This is a great all around workhorse with rugged good looks and plenty of power to handle all your espresso needs.
Positive Product Points
The Valentina has ample steam power and a sturdy E61 group head. The controls are easy to use and the machine is capable of making multiple drinks without recovery time.
Negative Product Points
I would like the drip tray to have the possibility of a drain hose without having to cut/modify it. The reservoir was way too small for my needs; I had to refill every day or two, making 20 drinks a week on average. It's a minor issue, but I would have liked to see the drip tray extend about 1/2" further out.
After using a Starbucks Barista (Estro Vapore) consistently for about 5 or 6 years, it was time for an upgrade. I make at least 20 lattes a week, and make drinks for party guests and the like. I wanted a machine that could easily handle my latte needs and do it quickly. I knew the machines I was looking at would all make superior drinks compared to my old machine, so that was less an issue.
I initially settled on the Valentina, Bezzera BZ02, Vivaldi and the Astoria one group machine. I wanted a semi-auto machine with the ability to be plumbed. I bought my Valentina used on a popular online auction site and took delivery soon thereafter. I would have preferred the semi-auto machine as opposed to the automatic version I got, but I was buying used. I paid roughly half MSRP, a price I was happy with.
The time it took to get used to the controls and power of the machine took less than a week. I had prior experience with large commercial machines, so this machine worked as expected. I had to fill the small reservoir every day or two, which got old after a week. The low water sensor worked fine, but I grew tired of sliding out the 65lb machine in order to fill the reservoir.
I bought a specific plumbing kit from 1st-Line and installed it myself. They warned me it was a bit tricky, and it was. I'm mechanically inclined and had the proper tools, but I still had some issues. Like many things mechanical, I could install it correctly in half the time if I were to do it again. My contact at 1st-Line was excellent and patient. He spent way more time helping me out than I probably deserved, and won a customer for life. Now the machine is plumbed and I never have to fill that reservoir again!
I learned to steam and brew at the same time, and still do. Some will say not to do this on an HX machine, but it works for me. I do it mainly because I'm in a rush to make my drinks in the morning before I leave for work, and my drinks taste quite good. The steam power is ample and I can steam 12 oz of milk in less than a minute. I have noticed that steam power fades after I steam and brew, but it recovers to full power after 30 seconds or so. My steam wand came with a two hole tip and I like it, but am contemplating getting a four hole tip.
The E61 group head is nice and makes consistently good espresso, as long as I give it a cooling flush before each brew cycle. I used the 'water dance' method and measured the output so now I just flush without the portafilter. For my machine, it's 8oz of flush. I have the automatic version, but I never use the programmed buttons. I use the manual (*) button and stop brewing at 2oz, or when it starts to blonde, whichever comes first.
After a month or so, I had my routine down. Remove portafilter, wipe clean and dose while I do the cooling flush into an 8oz coffee cup. I can get the portafilter dosed and tamped before the cooling flush is over so when the flush is done, I dump the water and lock the portafilter in place. A quick purge of the steam wand and I start to steam my milk. I hit the brew button (manual=*) after about 10 seconds of steaming. The milk finishes steaming and the espresso is done brewing at roughly the same time, then I combine in my cup. I don't plan on upgrading to another machine, unless I win the lottery.
I bought used from a private party, and was pleased with the process. The seller was honest and easy to communicate with. I bought the plumbing kit from 1st-Line, and have to give them much praise for their superior customer service. They went above and beyond the call of duty to help me out with the plumbing kit. They also carry replacement parts.
Three Month Followup
3 month follow up was thin and I was still learning the machine.
1 YEAR FOLLOW UP: It's now been about 14 months since I bought this great machine, and I'm so glad I did. Within 6 months of buying it, I got a plumb-in kit from 1st-Line and, with the help of the great staff there, got it installed. The reservoir is small and I had to fill a few times a week, at least. This is a modification I highly recommend. There are also a number of DIY plumbing options that use a float switch, which I was considering before finding a dedicated direct plumb kit. Either one would be an improvement over a true pour-over. The float switch option has the advantage of being easily taken out if you want to make your machine a pour over.
Today, I finally assembled my portafilter pressure gauge. It cost about $20-$25 total and took me most of a week since I had to order a pressure gauge from amazon.com. I attached copper tubing to a blind portafilter basket and attached a 300psi gauge to the end of the tubing. I thought my machine brew pressure was a bit high, but wow: 15bar! I adjusted it down quite easily (the top nut of the OPV valve turns to lower the pressure) and got the brew pressure to about 9.5 bar. This was really a critical adjustment and I regret not doing it immediately. I'm sipping a cappuccino as I type this, and the espresso is better by far. YOU MUST MAKE SURE YOUR BREW PRESSURE IS CORRECT!!!!!!
I've learned more about the maintenance and upkeep of the Valentina, which is partly applicable to any E61 machine. I replace the grouphead gasket and dispersion screen about every 6 months. The gasket gets hard, causing leaks at about that time. I replace the dispersion screen at the same time because grounds work their way into the screen and cause water flow issues over time. I've found the pressed screens from espressoparts work best. They fit better than the standard welded screens and can be removed without destroying them. The gasket and dispersion screen cost roughly $16-$18 to replace. I also leave the machine on 24/7, unless I'm out of town. Leaving it on costs me about $20/month in electricity, however the convenience of leaving it on is worth it to me and my wife. The only other modification I've done was to replace the two-hole steam tip with a 4-hole steam tip, which makes stretching milk a lot easier. My hot water spout drips a little, but it seems to be getting better. It only drips an ounce a day or less. 1st-Line carries a large number of replacement parts for the Valentina, so I've replaced a couple screws and small parts that weren't correct. I still don't use the volumetric dosing options, but use the "*" button to start and stop the brewing. I would rather have gotten the semi-auto version, but this was a used/private party sale, so it wasn't an option.
It has a few downsides, but they are to be expected. Some of what I'm listing is more of a "wouldn't it be nice if....." list. First is related to boiler size. The boiler refills after making 3 lattes, and I think this is because I normally do a cooling flush before brewing, which can be 8oz each. There is no steam power for about 20-30 seconds after the boiler fills, which is OK unless I'm not done steaming the milk. A larger boiler would help, but then the machine would be too big. I've learned to deal with it. I would like the drip pan to have some kind of drain provision and would like it to extend about 1/2" farther out: the demitasse cup to catch the espresso is close to the edge of the drip pan. I would like a brew pressure gauge too. I would love to retrofit a no-burn steam wand, but have yet to find any that may fit. Nobody I ask has been able to offer advice either.
Every so often I peruse eBay, the Buy/Sell/Trade section, craigslist and the various retail websites, and I can't find a machine I would rather have for anywhere near the same money. Sure, a GS/3 would be cool, but not for more than 6 times what I paid for my machine. No machine is perfect, but I lucked out when I chose this one. All the downsides I've found are fairly minor and don't cause me to doubt my purchase.
One Year Followup
4 YEAR FOLLOW UP:
Still love it. Still glad I bought it. It's paid for itself many, many times over.
It's had a few issues over the years, but nothing I couldn't fix myself. I had to replaced the hot water tap solenoid valve because it was leaking. it was fairly simple. I've noticed sometimes the spout will drip (very slowly, but it drips nonetheless) so I open/close it a couple times until it doesn't drip. I also had to replace the boiler heating element since the original one was shorting out. I ordered both from Grimac Royal Falcon (US Importer) and got them in a week or so. Installation should have been simple, but I decided to completely take the machine apart and clean it up. There's a small removable panel on the bottom of the frame that would allow access to the element if you choose. I like to do things the hard way. Next up to replace is the boiler fill sensor, which I should do soon. Sometimes the boiler will not refill when I run hot water from the hot water spout. I turn it off after a few seconds and turn back on later, and it refills. Other than those things, which I consider normal wear/tear for a commercial type item, the machine has been perfect.