You could spend more than $500 (a LOT more, actually), but you'd be nuts to waste your $ on anything else for your home. Get a Silvia!
Positive Product Points
An excellent, very solid machine that produces perfect espresso with good crema and very good steamed milk for cappucinos and lattes
Negative Product Points
None--you just need to spend a little time mastering controls and technique (it's not rocket science), and you need a good grinder and tamper
I've used a stovetop espresso maker for years but started to get sick of the slightly burned taste. Ever since I got hooked on good cafe con leche at Cuban restaurants in upper Manhattan, I vowed that one day I too would own a shiny Rancilio espresso machine (they all seem to have Rancilios). When I learned about the Silvia, I knew I had to have one. Yes, I obsessively studied all the reviews of every other thing out there, but all signs pointed back to a Silvia. The only negative reviews I've seen were from people who bought theirs used on eBay or some other place (don't do that--chances are you're buying something that the original owner didn't know how to use and may have damaged from not following instructions). Sure, I'd love a Synesso or La Marzocco with the fabled E61 group head and double boiler, but I can't see spending thousands of bucks on a home machine when Silvia does such a good job. Let the restaurants and people for whom $ is no object buy the extravagant things for show, but I don't need to. For just under $500 you can get a very solid machine that consistently makes perfect espresso with good crema and very good steamed milk for capps and lattes (I also changed out the single-hole steam tip with a three-hole tip that 1st-line and others sell). I followed the advice of others and invested in a Rocky doserless grinder (see my review of that under grinders), good Reg Barber tamper (the one that comes with the Silvia is a cheapo plastic thing), and fresh beans--and the results have been SO good.
I went with 1st-line because they seem to have a very good service record if you buy from them. I hope my Silvia will be problem free for a long time (and I plan to clean it properly and run hot water through the steam wand regularly as instructed), but it's nice to know they can do good repair work if necessary--this is more reassuring than buying from some other place on the web that doesn't offer service. I got a $50 discount for buying it with the Rocky at same time (I chose this discount over the other one they offer for a free custom portafilter), and they shipped it very fast. They also included a handy instruction guide for the Silvia that was a little easier to understand than the one that came from Rancilio and was translated somewhat poorly from Italian.
Three Month Followup
My 3+ month followup... (7 months actually--I've had it since Christmas). The Silvia is a fine machine and is holding up very well. I was able to start making good espresso and lattes right away after buying some recommended other gear (Rancilio doserless Rocky and a good Rancilio tamper), using good, fresh beans and learning the basics of operation. I also used Cleancaf every couple of months.
My results were usually good but often inconsistent until I learned more about the particular ways to optimize performance--nothing that takes long to figure out (especially if you read other owners' stories). Some folks have this down to an exact science, but I have a fairly simple routine. I first check the water level in the reservoir and usually fill it close to the line with cold filtered (Brita) water and flip it on--making sure the steam knob is closed pretty tight so water won't start dripping out of the steam wand. After a few minutes when the orange light goes off, I flip the steam button. (If I haven't used the machine in over two days, I first flip the hot water button on and run hot water into a tall coffee mug for about 15 seconds or until the orange light comes back on to make sure the boiler is full.) I usually make 2-3 lattes within a few hours at some point in the day (hardly ever just espresso), so I start by steaming milk. This also gets the SIlvia all warmed up. I originally bought a three-hole steam tip but it couldn't really produce a decent amount of frothy foam so I put the stock single-hole tip back on and it works really well most of the time. I've found that once you flip the steam button on and the orange light goes off to indicate it's ready, you need to put that tall coffee mug or whatever under the steam wand and give the steam knob a quick turn first once or twice to get the water out of the wand before a full blast of steam comes out. The pressure is impressive and even surprising at first.
After I finish steaming the milk, I turn off the steam button, put the coffee mug under the wand, turn on the hot water button, turn the steam knob and let water come through the wand until the orange light comes on--then I twist the steam knob back to close it pretty tight, turn off the hot water button, and toss the hot water in the mug in the sink. This process makes the machine cool down a bit to get ready for making espresso. Then I wipe the wand off immediately with a wet paper towel or rag. While I'm waiting for the orange light to go off again, I grind beans, load the portafilter and tamp it. Getting just the right grind (between 6-7 from zero on the Rocky), just the right amount of ground coffee (after leveling with a flat finger, not much higher than the line inside the bowl), and just the right amount of pressure from the tamper (just a little press and twist) takes some experimenting--and you'll know you have it right when you get a decent shot. If you're off on any of these, you may not get a good shot--if the beans are too oily, if the grind isn't right, or if there's too much coffee in the filter or tamped too tightly, it could be too thick for the water to get through very well and make espresso. You also have to load the filter with the tamped coffee in it into the SIlvia the right way by turning it tightly enough (but not too tight). But when you get it right, you can pull a good shot in 20 seconds after turning on the brew button. I turn off the brew button after 20-25 seconds (at that point the color of the espresso changes from dark to more watery and the orange light comes back on).
After making the latte I undo the portafilter, bang out the puck in the sink, wash it out, and turn it over to dry on the Silvia's platform (I usually take off the cover and clean the drip pan once a week or so). Since I usually make enough milk for 2-3 lattes over the course of a few hours, I leave the Silvia on for that time and may resteam the milk (and repeat the above steps) if it's too cold.
I imagine I'll have the Silvia and Rocky for a very long time. I do wish the Rocky matched the beauty of the Silvia--it's a very good grinder and works well but it's just a bit crudely designed compared to the Silvia. Rancilio should redesign it (in particular, the dial, coffeebean bin, and the chute are just poorly conceived) since so many people buy it with a Silvia and have it out on the countertop. I haven't read anything about needing to bring a Silvia in for service ever as long as you care for it properly, and the only thing I've ever noticed is a louder than normal sound (with a slight rattle) when I'm pulling a shot sometimes if I didn't run quite enough hot water through the wand to refill the boiler after steaming milk. When that happens I stop the shot and run more water through the wand first and that seems to fix it. But other than that, the Silvia is going strong and getting pretty regular use. I don't think I'll ever need or want to replace it.