A solid, well-built machine producing excellent espresso and excellent steamed milk. It's easy to learn about and easy to use. Beware spares availability.
Positive Product Points
The Alex is a solid, well made and attractive machine. Nothing flashy, but definitely quality equipment. Easy to use. Produces excellent espresso straight off, although (as always) practice improves things and you get to be more consistent. Easy to get at everything because of its size - it's not as cramped looking as the Brewtus for example. Dual-use in that it can be tank filled or direct plumbed. I'm initially using it as a tank filled machine, although when we rebuild the kitchen it may well end up being plumbed in.
Has all the bits you'd specify if you were building a machine from scratch: E61 group, rotary pump, big boiler and heat exchanger, two pressure gauges, good temperature control, nice water and steam valves, right-handed steam wand (many machines are left-handed), huge drip tray. Impressive specification using quality components.
Feels very nice to use. I really like the lever action grouphead. It's just so much better than pressing buttons.
Negative Product Points
The Izzo Alex is quite a big and bulky machine (which I like), so it's difficult to refill the water tank (if not plumbed in) without moving the machine if it's under a cupboard. The water tank is a bit on the small side and there's no easy way to tell how close you are to needing to fill up. I usually fill it up every time I switch the machine on. Usually I use a funnel to fill the tank.
It's not as quiet as you might think, but pretty good. Cups on the top can rattle, so I put a little self-adhesive padding on the underside of the cup tray where it contacts the body of the machine.
There are a couple of sharp corners on the stainless steel casing (bottom corners of the drip tray). A few odds and ends on the casing don't quite line up perfectly, one of the pressure gauges wasn't quite lined up properly and one or two of the bends aren't quite a perfect right-angle - but it's pretty good and you wouldn't really notice unless you go looking for it. Nothing you can't fix yourself with the right tools and a bit of care.
I find the short straight water wand is frustrating to use - there isn't sufficient clearance between it and the top of the drip tray to get a mug under it. Also the steam rises rapidly and envelopes your fingers on the valve directly above it. I would much prefer to see a cranked water wand that gives you the ability to position it beyond the edge of the machine and which would be less uncomfortable to use. Instead I just use a kettle.
It's quite heavy (about 30kg), so get someone to help you get it out of the box! The packaging is OK (just expanded polystyrene sheets cut to fit), but moulded foam inserts (as used to protect things like printers and computer equipment) would be much better. I don't much like the plastic name badge. Takes a while to warm up properly (20 to 30 minutes), but it's got a big boiler - maybe it's best to put it on a timer switch.
All in all, nothing bad, just a few niggles.
I've had an espresso machine for a long time now, but they've been the domestic model Gaggia machines. The old Mk 1 Gaggia Baby has been fixed several times over the past few years (several steam valves, a new boiler, a couple of switches, a new thermocouple, and so on) and it's given good service on a daily basis. The Gaggia Baby is also not up to producing much more than 2 cups at once because of the small boiler and the need to heat it up to steam temperature for the milk, then drop it back to do the espresso. With an office at home I also get quite a few visitors, so a more capable machine was looking like a good idea.
I considered quite a few machines before buying the Izzo Alex II. The ECM Giotto was my first intention (thanks to my friend Elliott who's had one for years), now available again from Rocket Espresso. Other machines I looked at were the La Nuova Era Cuadra, Vibiemme Domobar Super, Expobar Brewtus, Quickmill Andreja, Isomac Millenium and the Bezzera Domus Galatea.
What I wanted was good coffee, good build quality, good reliability, simplicity of use, ease of maintenance, something that would last for years being used on a daily basis and that it would look good in the kitchen. Most of these machines would pretty much meet those criteria, so it comes down to personal preference and your own perception of value for money.
Something else that's important is good service and advice from the supplier, so make the effort to go and see them and discuss what you're looking for. I prefer to deal with one supplier for all the bits if I can rather than buying all the bits separately from different places. I also prefer to deal with people in person rather than over the web or by e-mail.
So far the Izzo Alex II does everything I expected. The improvement over the old Gaggia Baby was instant and considerable, especially the steamed milk. The downside is that it'll make me even more critical of the generally poor standard of coffee in most coffee bars and chains - not that many people actually know what really good coffee should be like as they've never been fortunate enough to drink it. A few places I know do coffee well, but I can do a better job than most of them, especially with the Alex.
I've noticed that the different coffees require slightly different grinder settings and that single shots require a slightly coarser setting than doubles. Overfilling the portafilter can cause the tamped coffee to become further compressed as you lock the portafilter in place and thus reduce the water flow through the coffee - which leads to an over-extracted shot that is best discarded. In extreme cases you can fail to get any water through the coffee at all!
So far my favourite coffee is Brazilian Espresso (from Twoday coffee roasters here in Bristol) which has wonderful flavour and crema without becoming bitter.
The machine is easy to clean, especially with one of the Pallo CoffeeTool cleaners. Regular backflushing is important - I generally backflush with water each time I finish using the machine. I use PulyCaff regularly as well, followed by pulling a couple of shots (which I discard) to re-lubricate the grouphead and stop the lever from squeaking. I run the machine from filtered water, so I don't need to descale very often. Descaling is done using citric acid descaler, followed by a lot of flushing through to get rid of any descaler that might be hanging around.
BellaBarista (in the UK) were very good. I drove for about 3 hours to see their stock and range of machines. I was met by the owner and instantly offered a very nice and much needed ristretto, followed by a discussion of the machines they stocked and what the relative merits were. Brand new Alex out of the box to try, then once I'd selected it in preference to the others available (Expobar Brewtus, Quickmill Andreja etc.) they spent several hours testing it and cleaning it up before letting me take it. I also got an Expobar 1 hole steam tip, a nice wooden tamper, a knock-out box, detergent, descaler, a spare E61 gasket, a tin of "test coffee" for practice, some of their own roasted coffee to try out and a moderate discount. A pretty good package overall.
Turning up in person as a serious prospective customer who's called ahead is definitely the way to do it if you can. Overall it was a very pleasant process and I am pleased with the result. They're nice people to deal with. I'd recommend them to anyone else considering the purchase of such a machine. I'll probably be back for a Mazzer Mini grinder. They stock good, carefully selected machines, grinders, accessories and coffee beans at sensible prices.
Three Month Followup
Very little to add. Keep it clean and it just works.
I put a slightly longer steam wand on and I've swapped the stubby little water wand for a steam wand and put the water nozzle on the end. So, I've solved the (to me) irritating problem of using the water outlet.
BellaBarista have been very helpful every time I've needed to order anything, such as PulyCaff and spare brushes for the Pallo CoffeeTool.
One Year Followup
Actually a 5 + year followup. Very few problems, running the machine from the internal resevoir using filtered water to minimise scale. Descaled it a couple of times - check the E61 mushroom to see how scale is building up. Stripped and rebuilt the grouphead once to change the valve seals because of water dripping from the bottom of the E61 group - it's easier just to change the valves.
However, recently the Gicar box has failed (probably due to heat from its location high up at the back of the machine). Apparently it's a known failure item. To be fair, it's the first thing that's gone wrong which has stopped the machine from working at all. To reduce the heat effect I've relocated the Gicar unit lower down over the pump by simply taking the base of the dead Gicar unit, using nylon cable ties to fix it to the top of the new Gicar unit, then using the original base to fix it to the mounting point with the Gicar below it at an angle with the connectors above the pump.
However, it took 5 weeks for the Gicar to arrive from Izzo via Bellabarista. If that would annoy you as much as it does me, then before you buy I recommend that you check spares availability for a machine that's 4 or 5 years old and choose a manufacturer / supplier combination who between them keep adequate stock to cover known failure items and who ship stuff promptly when needed. This isn't the throw-away end of the market and having a 5 year old machine that is out of action for several weeks because there aren't spares easily available is not acceptable.