The Via Veneto is a great beginner upgrade into a pump espresso machine. It is almost impossible to pull a bad shot. This is also a great machine if you like espresso and are lazy. That is, you don't want to worry about tamping. You just put the coffee in and pull a shot. The pressurized portafilter does it all for you. However, I have found that correctly tamping greatly improves the shot. The machine is easy to prime, clean, and operate. The pump is very powerful. I could never get it to stall even with the finest grind. You can use the steam wand for hot water. Coffee tastes best with short shots.
Negative Product Points
It is a beginners machine. It is almost impossible to pull a great shot (let alone a God shot). With the pressurized porta filter you are never sure if you really are pulling a good shot by looking at it (except for color) because it always looks good. Real crema is produced by releasing CO2 in the coffee not by frothing it by forcing it through a small hole. The espresso has a hint of bitterness in the finnish. The owners manual is almost useless.
For the money, I am very satisfied with this espresso machine as my introduction into decent home espresso. I upgraded from a Krups Steam espresso machine (I use the word espresso here lightly). I upgraded to the Via Veneto within weeks of purchasing the Krups. I did not know there were two kinds of machines (steam and pump). What an excellent upgrade. I was making coffee at home as good or better than most coffee shops and stands. You have to start somewhere and the Via Veneto was a good place to start. Now that I have some experience and more research under my belt my expectations have outgrown the machine. This is not the fault of the machine. You cannot expect the performance of a Pasquini Livia 90 for $135--which I will be purchasing later this week "Oh joy." The machine comes with a nice set of espresso cups, spoon, coffee pod samples with adapter, and a very nice book explaining espresso. It was very easy to set up. The instructions on how to prime the machine are too complicated. You do not need the little priming suction ball. Just fill the reservoir with water, open up the steam wand, turn on the pump until water comes out of the wand, and then turn off the wand and let water come out of the group head--it is primed. The machine is very quiet (I origionally said noisy, but I have changed my mind after getting my Pasquini Livia 90) and takes nearly 4 min to heat up. The steaming wand only seams to work adequate--mostly large bubbles. Use 1% to get decent foam. I rarely use it. The cool thing about it is you can use it to fill your cup with hot water for an americano. The machine has been extremely reliable. I have had no mechanical quality issues.
If you get a good grinder, grind sufficiently fine, and get your tamping down you can pull a 27 sec. 1 oz shot from 14 grams of fresh coffee beans (the max portafilter will hold) and get an almost reddish marbled caramel colored shot that is quite respectable. Not bad for a $135 machine.
Remember, you goal is approx 2.5 to 3 oz of fluid (for a double shot) over a time of 25 seconds + or - 3 seconds. This is controlled by fineness of grind, pressure of tamp, and thickness of the coffee puck. Here is a hint for improving you coffee shot using a modified tamping technique. Because the basket is so deep compared to a commercial basket it is difficult to get the whole coffee puck to tamp evenly from top to bottom. Also, with lower end grinders it may be difficult to get a fine enough grind to get enough resistance to slow the shot down to 25 seconds + or - 3 seconds. You can increase resistance and get a better shot by filling the basket about half way and lightly tamping (10-15 lbs), and then filling the basket the rest of the way and doing the final tamp and polish at 30 lbs. Although you really do not need to tamp mor than 15-20 lbs with this machine, a 30 lb tamp with the proper grind can really help. Make sure you do not overfill the basket. You do not want the coffee puck to expand and touch the group head screen.
If you get a really good grinder (Gaggia MDF, Rancillio Rocky, etc) and remove the pressurized crema engancing componants out of the portafilter you can get a real good shot of espresso. That is a shot with real crema made from the C02 released from the coffee extraction rather than falsely made from the pressurized crema enhancing device in the portafilter. The pump on this machine is sufficiently powerful enough to pull a shot from a very fine grind. You can actually get a ristretto shot that looks pretty good. The bitterness in the finish is greatly reduced. The coffee has a fuller flavor and body. I would rate the machine a 10 "overall" and "cost Vs. Value" in its class with this modification. This would give it an average rating of 8.8.
This was a typical Costco experience. I went, I purchased, I left, and I went home.
Three Month Followup
This machine has been a workhorse. There has been absolutely no problems with it. This was a great purchase for a beginners machine. I have upgraded now to a Pasquini Livia 90 and donated the Saeco to my sister. She is in love with it.
One Year Followup
I gave it to my sister and it is still pulling shots as good as ever. However, the group is wearing down and the portafilter handle has to be turned almost all the way to the side to lock in without leaking.