One of the major consumer espresso machine manufacturers in the world, Saeco of Italy, has a machine called the Via Veneto. It is currently their low end "budget" machine in the N. American market, and has been available for at least 5 years now, and possibly a few years more. In that time it has undergone a variety of changes, mainly aesthetic, but some in the functional department as well. It has sold for as much as $249 USD, and as low as $140 USD.
A few years ago, Saeco licensed the right to rebrand this machine to Melitta, and the Melitta Café Express machine was born. It is identical to the stainless steel boiler Via Veneto unit of 1998. The Melitta machine was distributed by a variety of companies, including Regal and Salton. Currently, the Melitta unit is on the Regal website for $130 (ed.note - not the case any longer)
The reason why this machine has caused a stir of online discussion recently is because another mail order catalog service, Damark, is "blowing out" these Melitta units for $50 USD. After you pay $15 UPS ground shipping plus an unexplained $2 "fee", the total cost to the consumer is $67.
We ordered two of the machines for this website, and put them through a solid month of real life usage and testing.
| Side by side comparison of a Rancilio Silvia (left), a Solis Master Super Auto (middle) and the Saeco Via Veneto (right). |
Form and Function
Aesthetically, the machine isn't much. It is small, weighs in at barely 9 pounds dry, and is all white plastic with a smoke colored reservoir and gray drip tray and portafilter. On the front of the unit are three buttons: one for power, one for steam, and one for pump activation for brewing. All three buttons have built in lights, but under florescent lighting, it is almost impossible to tell if they are lit or not.
The lights work opposite from what I am used to: with the Rancilio Silvia, when the boiler is ready, the light goes off. Ditto for steam. With the Melitta, the lights stay off until the boiler is ready, then it switches on. Same for the steam switch, which works concurrently with the pump switch - activate the steam switch and it stays lit, but the pump switch light doesn't turn on until the boiler is at steam temperatures.
Basically, anytime the light on the pump switch is "off", the machine isn't up to temperature.
| The poor fitting of the switches is evident. |
The fit of these switches is pretty bad. Check out the side picture to see the gaps. Others have reported receiving machines with these switches completely removed from the body of the machine. This is where the budget aspect of this machine shows through.
The machine is small which could be viewed as a good thing or bad thing. It is dwarfed sitting next to the Solis Master 5000 Digital machine, and is barely more than half the size and depth of the Rancilio Silvia. The top of the unit does get hot but putting cups on top for preheating might not be advisable, since they can easily slide off, and the surface is small. You can preheat with the hot water feature (see below).
The portafilter is plastic with an aluminum / plastic pressurized section with lots of parts that I can see being broken down the road. Apparently there is a non-pressurized, standard chrome and brass portafilter available for this machine, but I didn't have a chance to obtain one before writing this review. Plus I wanted this review to be of the product "out of the box", so I can't comment on the potential improvements derived from this aftermarket purchase.
The filter baskets are standard perforated baskets - the crema enhancer aspect of this machine is built into the portafilter. On other machines, the basket itself is the crema enhancer. There is also a pod adapter included in the package, and this allows you to brew standard pod espresso - poor quality drinks, but at least the clean up is a snap.
The steaming wand is chromed brass, and too short on its own for adequate steaming.
| Here's the insides of the pressurized portafilter. The more I know about this thing, the less I like it. When I first opened this up (after about a week of use), it was completely filled with gunk, dried old coffee, the works. The only way to really clean this thing is to take it apart, and even then it would be very easy to damage it. This is the most clean I could get it with a toothbrush! |
And of course, with all the delicate lil' pieces of plastic and wire, I can't see this thing lasting too long. I recommend getting the non-pressurized portafilter from Saeco USA.
The reservoir is a bit weird. It has this huge lid that actually reduces the amount of water you could have in the unit. As it stands, the reservoir can hold 56.5 ounces of water, and the lid actually holds 6.5 oz, which of course, you cannot use. I sort of understand what is going on here - previous versions of the Via Veneto featured a top feed siphon tube for the pump, and it came out of the machine near the top, into the reservoir. The current crop of machines are a bottom feed one way valve setup, but they kept the old body molding and reservoir design to save costs (I assume). The result is a 63 oz reservoir that actually only holds 56 ounces.
The brew head is a steel / brass mixture, and features a double-wrapped rubber gasket / brewhead cover that is partially covered by the disperson screen. The dispersion screen in action seems to work fine, but this setup made me think that some water would not be channeled evenly over the entire screen surface.
The power cord is typically beefy, which is a good thing. Excess cord can either be stuffed inside the machine or wrapped around a small cord area on the bottom.
Cleaning the machine is easy - it's all plastic, so cleaning is not a hassle. The drip tray is fairly deep for the small size of the machine. The portafilter is a bit more difficult - I thought I cleaned mine regularly, till I took it apart one day (removed three screws) and saw all the gunk buildup in the internal mechanics. Yuck.