I've waited a few months to submit a review of this machine so I'd have ample time to test it out. It was a replacement for my Rancilio Silvia. The Silvia is a great machine, but fussy and hard to make multiple coffees when we have company. I wanted a machine that would make more consistent coffee and would also be capable of steaming right after brewing.
Due to counterspace limitations (we have a small kitchen) and $ limitations I decided against a double boiler machine. My understanding is that double boiler mahcines are the ultimate in performance, but that a good single boiler heat exchanger machine can perform nearly as well. So I researched single boiler HX machines and chose La Valentina. Other machines I considered were Isomac, Fiorenzato, Vibiemme, ECM, and Quickmill.
Most E61 machines are going to produce pretty comparable espresso because the brew group is mainly responsible for the brew quality of these machines--the 9 pounds of metal provides improved temperature stability over the smaller brew group on a machine like the Silvia. Differences between E61s like boiler size and heating element power will affect steaming ability and to a lesser extent espresso quality. Boiler size and heating element size on La Valentina are in the middle of the pack. The Vibiemme Domobar Super has a much bigger boiler (good for steaming) and the Fiorenzato Briccoletta has more powerful heating element (for quicker heating and recovery). But far and away more important to espresso quality are things like pump pressure, pressurestat settings, and operator skill and techniques. Setup of any E61 machine is, therefore, very important. In my review I'm going to focus on what I think are the three things every person looking for an E61 machine should consider:
(1) Quality of components and construction
(2) Design and functionality
I ruled out the Isomacs on the grounds of quality. They are decent machines with nice metalwork and the price is good, but I've heard too many stories of pressurestats failing. La Valentina uses commercial parts. The pressurestat is a Sirai and the auto refil board is a Gicar. You really notice this pressurestat - it clicks on and off with a very reassuring sound. The wiring is heavy duty. As to construction, the machine is actually made by a company called BFC in Italy. Here is their website: www.bfcsrl.it They are a relatively new manufacturer of espresso machines. While they don't have the long history of some companies, they make their machines in a modern state of the art facility. The quality of the construction shows when you take of the cover and look inside. Their machines are CAD designed and the parts fit together very well. A full set of schematics showing all the parts is available here: http://www.bfc-espresso.de/pdf/espresso.pdf I've had no problems whatsoever with this machine in the six months I've been using it.
Design and functionality is probably the biggest difference among E61 machines. You've got to like using your machine, especially if you are going to have to wrestle with it early in the morning BEFORE you've had your coffee. Size matters and in this case bigger isn't always better. I liked what I read about the new Vibiemme Domobar Super on Coffee Geek. Like La Valentina it is a well made machine using commercial parts. But the tank version (which I need) is about 4 inches deeper, due to a large reservoir (which holds 4 liters instead of the 3 La Valentina holds) and a bigger boiler. But the size of the VBM means that it would leave little counterspace. La Valentina is a little taller and narrower than most E61 machines. This is good for my situation since I'm putting it on a kitchen island with no cabinets above. I like the fact that access to the water reservoir does not require removing the entire top. This makes it easy to refill the machine without having to remove cups (a $2 funnel helps make refilling a lot easier). The machine heats up very quickly, in about 15 minutes. But I've noticed that it performs best when it has a half hour or more to warm up (better temperature stability). The controls are excellent. The rocker switches are very positive. Having upgraded from a Silvia (also a semi-auto) I'm comfortable with and like using rocker switches. They quickly and easily allow you to turn on and off the pump and hot water. The steam wand is on the left side (instead of right like Silvia) which took a little getting used to. But the steam control knob is far superior to Silvia's, which often required a little extra tightening to get the drips to stop. This knob is real smooth and shuts off all flow well before it stops. The wand is also far better. Unlike many E61 machines La Valentina has a 360 degree swivel wand. Very nice to use. The hot water tap is fixed and doesn't move. Some people have complained about this, but I like it. It is right where you want it above the right side of the drip tray - no need for it to move. The location of the boiler pressure gauge makes it easily readable. The drip tray is large and easy to use. My one complaint about functionality is the stock steam tip. It doesn't work well. I could get better microfoam out of my Silvia which was disappointing. It had plenty of power so I figured it had to be the tip. I ordered a Gold Pro tip from 1st Line which improved things, but it reduced the steam flow too much. The solution was to drill one additional (very small) hole in the center of the Gold Pro tip, using a wire bit and a drill press, and making it a three hole tip. It works great now. Overall, it is much more pleasant making coffee with this machine than with Silvia. In fact, the Silvia really seems like a toy in comparison.
Finally, though maybe it shouldn't matter so much, but let's face it, when you're spending upwards of a grand on a coffee machine it better look nice. It should impress your friends and neighbors (otherwise they'll just think your nuts, not that that really matters) and good aesthetics makes it more of a pleasure to use (and clean!) day in and day out. This is where a lot of otherwise fine machines lost out for me. Too many E61 machines have the same type of look: a stainless box with knobs and wands. Isomac, Quickmill, and ECM all have that same style. If it is what you like fine, I'm not criticizing you or your machine. But it's not my style. I like the angles of La Valentina - there are practically no 90 degree angles on it. Aesthetically, it's like comparing a Porsche 911 to a Honda Accord. The drip tray is very nicely styled and the grate is unique among machines (no mesh). The feet on my machine are slightly different than what has been pictured on some websites. They are brushed stainless with a rubber bottom. I think they are nicer than the ones on the website photos. The two tone polished front/top and brushed sides is okay (the brushed sides are easy to keep clean), but I'd prefer if they had an option of selecting all polished for a little extra. Overall it is a very elegant machine.
Finally, I should also add cost is a factor. I could have got an Isomac or Fiorenzato for about $1000 (or three hundred less than I paid for La Valentina), but despite that the quality, functionality, and aesthetics of La Valentina seem worth it. I have no regrets. Overall, it's a fine machine for your average coffee snob.