This review updates a previous review posted more than four years ago.
I've owned my semi-automatic Livia 90 (serial no. 50) since 1991, when I bought it, slightly used, along with a new Moka grinder directly from Pasquini in Los Angeles. Their personnel are good enough that the decision process was fun, negotiation was pleasant, the ultimate price ( under $1,100 for both machines) was fair and the subsequent informal tutorial was informative.
Every morning I pull three double shots for myself. Then a fourth in the afternoon. Also, I irregularly make a variety of "coffee drinks" with steamed milk for the S.O., relatives, clients who see me at home, guests, etc., with an annual mean of over 2000 shots. In other words -- typical home use. Since buying the machine it has been in the shop twice for routine maintenance. Prior to its second trip in 2004, the hot water valve failed complicating the S.O.'s tea-making process. The valve was replaced for about $150. Last month, I replaced the basket from the portafilter ($8.50) after denting it (don't ask).
Other than cleaning, that's it for maintenance. The machine has held up well in all resprects. The only signs of wear are some brass peeking through the chrome at the portafitler's "ears," and a few dents in the trim-rail around the cup holder.
Livia protocol doesn't differ from any other HX machine. That is, flush a couple of ounces through the empty portafilter to equilibriate temperatures in the water's path to an acceptable brewing temperature; grind the coffee, fill the portafilter, and tamp before the group overheats; flick a switch to pull the shot, flick it the other way when the shot is pulled. Keep things clean. That's it. These instructions don't convey distinctions in "feel" perceived by good baristas as to fill, tamp and grind. Anti-caveat: There's no"feel" to running a semi-automatic or automatic machine. Lever switch, rocker switch, push switch -- it doesn't matter. Work the switch and hot water at pressure flows into the portafilter.
One of the distinguishing characteristics of a Livia 90 is its sensitivity to grind, and much has been written about it. However, grind is optimized after pulling the first cup of the day. If the shot draws too slow, coarsen the grind by 1/2 a step for the next cup. Too fast, and grind finer by the same amount. Over ten years, the grind has never moved more than a full step from "4-1/2" on the Moka. From visual and tactile standpoints the grind should look fluffy, and retain the merest hint of grit when rolled between the fingers. Tangentially, the grinder should be large and powerful enough so as not to transfer excess heat during the grind -- and the Moka is a good partner.
Livias put out a lot of steam. The stock tip is more useful for a lot of milk than for a little. You can get different tips from a number of sources, including Pasquini and 1st-Line. If you froth small amounts of milk, as in less than four ounces at a time, get a slower tip.
I don't know enough about the engineering or physics of espresso machines to understand what separates a Livia 90 from machines in its price range with (or without) the E-61 group. I won't opine. With the Livia's group thermally equilibriated and the basket properly filled and tamped with well-ground coffee it brews as good a cup as anything. It brews with more body and a darker crema than I get out of other prosumers. It extracts the maximum amount of flavor from medium through full-city roasts. By way of example, you can actually pull a great cup with Trader Joe's Island Blend. But it's a mixed blessing. The Livia is intolerant of dark roasts going too far beyond second-crack. What tastes "carmelized" from another machine the Livia reveals as burnt and bitter. For sure, stay away from anything announcing itself as an "espresso roast."
If you need specialty temperatures look elsewhere. it's not a Brewtus or a La Spaziale Verdi; nor is it as accomodating to specific, "ideal" temps as other, newer, prosumer HXs seem to be. As well-built as it is, it is neither a La Cimbali Junior nor an Elektra A3. I get the feel from reading the geeks who write Home Barista that, one can brew a better tasse with a machine allowing more control of brewing temperatures. I don't doubt it and that somehow the stability of the true commercial single group machines reflects itself in the cup. But have some perspective. It's more important to use a blend you like and brew into a hot cup than to be within 1/2 a deg F of the "ideal" brewing temp for a particular roast/blend. Bottom line: It's not easy to find a better cup of espresso than you can make with a Livia using good technique and a coffee you enjoy.
The other day I drove over to Pasquini for a new basket, was invited for grappa and coffee by Mr. Pasquini, who was sitting at a table in the middle of the sales floor having coffee with a few other old-timers. I pulled my own shot from a new Livia 90. It looks slightly different than the oldie, has a pressure guage, and runs much quieter. Otherwise, the experience is the same. But the experience of drawing a good cup with any machine is always basically the same. Face it, 90% of the cup is tamp, grind, temp contol and the coffee itself. As long as you can get into the right temperature range with decent pressure, one machine squirts the same jamoke as another. As a matter of fact, I screwed up the first cup I pulled by not flushing the group and tossed it. The second though, was delicious. (Especially at 40% grappa.) Do it right and it's heaven in a cup. Do it wrong, it's sink city. The verities remain. It's not the machine. It's the barista.
A Livia gives good pressure, reliable post-flush temperatures, and remarkable durability. When my old one went to Pasquini for its bi-decadal service, the head technician tried to talk me into trading it in on a new one. When I balked, he suggested replacing the pump, since it would inevitably die. There were no turnip greens on my back, so heaven knows what brought that on. And once the conversation switched to Spanish the conversation turned from upgrade to service. Spanish seems to be less expensive.
Sadly though, the pump will eventually go. At that point, I'll decide whether it's worth putting expensive parts into an obsolete machine. Luck of the draw undoubtedly had a lot to do with the durability of my machine. Despite its age and slight crankiness, from a performace stanpoint, the Livia should be ranked among the better HX machines. The aren't any major differences in life with a Pasquini or any other un-plumbed machine in its class, say an Isomac or a Quickmill. Given my experience, if I were choosing among pour-over machines of its class I wouldn't hesitate to buy another Livia 90.