It's an old virtuoso, doing its job with style and soul.
Positive Product Points
Sturdy, pretty, capable. Just looks better with age.
Negative Product Points
Scalding steam blows out the top, can only make enough drinks for a small number of people.
I love this machine. When it's hot it blows steam and whoops and chuffs, almost appearing to rock back and forth like an agitated R2 unit. My wife is afraid to use it. I've had it for almost 15 years, and it definitely took me a while to get the hang of it. The cafe grinds my beans, because I never bought a burr grinder and a blade grinder is terrible. When I ground my beans at the supermarket I kept track of which grinders ground how fine on what setting, and found that a supermarket grinder's coarser espresso setting usually does the best job. If I'm uncertain, I'll test by feel and either change settings or change grinders. I'll wait for the good grinder, even if others are free, which can appear stalkery if you aren't discreet. I've always used the "useless" plastic tamper that came with it. I like it. I kind of figure I'd have to learn to tamp all over again with a tamper that weighs more than an ounce.
This machine makes good-tasting espresso and good foam. Foaming milk is just fun, and this'll give you some loft, rising 3/4" above the rim when you pour the shot into the cup. People look forward to having an espresso beverage at my house ("Oh, if it's not too much trouble!" "No, no, I like it!"). My 'house beverage' is about three ounces of milk foamed in a cappuccino cup, with the shot poured through. Sometimes I'll make a latte in a pint glass, early-90s style, with separate layers of milk, espresso and foam. Guests like the coffee, and I think they like the show. The cleaning, the dosing, the tamping, foaming and presentation. It makes people feel special, like you really care about coffee and really care about them. Don't sell the ritual short - it heightens the anticipation, and increases pleasure. It helps that the espresso tastes really good. My barista pal was startled and impressed that the La Pavoni made better espresso than the pro machines at Peet's. Unfortunately, I can only eke three or four drinks out of the machine, and the first shot is usually the best. I have to confess that the americanos I get at Union Block in McMinnville (OR) are richer-tasting and better than I can make at home. More experimentation is in order.
A caveat for readers: I like LPs, film cameras, steel bikes and fixed-gears.
A friend of mine's family had used this as their espresso machine when he was growing up, and he inherited it when it stopped working. When he moved, he left it outside my door, with a scrawled wiring diagram and a heap of accessories. The switch was corroded out, and the gaskets were shot.
Hardisty's in Santa Rosa replaced the switch and said "all fixed!", except the gaskets still leaked. I made the bottom one myself, and Thomas Cara and Sons in North Beach (SF) replaced the rest. All told, it came to about $85. Not too bad for a $400+ machine. The switch had to be replaced again about 10 years later. It was $80 all by itself this time at Hardisty's (but was "improved": nicer looking and more rounded).
Three Month Followup
Two things have changed since I wrote this review: I started pulling the espresso on the proper LOW setting (thanks to all you other reviewers!), and my friend made me an awesome tamp to replace the plastic one. Pulling shots at the proper temperature makes them a lot sweeter. I recommend it. :^) The low setting also lets you make make more good espresso before the head overheats, and it's a lot less stressful because the machine isn't spitting and hissing on the 'steamer' setting. The tamp is a lot easier to use than the plastic la Pavoni one, too; you just put the portafilter on the counter and "RRRgh," tamp. The plastic one takes a lot more finesse to use without breaking or slipping, and the grip is dinky, and it's really light. I used it for more than a decade, but like any tool, a solid, well-made one makes things a lot easier. The new tamp might... might! result in more consistently good crema.