Truth be told, I've wanted a Pavoni for years after looking at them in store windows all over Italy. When I decided to purchase a quality espresso machine, I found this site and strongly considered Mark's advice about automatic versus hand operated machines. I'm a hands-on person who enjoys learning to master difficult tools, so I decided to go with what I always wanted. Besides, this thing is a beautiful sculpture next to shoebox-like automatic machines.
I found a discounted Professional for ITL1232500 at www.best-of-italy.com and purchased a Rancillio Rocky for US$210 at whole-latte-love, both of whom I recommend.
My experience so far has been reflected elsewhere on the web: I am able to make exquisite espresso, but after 6 weeks, am highly inconsistent. I find that the experience is somewhat like mastering a horseback riding maneuver, or (dare I say it?) getting a bowling ball in the strike zone. When you've done it right, the process feels perfect and you know your cup will be excellent. It's just that it takes so many tries to get it right! The spirits that live down my sink are very well caffienated.
I believe that my mixed results have everything to do with my ability to tamp consistently. Perhaps this is newbie wisdom and will change with more experience, but I've found that the most important factors (rank ordered) are coffee/grind/tamp. Coffee and grind are easy -- buy good coffee, and grind it so that neither tamping at > 50 lbs produces a 15-20 second shot, nor tamping at any pressure produces a > 35 second pull; these extremes are within plus or minus one or two notches on the Rocky. Tamp is difficult -- because there's a delay between tamping and the feedback you get while pulling, it's really hard to get this right all the time, especially if you're trying to limit yourself to two shots a day.
My current hypothesis is that it doesn't really matter what machine you use -- if you've tamped well, you'll get a great shot. The Pavoni's great strength is that it allows me to feel when I've accomplished this. My bottom line is that I love the Pavoni and am happy with my purchase.
Like many other worthwhile pursuits, life with the Pavoni is captured by this grook by Piet Hein:
The road to wisdom? - Well, it's plain
and simple to express:
and err again