bruno Munari and Enzo Mari won the prize, with the Concorso model, later nicknamed Diamante because of the faceted shape of the modular elements of the stamped sheet metal body, whose modular design (a topic dear to both designers) allowed for changing color combinations and the use of different numbers of the same elements depending on the different lengths of the machines.

La Pavoni Diamante - Concorso model

La Pavoni Diamante - Concorso model

The second lever machine is undoubtedly the model from La San Marco, baptized Lollobrigida for its sinuous curves and eye-catching shapes, which precisely because of these unique and unmistakable features was dedicated to the famous actress Gina Lollobrigida. Today it is one of the most sought-after models by collectors all over the world.

La San Marco Lollobrigida

La San Marco Lollobrigida

Next, certainly a significant and very impressive model is the Faema model Saturno with three groups. It is of large dimensions, equipped with two boilers that made it capable of covering the needs of major consumption, such as that of bars in railway stations or cafes in old town centres. Made of bronze and brass, chrome-plated, it has the considerable weight of more than 120 kg. Probably a unique worldwide three-group specimen, produced in a limited series due to the excessive production cost, reaching in 1950 the sum of 670'000 liras, (over 12'500 euros today), to give you an idea, a coffee cost 30 liras and a Fiat 600 sedan 652'750 liras.

Faema Saturno 3 groups in the Mumac Museum

Faema Saturno 3 groups in the Mumac Museum

Is there one lever that when you use it excites you more than all of the others even though it is theoretically less important than others?

I must say that I have been lucky enough to restore and try all brands of lever espresso machines. Certainly, the most resistant to wear and tear, thanks to an incredible quality of materials is the Gaggia Classica model, which in the first series, of 1948, did not have the locking feature for pre-infusion, installed later bringing a considerable improvement. I believe it is the best "lever" of the 1950s, although not inferior are also La San Marco and Faema, La Cimbali, La Pavoni.

Following your experience of buying, selling and restoring machines, what are the first things you look at when you want to figure out what state a machine is in? Are there any particular indicators or details that make a difference?

Usually, the first thing I try to do is to open the top of the body, to see the inside of the boiler, from which you get a good understanding of the state of preservation, the life, the work done. Then I check that there are no very important external parts missing. I have to say that thanks to my paper archive of 25’000 documents, now part of the Mumac Museum, I can always verify what the aesthetic part was supposed to look like, plus the technical documentation helps me reconstruct any external, missing or deteriorated parts, such as the plexiglas parts.

Since opening the workshop and hiring new employees, how has your work changed? Can you also tell us how many machines you restore approximately in a year?

I had previously gone through the experience with an outside workshop, when from 1988 to 2000 I collaborated with Vittorio Bandini, my teacher, who had great knowledge on lever machines, having worked in Officina Faema in the late 1950s. I used to restore all the first machines in my collection at his workshop, where I learned a lot about this kind of work. Since the opening of my workshop in 2013, thanks to Matteo, we have created a very organised process so that we manage to restore about 7-8 machines a month, for a total of about 90 per year.

Enrico Maltoni in his workshop with a Faema President and a Gaggia Esportazione

Enrico Maltoni in his workshop with a Faema President, a Gaggia Esportazione on the left and a steam powered Victoria Arduino Tipo Extra on the right

From a construction point of view, are there any features and differences that most strike you between one manufacturer and another? For example, what do you most admire internally in a Gaggia versus a Faema, Pavoni, Cimbali, San Marco or other?

Certainly the most important brands mentioned, such as Gaggia, La Pavoni, Faema, La San Marco, have always been able to maintain the consistent quality and get a fair price, being already in the mid-1950s small and medium-sized industries, which also guaranteed an assistance service.

Smaller brands, even interesting ones, because of their small size and thus the difficulty of taking on major investments to grow, could not withstand the competition and closed their production, just to name a few: Cambi, Carpineti, Eterna, Mondial, Eureka, Universal, La Veloce Gatti, American.

How do you see the current market for both domestic and professional espresso machines? Do you think they are evolving well or would you have preferred that they had taken or maintained a different path?

I am happy with the development of domestic machines, both of the mid and top range; they can now be said to produce "café-like espresso", the only problem is the still very high cost, but I believe that with time it will come to a more affordable price, at least for the more traditional ones.

I don't like super-automatics very much, but I have to admit that they have had an incredible evolution, and have allowed them to take a good share in the fresh ground market, which for me is essential for good, fair, and sustainable coffee.

The capsule world, on the other hand, I do not consider it, as I find it to be a seriously bad solution both for the pollution that capsules that are not properly disposed of produce, and for the low quality of the systems, which have in fact become, in a short period of time, throwaway machines.

Are there any technical solutions that you have seen implemented in machines of the past that were later abandoned but that you thought were interesting and would like to see again on modern machines?

On this question I do not have an answer, which would perhaps require a separate analysis and evaluation.

How is the demand for restored vintage coffee machines for commercial usage? Has it increased in recent years? And after your meeting with James Hoffman?

Since 2013 the demand has been steadily increasing, to give you an idea, in 2022 we had a 33% growth.

There are 5 major collectors with whom we have since a long time a direct consulting and supply relationship. At average they have collections of more than 200 pieces each, consider that they are collections started after 2010.

We have loyal customers to whom we ship a container of restored machines every year. Surely there will be other museums and collections around the world, because this is a much-loved field, which has awakened great interest, especially in young people.

The usage in bars, despite the interest for the beauty of the machines, which make a contribution to the style of the premises, runs up against regulations that prevent the use of vintage machines for serving purposes. This does not prevent them from being used as a scenic element, even in private homes.

Well, the fact that my friend James Hoffman visited the workshop to choose the Faema model President first series, of which I then oversaw the delivery and installation at his Prufrock Coffee in London, and he has reported extensively on this choice, stimulated requests especially from China and the USA. In China, for example, in April we delivered as many as 10 restored machines.

What are the countries from whom you have the largest number of customers who buy your collectibles?

At the moment China, Taiwan, Korea, Australia, the United States, while in Europe the most active markets are Germany and the Netherlands. A big change from when I started by selling only in Europe.

What kind of coffee do you like to drink, and, $1’000’000 question: what machine(s) do you use daily in the home?

For the coffee I am very lucky, thanks to my friend Alice I signed up for the Mirabilia Specialty Coffee Box and I receive two 250 grams packets of coffee every month, selected among the best micro roasters. I really enjoy drinking good quality coffee.

Having always lever machines in the workshop, in my kitchen at home I have a latest production Faemina, I must say of incredible quality and performance. Then I diversify with various domestic systems, filter and percolation, in particular I love the "Napoletana" coffee pot.

A few years ago, when we paid you a visit at Mumac, you confessed to us that another of your interests is watches. Can you tell us more about that? What do you find in common between espresso machines and watches? Do they convey the same emotions to you?

I have always had a passion for watches, although I don't have a large collection; and I find they have an interesting resemblance to the pressure gauges of the early 20th century models, which have wonderful graphics, sometimes handmade: true works of art.

Regarding Mumac, is it just as you would have imagined it to be, or are there things that you still wished were done differently?

Although I would have liked to display the entire collection, after having investigated well in the planning stage what it means to make a museum, I am glad it was realised this way. Together with the Cimbali family, we decided to exhibit 100 specimens and do a two-year rotation, which allows us to still present a nice overview of the coffee machines, having more space to create side events and exhibitions, and be able to dedicate two areas to the history of the bar, with all the original items of furniture and accessories.

MUMAC - Museum of Coffee Machines in Milan

Mumac Museum in Milan

If you were to open your own vintage bar, how would you imagine it and where would you open it?

I would imagine it as the bar in the Mumac Museum, 1950s, everything strictly original, Faema bar counter, perfection and a unique atmosphere.

It seems to us that there is a growing interest in lever machines, and we also see more and more small new manufacturers, how do you see it? Do you think it's just a flash in the pan?

Yes, there is indeed a very important growth that some manufacturers have perhaps underestimated. San Marco, the leader of lever machines in the bar world, has had significant development, and many companies have sprung up in the recent years, outside Europe, many companies in the domestic sector as well.

Do you feel that you have a good relationship with other collectors? Do you help each other or are you of the opinion that there is too much of a self-centered tendency?

As already mentioned, I have a very good relationship with the five greatest collectors in the world, with whom I have direct, I would say daily contact. Only with one other collector there is competition and little cooperation, but as I always say to everyone, "quantity does not matter, quality does". My collection, together with the Gruppo Cimbali, includes the largest archive in the world, dedicated to espresso coffee machines and the second largest collection in the world, in terms of quantity and quality, of antique books, included in the Mumac Museum.

What is the machine that you longed for the most and its finding was most suffered? Can you briefly tell us its story?

The queen of my collection was designed by Gio Ponti in 1947 model DP.47 and there are only two pieces in the world, it is the most coveted by all collectors. It was found five years ago, and then left abandoned, in a decommissioned hotel on the coast of Rome, until I managed to retrieve it. The design of the model with its mighty futuristic lines made a very strong impact, outshining the competitors. Then, since it was a machine of transition between the old steam system and the system with "cream", which became widespread since '48, it was not a great market success, but it still remains the most beautiful!

La Pavoni Dp.47 - Cornuta by Gio Ponti

La Pavoni DP.47 also known as "Cornuta"

We know that you occasionally get to lend your collectibles to third parties, what are the most prestigious collaborations you have participated in?

They are many, from Expo Milano 2015 to the Museum of Coffee in Santos, Brazil, to the Museum of Science and Technology in Munich in Germany, and when we first exhibited at the Louvre in Paris, at the Musèe des Arts Décoratifs an espresso machine, was an important day, I did not miss the opening. Then I can mention with pleasure the machines displayed at the opening of the Starbucks Reserve Roastery in Milan, or those lent for film sets, including, for example, that of Giuseppe Tornatore's "Malena".

Finally, is there a question that we haven't asked you but that you would have liked to have given a strongly felt answer?

When you bought that first machine at the age of 18, would you have imagined the path you later took?

I certainly couldn't think that that machine, picked up for its beauty, would have given such a big turnaround to my life, transforming a passion into an activity that would engage me at 360 degrees. I am a collector and thanks to the Cimbali family I was able to realize the dream of seeing my collection displayed in a museum, a dream that I still continue to live.

Without the support of a great company I would have never been able to bring to life such an important project on coffee machine culture. The museum proposes the whole evolution of an entire made-in-Italy sector; in fact, all the manufacturers that with their products and ideas have been milestones in more than 120 years of evolution are present.

In short, I am grateful to that 18-year-old who took that first step, which allows the me of today to continue this journey among design, technology, history, and beauty.