My plan for June was to ride a Ducati Scrambler Desert Sled across central Italy with friends, making many stops for espresso, the trip culminating with a visit to the Ducati Museum in Bologna.  Obviously those plans are on hold now, but Italy is very much on my mind.  I have been documenting the proliferation of motorcycle coffee shops in large cities and small towns across the United States (the subject of my next article), and have discovered there are surprisingly few such establishments in the country that gave birth to espresso.  At the same time, very few Italians have never ridden a two-wheeled vehicle or tasted an espresso. Motorbikes and espresso are, in fact, at the heart of Italian society and culture. They grew together during the twentieth century to become part of contemporary life. Both represent Italian attention to design aesthetics, technological innovation and engineering, an interest in maintaining artisanal traditions, and the importance of sociability.  Each day (until recently), hundreds of thousands of Italians zip off to work or school on a motorcycle or scooter, and most join a friend for a caffè espresso along the way. Why is that?  How did motorcycles and coffee become so entrenched in Italian life that they feel no need to create special places for coffee-drinking motorcyclists, as has become trendy in the US?

Dr. Wendy Pojmann on the Ducati she intended to ride and explore Italian motocoffee culture this summer. [Wendy Pojmann]
Statistics confirm how Italians love coffee and motorcycles. Italy has the most motorcyclists per capita in Europe, and ranks seventh worldwide (166 per 1000), behind developing countries such as Vietnam, Malaysia and Indonesia. In 2014, 1 in 10 Italians owned a two-wheeled vehicle. In 2009, Italians bought more than 400,000 motorcycles, which is roughly the same number that Americans bought in 2017 but with less than one-fifth the population. In contrast to the developing world, the Italians primarily ride large motorcycles, not scooters and small displacement motorcycles as some might assume. According to Motociclismo, the best-selling motorcycle in Italy for several years running has been the BMW 1200 GS. In coffee drinking, Italy ranks thirteenth in coffee consumption per capita — Finland and Norway top the list — but that ranking is based on kilograms per person, which is misleading as the 1-ounce espresso shot is the drink of choice. The US is twenty-sixth by comparison. About 13 billion espressos slide across coffee bar counters in Italy each year. That’s roughly 216 espressos per person (with children factored in) per year.

1905 examples of the Victoria Arduino espresso machines. [Enrico Maltoni Collection]
Both espresso and motorbikes had their start in Italy at the turn of the twentieth century. The first “espresso” machine, in reality a steam percolator, debuted at the 1855 Paris Exhibition. In 1884, Angelo Moriondo of Turin patented a steam pressurized coffee machine in France. Then in 1901, the Milanese engineer Luigi Bezzera registered the first patent for a true espresso machine. Italian inventor Giuseppe Murnigotti filed the first patent for an internal-combustion engine motorcycle in 1879.  Aesthetics and design became intrinsic to Italian manufacturing. Centuries artisanal craftsmanship extended into the twentieth century and is evident even in early espresso machines and motorcycles. Espresso roasters Lavazza (1895) and Caffè Vergnano (1882), espresso machine makers Victoria Arduino (1905) and La Pavoni (1905) and motorcycle makers Bianchi (1897) Gilera (1909), and Benelli (1911) all got their start at about the same time. Then in 1914, the first Italian motorcycle road race, the Giro Motociclistico d’Italia, later the Moto Giro, tested riders on their fast new machines just as the idea of “express” entered the larger coffee world. Italian Futurist Filipo Tommaso Marinetti is famously said to have declared himself the “caffeine of Europe” as fellow artists, such as Fortunato Depero, captured the dynamism and velocity of espresso machines and motorbikes in their paintings. [See ‘Art and the Motorcycle: the Futurists’ – ed.]
Futurist painter Fortunato Depero painted many advertisements for coffee companies, as well as the iconic designs for Campari. [Vintagent Archive]
For a number of reasons (economics, the availability of materials, policies under fascism, and the disruption of the war), the mass consumption of espresso and two-wheeled vehicles expanded only after World War II. The scooter and small displacement motorcycle boom began immediately, since Italians needed inexpensive transportation, and the espresso explosion followed, both boosted by the Italian economic miracle of the late 1950s. During this period, the number of espresso roasters and espresso machine and motorcycle makers grew exponentially. Medium size artisanal coffee roasters Passalacqua (1948) of Naples, the micro-roaster Tazza d’Oro (1944) in Rome, and Caffè Kimbo (1963), which today is Italy’s third largest espresso exporter, were among the postwar roasters that are still active today. Elektra (1947), Faema (1945) and Gaggia (1947) joined older makers in the production of artful and technologically advanced espresso machines. And, in motorbikes, Ducati (1946), Piaggio/Vespa (1946), and MV Agusta (1945) launched their legendary and lasting postwar brands. The Moto Giro, which became highly popular between 1953 and 1957, showcased these manufacturers as well as Moto Guzzi, Motobi, and Moto Morini, whose creations were piloted by goggle-wearing road racers.

Aspirational motorcycling in the 1950s, with Sophia Loren in ‘Sunflower’. [Avco Embassy Films]
Scooters and motorcycles were economical modes of transport that fit the lifestyle of Italian communities. Even in smaller towns, city centers tend to be densely populated and services located inside a small area, sometimes within ancient or medieval walls, where two wheels  are convenient for running around. The Italian climate also facilitated riding; it’s a year round option across much of the peninsula and on the islands. Moreover, driver’s licensing policies favored the entry of the youth market into riding two-wheeled motorized vehicles. Drivers had to be 18 years old to operate a car but only 14 for a 50 cc scooter and 16 for a 125 cc motorbike. Espresso drinking similarly became part of daily life for most Italians during the economic boom. The new technology of pump machines and new methods for roasting, storing and shipping improved the flavor of espresso. Costs also remained low; the average price today for an espresso is 1 Euro and a cappuccino costs Euro 1.20. After 1956, the number of independent espresso bars in Italy grew from just over 84,000 to more than 150,000.

Manufacturing Elektra Espresso machines in 1947. [Alessio Pezzoni/Elektra Archive]
This link between coffee and motorcycles is therefore routine in a sense. Espresso is everywhere, including in what seem like remote locations, and riders on short and long trips fit a stop at the espresso bar into their journeys. They do so because of its availability, sociability and rapidity. Caffeine matters less than taking a real, if short, break and spending time with friends. Of course, for motorcyclists this means meeting at a bar before going on a ride or stopping for a coffee while on one. Riders usually select an espresso bar because of its location and quality rather than because it caters to their two-wheeled lifestyle. In fact, somewhat like English cafe racers (who, as Paul d’Orléans has noted, were once derided for not being “real” racers), there is the derogatory Italian label of “motociclisti da bar” (espresso bar motorcyclists). The term applies to riders who go a short distance on fancy motorcycles to drink coffee and show off their bikes, but don’t actually do many kilometers in the saddle. As for the motorcycle coffee shop, in Italy it is a new and small phenomenon. Ducati launched a café in Rome several years ago, but it was short lived. In Milan, there’s a Deus Ex Machina, an Australian company that features food and coffee along with surfing, cycling and café racing décor but it fits in more with the city’s international flagship stores than being part of a larger Italian motocafé phenomenon. Of course, there are espresso bars owned by riders who have motorcycles and related décor in their shops. And it is these places I will be seeking to learn more about, hopefully soon, as I ride through the country I call my second home on one of their emotion-inducing two-wheeled beauties.


Dr. Wendy Pojmann is Professor of History and Director of the Honors Program at Siena College in Albany, New York. Her most recent book Espresso: The Art & Soul of Italy will be published by the Bordighera Press in 2021. Pojmann’s current project explores the social and cultural history of motorcycle coffee culture. She splits her time between Rome and upstate New York. Follow her on Instagram @wendysespressolife.
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