The Giotto is an Italian espresso machine (made in Milan) that belongs to a class that is sometimes called "semi-commercial" or "semi-professional."
The main characteristics of the Giotto (and other semi-commercials would be similar) are:
• Thanks to the heat exchanger, steam is available at all times. There is no need to switch between "brewing mode" and "steaming mode," as with home machines that use a single boiler.
• Water from the boiler is also available for making tea or other hot drinks.
• The machine is self-priming, and will turn itself off if it runs out of water. It can be left on for long periods (e.g. all day in an office setting).
• After brewing coffee, pressure in the portafilter is automatically released through a valve, which drains to the drip tray.
• A special design called a “Thermosyphon Circulation System” is used to manage the brewing process. ECM says this is built with professional size components and results in increased efficiency.
The main difference between the Giotto and a typical home machine (e.g., Baby Gaggia, Krups, etc) is the independence of coffee brewing and steaming, and a truly professional Group.
The main differences between the Giotto and a commercial machine are size, capacity, and price. There is an accessory kit that enables direct connection to your water supply (just like a pro machine), and with a bit of handiwork you could adapt the drip tray to drain straight to your waste outlet - if you really wanted.
Like the Livia 90, the Giotto is heavy – our old Krups unit was a fraction of the weight of this puppy. We’re talking solid here. In addition the Giotto has a reasonable sized footprint (W x D x H = 330 x 420.5 x 350 mm, or 13" x 16.8" x 13.8") and you need a bit of spare counter space on either side for ease of access to the steam and water wands.
The Giotto comes in three styles; we got the all-stainless model – which is the best-looking IMO. This is a professional machine; it whispers quality and shouts, “try me.” The design is classic, not a funky Alessi box by any means.
There’s an absence of plastic on the Giotto. Only the knobs and handles show visible plastic, and even these are of high quality, so the whole machine has an unmistakable presence, this is the business end of town when it comes to espresso.
The Giotto Group was designed in the early sixties, and while the design is timeless, one difference is that the quality of today’s gaskets and manufacturing techniques allow for even greater precision. Therefore, despite the Group design being some 40 years old, it is considered by many espresso lovers to be state of the art. At a hefty 4kg, (9lbs) the Group is twice the weight of most competitors and it’s a genuine work of art – both technically and visually.
The steam wand for the Giotto is located on the left. It swivels up and down (rotates really) but not left and right. This is fine as it’s easily angled for a variety of milk jugs and when you’re finished you can angle it over the drip tray to catch any excess drops.
The steam wand has a two-hole diffuser and my one concern was that it would lack grunt (several Web postings alluded to this). However, the first time I used it over-heated the milk by foaming for the length of time I would usually use with the Krups. ‘ Nuff said, the Giotto produces ample dry steam.
The transition from Krups to Giotto surprised me with the initially poor result in the milk department – but this was technique failure on my part and not a shortcoming with the machine itself. Practice makes perfect, the point being that the Giotto can prepare the milk in about half the time of lesser units – you just have to adapt accordingly.
(I use cold skim milk and a cold stainless steel jug. After some trial and error, that combination is producing fine-bubbled milk foam).
Initial usage consisted of pre-ground beans (that Caffé Bianchi threw in the box) as our grinder was on backorder. This grind proved flawless and the very first espresso’s flowed perfectly producing a rich reddish-brown crema. As noted above, my first effort with the milk was less satisfying – but that wasn’t an issue as the espresso was so damn good.
As with all machines, you need to experiment with a variety of settings on your grinder to optimize extraction, but that’s part of the process. Funnily enough there is a special order kit for using coffee pods. Um, not for us thanks.
Water for Tea
The Giotto has a hot-water wand on the right hand side. This also rotates up and down and can be aimed over the drip tray after use. Opening the tap above the wand releases hot water (with a little steam thrown in for good measure). Drawing water will result in the boiler pressure falling, but it recovers fairly quickly and generally operation is uninterrupted.
Our old Krups had a switch whereby the single wand could alternate between steam and hot water, but having dedicated wands means they’re simultaneous available (the Krups had to warm up for steam) is that bit better – it’s a simple thing, but we use the hot water more now.
The Giotto has a two portafilters and these can be used as dumbbells for that after-coffee workout. Seriously, the first thing you notice is the weight of these things. There’s a reason for the solid construction though – and that’s thermal stability. The portafilters have removable baskets – the one-spout portafilter holds the single-shot filter, and you guessed it, the double-shot filter resides in the two-spout portafilter. There is also a blind filter for periodic cleaning.
The filter holder holds tight; it takes some effort to get them out of the portafilter (but this means that the filter basket is unlikely to fall out accidentally when you are emptying it of grounds).
Attaching the portafilter to the group is easy and there’s a sold feel to the whole thing. The group head has a sticker on it saying “Caution Hot” as the Giotto is designed to get quite hot here – this means the whole hot and heavy Group has great thermal stability.
There is ample space under the portafilter when it’s in place, it’s easy to get the shot glasses in and out.
There is a lever that activates the extraction of espresso. Fully up to dispense, fully down to close. Any questions? This thing is seriously easy to operate. As you activate this lever the Giotto has an internal process to briefly “soak” the coffee and then to apply the pressure, this progressive coffee infusion is considered a good technique so as to condition the coffee, optimize body and I understand it also helps with aroma and crema.
The presence of the lever made some newsgroup users conclude that this was a hybrid pump-lever/piston model. It is not, it makes espresso as a pump based machine. The lever acts as the switch to activate the progressive infusion system, not as tool to leverage extraction as in a traditional press machine like the La Pavoni and Elektra handle machines.
Pressure release and drip tray
After brewing (i.e. when the brewing lever is returned to the fully down "off" position after making a cup of espresso), pressure is released and drains to the drip tray. The portafilter can be removed immediately to prepare another shot. You will hear the pump activate automatically as the machine auto-primes.
The drip tray and its grill lift off, and under these is another tray which is sensibly mounted; in fact in such a way that this could be replaced in minutes should it ever get rusty.
Reservoir and pump
As for the Livia (and many others) the reservoir tank is in the back – in this case under a stainless steel plate at the rear of the cup warmer area. The reservoir tank is removable but you have to lift up the flexible intake hoses to take it out so sometimes it’s easier just to pour water straight in (or get that plumbing kit!). Our now redundant Krups had a better design – a removable water tank complete with lift out handle and one-way valve in the base. The valve would close when you took it out and filled it, and open only when it was placed back in the unit – a great idea, and much better than lifting the hoses out to get at the tank. In fact we soon tired of removing the reservoir and now pour water straight in from a jug (and yes, we’ve ordered the plumbing kit so soon won’t even need to do that)
Being semi-professional, the Giotto is self-priming. Shortly after you turn it on you will hear the pump kick in as it directs water into the boiler. The pump will start whenever more water is needed. There is a sensor for the water level in the reservoir – basically to stop operations when the water is too low.
We have an in-line water filter so have never had water problems with the Krups and don’t anticipate any with the Giotto. More than anything, the filter removes that slight chemical taste from tap water so it’s been a good investment in itself.
Switches and indicator lights
On the lower left of the unit is the power switch and associated indicator light. Above this is the pressure gage – she’s ready to go when the needle gets to 1.2 bars or so (don’t confuse this figure with the 9 bars the pump will deliver when required, this gage is for the pressure in the boiler). It takes 5 to 7 minutes to get up to this pressure after turning the Giotto on (I generally let it go 20 minutes or so before the first cup to really let it warm up) but then you can leave it all day – which is incredibly convenient.
Above each wand is a black rotary knob – the left one being to control the steam wand and the right one to control the hot water wand. The last “control” is the lever used to direct hot water into the Group and through your coffee grounds. Up for go and down for stop.
This is a pretty basic layout. There are not as many options as our Krups had, and that’s a good thing because less is more in this case.
As is traditional, the top of the machine acts as a warming tray. It is very effective, as it gets very warm up there.
The Giotto is hassle-free, just fill it up and turn it on. Prior to brewing run a quick shot of steam from that wand and you’re in business (this ensures no residual water in that part of the system). Like other semi-professional machines, you can brew espresso and draw steam in any order, even simultaneously (and like it’s counterparts, hot water for tea takes a lot from the boiler, and may require more recovery time before making steam again.)
With the use of the blind filter you can run a quick back flush. Audie recommended this only be done periodically for home use – “If you’re making 700 cups a week then maybe every second week, otherwise two or three times a year should be OK.”
(You put a little de-scaling powder in the blind filter, attach it as normal, and run the pump for a few seconds. When you turn the pump off, water trapped in the portafilter escapes through the pressure release valve, and in the process it flushes any residual grounds from the group. Repeat and then flush water without the blind filter in place. This process should only take a few seconds.)
Some tech specs
The boiler is nickel-plated copper with a brass endplate and holds 1.8-liters, the plastic water reservoir holds 2.9 liters. A recommended minimum wattage for any Espresso machine is 1000 watts, and the Giotto performs well being 1300 Watts. The pump delivers the optimum espresso pressure of around 9 bars, in other words these are good specs. As you would expect, ECM manufacture the Giotto in both 230 and 120-volt versions.
Buying an ECM Giotto
I recommend that you use a search engine like Google and search (a) the Web for sales sites, and then (b) Google Groups for user postings and comments.
The manufacturers site is http://www.ecm-espresso.it/index.htm
(Click on products and go from there. Note: There is a “Giotto II” which is not a replacement for the Giotto – this is it’s “big sister” being aimed at heavier volume requirements)
There’s a great PDF document on the Giotto that you can download from the company web site noted above.
You’re thinking, “This review is pretty positive, what might be bad about this thing?” Well, in truth very little. We’ve used this machine several times a day for almost a year without issue, but I have a couple of gripes – although they’re minor in the scheme of things;
• Until recently, the Giotto was shipping with an awful instruction manual (ours included), but ECM has apparently remedied this following user-feedback.
• The supplied tamper is a double-ended plastic thing that is cheap compared to the quality of the machine. It works OK but there are plenty of better options out there as this one doesn’t look the part. I’m told ECM has decided to replace this with a metal tamper, likewise a metal measuring spoon – both good decisions.
• Details on the auto-filler (plumbing kit) are scarce. Even ECM seems vague on this. More info please ECM!
• Internalizing the hoses and using a one-way valve on the base of the reservoir tank as featured on the Krups would improve water refills (in the absence of the plumbing kit).
• The frame that surrounds three sides of the cup warmer to stop cups falling off is plastic. This frame should be stainless steel to match the rest of the machine.
The Bottom Line
We are really pleased with this purchase. The Giotto is not cheap, but this as a case of “you get what you pay for.”
Is it worth twice the price of others? Well if you want an espresso machine not a coffee maker, then the question doesn’t need to be asked. Seriously though, a top end machine is also about things you can’t see – the right pressure and temperature to extract the good oils and flavors, control of the process and things “under the hood” that might not be obvious at first glance.
The ECM Giotto makes outstanding espresso (truly impressive crema, excellent taste) and the steam and hot water facilities are great. It’s easy to use, and it looks the part. At the end of the day you should buy any machine that makes coffee THE WAY YOU LIKE IT. For us, the Giotto fits the bill. Next purchase, maybe a home coffee roaster…
What are others saying?
Don’t just take my word for it. Here’s some newspaper and magazine reviews found while researching this article.
• The "Rolls Royce" of filter-handle espresso machines. (Test Magazine Plus, 12/1998)
• The Giotto makes the best espresso of any home machine I have tested and most of the commercial ones too. And it looks like morphing chromium, oozing over your bar. (David Schomer, On The Table #22, 01/2000).
• Winner of the High-End espresso machines test. (11 machines, top gourmet magazine, Der Feinschmecker, 03/2000)
• The one that curled this espresso drinker’s toes was the ECM Giotto…with its lever delivery (no buttons, no digital stuff) and a heat diffuser on the group head to prevent the coffee burning. If the Giotto were a car, it would be a’50’s racing Ferrari. (Sydney Morning Herald, 08/2001)
Comments? Questions? Problems?
I don’t work for ECM, their agents or distributors – this is just a review from a satisfied customer. If you have an ECM Giotto espresso machine, you can use this web site to post any corrections, additions, or refinements to the information above.