No tale becomes apocryphal faster than that of a retail steal, but I'll note that I was one of the lucky ones to pick up this Saeco Via Veneto clone (See Also: reviews for Saeco - Other Machines) for $50 at damark.com. The word spread quickly on alt.coffee - maybe machine manufacturers will finally get the message: There's a huge, untapped market for entry-level pump espresso machines at a no-frills price. I suspect that many, like me, will turn an eye toward more upscale products in the line, after seeing for themselves how easy it can be to make great espresso at home for less than $0.25/shot.
I'm a newbie, and as such, unqualified to compare the Melitta to other highly touted entry-level machines from Krups, Gaggia, etc. But as a newbie, I can confidently say that the machine has an easy learning curve. Do yourself a favor and "lose" the panarello frothing attachment (slides right off the frothing wand), as well as the coffee "pod" adapter. The best thing you can do for your espresso is to make sure that the coffee is fresh (roasted in the last week), fresh ground (in the last hour), and that you keep the machine itself clean - I do fault the manual for not talking about cleaning the group head, and other basic practices like flushing the machine with a bit of plain water after the shots are pulled.
The Café Espress has a "perfect crema" feature, the virtue of which has been hotly debated in online discussion. Why? Because crema is an indicator of coffee quality and barista skill - and "enhanced" crema does nothing to enhance the flavor of a mediocre shot. I find the crema device (a little spring assembly pressurized thingie <scientific term> inside the portafilter) innocuous - the quality of the crema is discernibly different with a superior cup: deep colored and long lasting, as opposed to light and quick to disappear when the "enhancer" is doing the work - but some folks detect a notable bitterness with "perfect crema" and have either disabled the feature (check discussions of this model in alt.coffee on deja.com for instructions) or replaced the machine-standard portafilter with a non-pressurized filter, available from Saeco.
I hate the frothing attachment. It sits very close down to the drip tray, so it's tough to get your frothing pitcher under it, and then adjust the level of the wand's tip as the froth rises. A less compact design would alleviate the problem. (Probably it would also add to the price of this unit.)
Quality? Materials? The Melitta's skin is that same shiny plastic that's featured on many a disposable kitchen appliance. Parts that are brass on high-end machines, are aluminum here, and the manufacturer specifically warns against using commercial descaling cleaners, in favor of vinegar.
The machine regulates timing of pour. This means that it's up to you to get a sufficiently fine grind and sufficiently solid tamp for your quality requirements - even if you mess that part up, you won't be able to tell from the length of the pour.
What else? Well, I don't like how "wobbly" the water tank assembly sits, although it appears to be a defect of style as opposed to workmanship. Also, you really have to hang onto the machine to get the portafilter locked into place, so watch out for that wobbly tank!
For all my nits, I love the luxury of terrific, easy at-home espresso, and even have a spare one of these in reserve as "insurance" on the first. (There's a one year limited warranty, with what look to be substantial exclusions for things the manufacturer doesn't want you to do to the machine, like leave it on for extended periods between uses.) If you can find the Café Express, Via Veneto, or a clone at under $100 US, it beats the heck out of any underpowered steam (vs. pump) machine, the likes of which fly off the shelves at $40, $50 and up!