CoffeeGeek approved and raved about, Miss Silvia is a great choice for a home machine to begin you on your espresso journey.
Positive Product Points
Highly regaurded as one of the best machines, if not the best, by the CoffeeGeek community for machines in the $400.00 price range. You will also find a lot of support from the CoffeeGeek community on this machine and various tweeks on alt.coffee. For the machine itself, it is capeable of producing some of the best espresso I've had. The machine is built to match anything stainless steel and is very tough. Outside is easy to clean. Portofilter is 58mm.
Negative Product Points
The varience in temperature creates sour or bitter shots leaving the barista to temp/time surf, especially when pulling multiple shots. Learning curve can be steep and frustrating for a newbie. Some of the non-important parts, such as reservoir tank and reservoir tank cover are imperfect (in my case the reservoir tank top warped slightly - only astetic).
I bought Miss Silvia due to overwhelming advice from the CoffeeGeek community and I am happy I followed their advice (I am NYC_Crema). The machine has given me tons of really good shots. I have not and do not plan to add a PID since I get quality shots without it. Temp/time surfing isn't necessiary either much of the time - which allows me to really be on auto-pilot in the morning and not worry about a bad shot. I've read a lot on Miss Silvia from the CoffeeGeek forums and the knowledge alone decreased the learning curve. I believe this machine was worth every penny. However, my first Silvia did not work and I returned it promptly for another (which did work).
If you plan on buying this, just know that within a month you will absolutely love the shots you get from Miss Silvia. I wasn't crazy about the basic plain jane look of Silvia, but I've grown to really like its stainless steel motif. I'm not much of an authority on frothing, but it does what it does and does it well.
If you are a person that really likes espresso and wants to buy the best machine without spending *too* much, and you don't mind geeking out a bit, but you don't want to become a coffee scientist - then this machine is for you. You can buy it and practice only in the beginning and eventually just pull great shots, or you can really get into the science of espresso and do all sorts of crazy things (PID, modifications, etc). The machine is versitile in its user experience.
Finally, you can go around talking about "Silvia" =)
I bought the machine in person in Manhattan, NY from Porto Rico (201 Bleeker St, West Village). The tax was hefty (8.5%), but I didn't have to worry about shipping damages that can be too common with machines. Unfortunetly, the first machine I got was defective and in my eagerness to replace it immediately, I became quiet angry with the store for not acting quick enough. However, with my feet kicking, I got a replacement the very next day. I am happy that I bought it from a store front and not mail order, because I don't have to ship it out for repairs (if needed).
Three Month Followup
3 Months deep and I'm banging out shots comparable to the high-end machines found in good cafes used by a skilled hand. I find the biggest problem being temperature stability, leaving me to temp surf on some blends. Roughly, 1 in 4 blends requires temp surfing for all shots. I've grown to really appreciate the Rancilio Silvia and have learned a great deal about espresso in the last 3 months. I'm already thinking of upgrading, but that won't be for at least a year or two and when it comes time it'll be a La Marz or something far superior than a Silvia.
I recently discovered a crack in the grouphead which almost gave me a heart attack. Through other coffeegeeks, we found this "crack" to be on new silvias and in fact isn't a crack at all but two pieces of brass that compose the group. Whether I am slighly off in explaining the grouphead, rest assured if you find a "crack" because this is normal and not a defect.
Steaming on the Silvia is the next "bad point", but I'm happy with the results thus far. Many Silvia owners complain of the frothing capabilities of the Silvia, but it'll make you microfoam once you get the hang of it - again, we have a learning curve here.
A final issue was early blonding of many shots. I can't be certain if this is because of pump pressure, temperature instability or something else, but early blonding seems to be common with Silvia owners. I believe increased skill will help eliminate early blonding.
Using a triple naked portafilter shortened the learning curve, increased crema, visually stunned me, and made me a triple shot person. Early blonding isn't an issue anymore and triple shots are delishush. I highly recommend, no I demand, you get a naked portafilter from Chris' Coffee or Espresso Parts (aka bottomless portafilter, nude portafilter, etc).
I am considering installing a PID once the warrently runs out later this year. Though, this is just a thought.
I've definetly had my issues with Rancilio, but I would recommend a Silvia to a new enthusiast. This is a good machine and stands out in its class.
One Year Followup
I've given the 1 Year Followup Review good thought and have come to the conclusion that I am very satisfied with my Rancilio Silvia. With a full year of "practice", researching, meeting and speaking to other coffeegeeks, I've been able to produce extremely good espresso (at least for my tastes). I don't see myself upgrading for another year or two, which is probably a good thing considering all the choices there are out there.
In my initial review, I noted temperature stability to be a problem. I've discovered the "average" time to wait when temperature surfing which gives me good results 80% of the time (50 seconds, if you ask). I've also learned to turn the temperature way up (beyond 210 degrees F) when dealing with blends that require a high temperature all throughout the pour (as we all know, miss silvia's temperature will decrease as the pour continues; so in my case, the final temperature may be 180 degrees F). All this has made me find the general sweet spot for 9/10 blends, leaving me not to worry about temperature stability.
The triple basket, along with the naked portafilter, should be used all the time with the Rancilio Silvia. This practically elimates early blonding, gives up to 3.5 ounces of espresso, and makes awesome 2 ounce (triple) ristrettos. Switching back to the double basket after a full year, I've been able to really see the difference between the two baskets. I would suggust to all Rancilio Silvia owners to have a triple basket; if not used all the time, it would be used as a tool to show different taste profiles between blends.
Steaming... Yes, the Rancilio Silvia is by far not a steaming machine, but it does pretty well. You won't get microfoam similiar to a high end machine, but I would personally say my steaming results are good enough. With some practice, I've been able to get excellent results; however, my success rate is about 30%. None the less, I am satisfied with my cappuccinos (which is the important part when speaking of a $400 machine).
Having tried various similiar-in-price machines (Francis!Francis! X5), the Rancilio Silvia holds up as "the best". I really believe the Rancilio Silvia is the best espresso machine in it's class and excellent for beginners like myself. I don't see a machine as good as the Silvia within an added $300, so this machine is really worth the price. In addition, there are so many resources online with the Rancilio Silvia.
I am beginning to really accept the idea of PID'ing my Silvia. It would be the iceing on the cake and extend the "life" of my machine for another 2-4 years.
All in all, the Rancilio Silvia is a great machine and I would recommend it to anyone who has ~$450 budget. Of course, you need a quality grinder (I have a Mazzer Mini), or your results will - to say the least - be different.