This is the espresso machine for the fanatic follower of coffee. The ultimate do-it-yourself barista experience.
Positive Product Points
Piston Lever Machine - this hands-on, back-to-basics, man versus machine thing really works for me and was the biggest selling factor when I bought it. This is when you, the barista, will solely make the difference between a poor, an average, or a simply outstanding espresso.
Style – the simplistic and classic style of this machine is great and looks awesome in my kitchen. Modern or obvious retro-style espresso machines look tacky, IMO. So this one is just up my alley.
Espresso – I’m not going to be presumptuous to say this machine makes better espresso than other machines. But I think the fact that so much depends on you as a barista makes the result so much more rewarding when you succeed (or disappointing when you don’t…).
Negative Product Points
Complexity – the learning curve, the dependencies and the difficulty to make a great espresso with this machine should not be underestimated. It is not the espresso machine you need if all you want is a quick, excellent, but unproblematic espresso in the morning. This is a toy for the espresso devoted.
Reliability – although I have no major issues to report with my Pavoni (knock-on-wood), the individuality between each Pavoni and the many reports of various degrees of problems that others have experienced isn’t providing me with a great deal of confidence in the the construction/build of this machine. For the money I have spent buying this machine, I am expecting a trouble-free ride in terms of flaws, but something tells me that may not be the case.
Small Details: flimsy and small drip tray (unmatching the sturdiness of the rest of the design), no catch for the portafilter, no easy adjustment of the pressurestat (which so often seems to be off), and the overall inconveniance serving more than 3 espressos in a row.
My wife gave me my first espresso machine in 1996. It was a Braun Cafequattro and it was my beloved mistress for nearly 10 years. Together with a Braun burr grinder and portuguese coffee beans (Sical and Delta), my Braun Cafequattro and I made some absolutely awesome espressos, day and night. I noticed with pride that my Braun made much better espresso than what I would get when visiting friends with Krups’, Francis’, cheaper Isomac’s, and Gaggia’s, etc. The only negative thing with the Braun was the small tank, which made serving coffees to a large company of guests a drawn out affair. But my morning bica made more than up for this inconvenience.
THE SELECTION However, in the last couple of years I have become more and more prepared for life after my Braun. Since the Braun stopped the Cafequattro line about 5 years ago I knew that sooner or later the machine would break and I wouldn’t be able to fix it. On 20 June 2006 my Braun passed away and with that started a 3 months analysis of the espresso macine market today. I quickly made up my mind what would be criteria and priority for my next espresso machine: 1) quality espresso shots, since this is what I use the machine for 90% of the time, 2) style and design (the Braun was certainly no exhibit item), 3) price, with me being the only coffee drinker in the house-hold, I would not be able to justify a $1000+ espresso machine to my wife, and 4) frothing capabilities, to be able to deliver when we have guests. Ease of use was, on the other hand, not a priority of mine, nor was the ability to produce a lot of different coffees in a short amount of time. Neither had been a real problem of mine so far.
The La Pavoni piston lever machine was early on a favorite choice. I had fell in love with the design already five years ago when I first saw a golden brass Pavoni with a huge eagle on top, although I would have to have the eagle replaced with a lion (this makes sense to you only if you know portuguese football). What attracted me most, however, was the manual intervention needed, where it would be up to me, and not a pump or a motor, to pull the perfect espresso. This “primitiveness” was extremely appealing to me. I also looked closely at dual boiler machines and HX’s. In the end, it came down to the La Pavoni Professional, the Isomac Zaffiro, and the ECM Giotto. With price being double for the Zaffiro and almost three times for the Giotto, I knew I’d have a hard time explaining the choice to my wife (especially since she only spent $150 on the Braun back in 1996!). But what clinched it for me was when I realised Bar Italia on Frith Street, my favorite café in London, uses a piston lever machine for their awesome espressos (albeit theirs is Gaggia and not Pavoni) – I knew the perfect espresso could be hand-made. Finally decided, I ordered a basic black painted base Pavoni Professional directly from Pavoni’s home page.
FIRST TRY Due to some delivery problems, I had lots of time to read up on the Pavoni before it arrived. There are lots of testimonies out there. Thus I felt quite comfortable about my approach when all the parts finally had arrived and I could get started. I cleaned the machine as advised, went through the start-up procedures as advised, I then filled it up to 2/3 and let out the steam to rid the machine of the false pressure, as advided.
My first shot was awful. I had ground my favourite portuguese beans to my normal setting for the old Braun espresso machine. The result was lukewarm, bland, and lacked any traces of crema. Like a poorly made drip coffee. I made another with no noticable improvement. So I decided to drop self-ground coffee and use the pre-ground coffee from Pavoni, supplied to me with the machine. The result was fairly better, but overall the first try was a huge disappointment.
So it was back to the internet and reading more testimonies. The problem with all the Pavoni posts is that you never know which version of the Pavoni they discuss. Over the years, the Pavoni machine has been developing and what were issues yesterday are not necessarily issues today. This makes it very difficult to trust all posts on the web about the Pavoni. I also posted a “help me” thread on Coffegeek in regards to the low temperature of my initial shots. To my relief I found a post to an earlier thread on the same subject hinting that the release of false pressure was the solution to low temperature and that the problem with the Pavoni was usually the opposite, too high temperature. So I decided to give it a try again.
SECOND TRY This time I let out steam for about 2 minutes to rid the machine of “false pressure” and then I let the grouphead get really warm before I gave it a try. Again I used pre-ground Pavoni coffee and finally the result was acceptable. There was the distinct taste of espresso this time but a foamy head of crema. After this I tried my portuguese ground coffee but the result was not as good. I tried and tried, alternating pre-ground and self-ground, now set at the finest my Braun burr grinder could achieve. Ultimately also the second try was flawed. Although I now, at least with pre-ground coffee, could make an acceptable espresso, it was still nowhere near the quality I would get from my old Braun espresso machine.
So it was just to get back on web and do some more studying. At this point I had already figured out, however, that what I really needed was a better grinder, and to do something with my tamp. The Braun, bless her, just couldn’t make the fine grind I needed for the Pavoni and the plastic tamper that came with the Pavoni was not much to write home about. This time my market assessment was a lot faster. It was clear that from a value for money perspective, the Rancilio Rocky seemed to be the safest bet. I made the order for a Rocky and a heavy Isomac tamper, and waited some more.
IN OPERATION With my Rocky tuned I started experimenting. I found after 4 tries that a setting at 17 on the Rocky, I got the perfect ground for my tamp. Nearly one month after the arrival of the Pavoni I was able to make my first excellent espresso. Two tries later the Ristretto I made had a solid head of crema. Near absolute success. Just a little more water and it’d been absolutely perfect….
I am still trying and improving. Change a little here, adjust a little there. The perfect espresso is just around the corner, but there are so many parameters. I know I will continue this quest for the perfect espresso for many more months to come. I guess the whole idea with this machine is exactly that - a never ending evolution of the coffee you make?
CONCLUSION The Pavoni Professional lever machine is for the absolute purist. Nothing is simple here. Bring all the parameters (grind, tamp, temperature, boiler and pull pressure) together and try to make sense of them all. The ultimate do-it-yourself barista experience. But I guess the question I have to ask myself is: it is worth it?
I have to admit that during all the waiting for missing parts etc or while trying to find the perfect combination of parameters I have been dreaming about the Isomac Zaffiro and the ECM Giotto. Several times I have been on the verge of ordering a second machine, a machine I know will make a perfect espresso each and every time, regardless what state I’m in in the morning, or how I feel in the evening. I've been so close. But the financial reality has always brought me back to my senses. I got a great machine and now I have to make the most of it. My guess is that once I start pulling perfect shots on a more regular basis these thoughts of a second espresso machine will go away.
BOTTOM LINE I am okey with this machine because it is what I wanted – however, not necessarily what I had expected. In fact, I love the challenge. But for those who just prefer an uncomplicated espresso in the morning I can see the disappontment. This is just not the espresso machine for the less than fanatic follower of coffee.
I bought my machine directly from La Pavoni over the internet. There was no acknowledgment of my order but a week and a half later it arrived. However, it came without the filter holder. So I complained, via email, and waited for week. I then asked Pavioni to acknowledge and that they finally did. Two weeks after my complaint, the missing filter holder and double filter arrived. In the end I guess I am fine with Pavoni’s handling but I have to point out that there is a great deal room for improvement in the area of communication.
Three Month Followup
Where shall I start? After 3 months I am, of course, much more comfortable with the Pavoni than when I wrote the initial review. I now consistently make good espresso shots as I have developed a routine that gives me, more or less, the same result every time. But I must admit, that only a month after I wrote the initial review I got caught up in upgrade fever and bought an Isomac Tea. And I also must admit, that during the week the Tea worked, it consistently made even better espresso shots than my Pavoni, with much less effort. To tell you the truth, the Pavoni was on it's way to eBay. But after a week, the Tea started leaking from the boiler and I sent it back with a refund. So my "cheating" was short and since then I have been faithful to the Pavoni. However, the memory of how easy it was to make really good shots with the Tea remains.
I do have a few "pointers" about the Pavoni I want to report:
Positive notes: - I have had no problems making more than 1-2 shots in a row. I believe this version of the Pavoni has solved some of those previously reported shortcomings having to do with the boiler temperatures getting too hot. However, the boiler is small and there is only so much capacity, so we're not talking about more than 4-5 cups anyway before you need to refill, and to refill you need to turn the machine off, so... But I haven't noticed major drops in espresso quality after 2nd or 3rd cup. And I never needed to tamper with pressurestats and whatnot. - Steaming capacity is excellent. - Key is grind and tamping - once you get these right, the rest comes easy. It took me a while, but now it is no big deal. But I can't emphasize enough how important the tamper is.
Negative notes: - The size or rather the function of the boiler. Although the boiler fills 1.6 liters of water, you can only produce espresso as long as the machine is approx 2/3 full. There's a little waterglass meter on the side showing some sorts of level, and the water only goes there when it passes 2/3 of the boiler capacity. Once, after use, the water drops below the waterglass meter, there is no more water to press out of the machine. Basically you got 0.5 liters to work with, tops. So in my daily routine, I always fill the boiler up before I turn the machine on. - Knock on wood, I have still not had any problems with the machine, but the lingering feeling that the quality is low and that shortly things will stop working or break is still very much there. The Pavoni just doesn't feel like trustworthy craftmanship, sadly. However, the Isomac Tea did feel like good craftmanship and it sprung a leak already after 6 days! - The position and manouverablity of the steaming wand is dangerous, just made for serious burns. The wand is placed only milimeteres from the red-hot boiler and it only moves vertically, so regardless position your hand remains millimeters from class A burns. If there is anything that Pavoni should do immediately to improve the Pavoni Pro, it would be to change the position of the steam wand and the way it moves. For left-handed people, steaming must be a real challenge.
The sad conclusion I have made, however, is that I seriously doubt it is possible to make consistent God-shots with the Pavoni, at least not without seriously tuning the machine. I can still count on my hands the number of God-shots I have made since I started using the Pavoni. Comparing with the Tea is unfair, since the E61 grouphead of the Tea puts Pavoni in the little league. And sadly that's where the Pavoni is. It's a very simple machine. Only by adopting careful tamping and grinding you can create the perfect condition for a great espresso shot - then pull down the lever and pray to your god(s) for a God-shot.
So if you ask me now, would I buy the La Pavoni Pro again?, the answer is No. I would have saved the money and bought an H/X with a E61 grouphead and consistently made much better espresso than I do today. Simply put, the Pavoni is not worth the 700 bucks I paid for it. So I am lowering my initial ratings in the areas of Cost/Value and Overall Rating. However, with all that said, I still love my Pavoni...
One Year Followup
My, does time travel fast? My Pavoni Pro has now been with me for well over a year and there are no major issues to report. Knock on wood, but maybe I was overly pessimistic about the robustness of the design? Overall, I am more happy and comfortable with my Pavoni now than when I wrote my 3 Month Followup, and as a consequence I am "upping" my ratings for this machine.
My observations after 3 months are still valid. However, these days I do regularly make very good shots of Espresso, with ease I might add. Poor sour shots occur, but only when I'm sloppy - the Pavoni is not forgiving in this aspect. The key is grinding and tamping. I found "it" about a year ago and I haven't changed it, and so if I put my mind and heart to it I will pull a God-shot at any given time. This is why I am more happy with my Pavoni now than after my 3 months' review.
If I look aside from the negative factors I mentioned in my 3 Month Followup, I think the only downside with this machine is that it takes time to heat up and to use. To make coffee on the fly, when you're late for work, is a matter of priorities - let the folks down in the office or skip the morning "bica" of the day. And when you have company at home, it is impossible to serve coffee for a group of people (more than 2) at the same time. There is just too much time-lag between each shot and it means you have to ask your company to simply go ahead and not wait for the others. The Pavoni is really not the machine for the stressed for time or for the social function. Unfortunately.
However, to sum it up what I have learned after one year, it is not a bad experience. The Pavoni is perfect for personal use only, For the contemplative solitairy espresso enjoyment. You, the machine, the coffee, and a moment for yourself with a nice companion. And that's not so bad?