Out of the Box
The La Pavoni Pro is a stunner. I know I say this often about many of the products we review, but just as I was impressed with the looks of the Coffee4You Balance Brewers and the Elektra Nivola, the same holds true for the La Pavoni Pro. Maybe it's just a coincidence that I'm getting these works of art lately, who knows.
Out of the box, the La Pavoni Pro shows why it has earned the nickname "Chrome Peacock". Just like a peacock, it's a unique creature that never fails to impress those who see it, myself included. It comes pretty much ready to go, no real assembly required. In the box are the following items:
- The Machine (natch)
- How to Video
- Single and Double Filters
- Plastic (throwaway) tamper - which doesn't fit the filter baskets (natch).
- Detachable steam wand
- Cappuccinatore auto frother wand (also detachable)
I didn't watch the video - I went to Daniel Ho's How to Use a La Pavoni Lever Machine website - serious reading for anyone considering this work of art machine.
Setup, as stated, was a no brainer. I did notice that the handles on the portafilter and lever can screw off. This is actually cool - it means I may be able to get the wood handles for this if I want - I think they look even better than the bakelite black handles. You can choose between the straightforward steaming wand (with a good hole pattern) or a cappuccinatore steaming wand - the kind that draws milk through a tube, mixes it with steam, and pours out froth. In my previous experience with this system, it has been the best "auto frother" I've tried, and we'll soon find out if this experience carries over to the La Pavoni Professional. I set it up with the plain steam wand at first, mainly to see what kind of steaming power it has.
My test La Pavoni is the older 49mm filter basket version. I've been told that La Pavoni recently changed their lever machines to a 54mm filter size, which makes me think they've also completely redone the grouphead as well. I'll confirm this for the Detailed Review, coming in April or May.
I read the manual thoroughly (after reading through Dan Ho's website several times) because after all, our motto around here is RTFM - read the freaky manual. Pavoni's manual isn't bad, but it isn't great either - it's okay. Gives you some good background, but online resources are better. Then I got ready to fire her up and try the chrome peacock out for the first time.
| Pavoni gauge closeup. I've been told this is a medical grade gauge - in fact, it's used in medical machinery. Click to enlarge. |
Starting up the La Pavoni for the first time requires some cleaning procedures - the manual does give good instructions for this, so follow them - it helps clean out the machine and also prep it for real brewing. I went through the procedure then got ready for trying her out. I filled the boiler up to three quarters (as per Dan Ho's advice), and once the machine was up to full pressure (not true!) I opened the steam wand. Why? Because the full pressure is false - you need to open the wand to get the machine to realise its real pressure levels. Don't ask me why, I'm not sure why - but you do. This apparently is only necessary with the Pro and Romantica machines because of a feature I haven't even talked about yet (wait for it, it's good!).
So I got it properly tuned. One note of warning here I'm going to repeat often - Pavoni lever machines get hot. Real hot. Be careful when using.
I loaded up the portafilter double with a coffee grind that was slightly coarser than the one I use for my Livia 90 machine. Frankly, I didn't know what to expect - I didn't know how much pressure I needed to use on the lever, what kind of grind I should use (well, I read about the grind, but it scared me a bit), even the dosage was a mystery. I'd read comments in alt.coffee and on various websites about how people needed days, if not weeks to get their first decent shot from a La Pavoni lever machine.
I guess I was lucky. My first pull (and it was a "pull") had heaps of crema on top, and tasted pretty darned good.
As was my second, and my third.
But my fourth pull? I don't know what I did wrong, but the lever was just too hard to pull down. Maybe I used too much coffee, maybe I tamped too hard. But it didn't work. I learned quickly how perfectly finicky the La Pavoni can be. And I was up for the challenge.
Operating the La Pavoni involves the following steps.
- load up the filter basket (only use the double), make it slightly heaping.
- Tamp down fairly hard, so that you have about a quarter inch of clearance in the basket.
- Lock and load, baybee! (some recommend raising the lever 3/4 of the way first, so you don't draw air through the portafilter with the bed of coffee - I tried it sometimes, didn't notice a difference in the shot)
- Pull the lever up slowly and steadily - I take maybe 5 seconds or so to draw it up. As you get to the top, you'll hear water enter the grouphead. That's when you open the gasket and pathway to the group.
- Wait about 5, 10 seconds as it preinfuses. The manual and some websites recommend waiting until you see a few drips come out of the spouts. Problem for me was this - with fresh roast / fresh ground, I almost never saw liquid drop - even after 20, 30 seconds. With older roasts, I did, and with Illy preground, no matter how hard I tamped, I saw it as well.
- Either after 10 seconds or after you see the drips, grasp the portafilter handle (or place a palm on the bakelite screw top but remember - the machine is hot) and start a steady slow pull (or push) down on the lever.
- A guideline is roughly 15 to 20 seconds for this action, but again, go by feel and look on the streams - not time. In these early days for me, I found a 20 second slow pushdown was ideal for me, but your mileage may vary.
- Complete the shot, enjoy! (wait a minute or so before removing the portafilter! It sneezes!)
Here's a quick how to, to show how easy it can be (note, our Detailed Review will have a much more complete "how to" for the Pavoni Professional)
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| Get tamper ready and loaded, leave about 1/4 inch clearance in the basket. Click to enlarge images. |
| Lock and Load! Hold the handle as you tighten the portafilter, to prevent the machine from sliding. |
| slowly lift the lever to get it into position. Draw slowly so you don't pull air through the coffee too fast. |
| Pull (or push) shot through the bed of coffee. Do it with a slow, even and steady pace. |
| All done! Drink your espresso, and wait at least a minute before removing the group. |
A week with the La Pavoni Professional
After using the La Pavoni for a week, I have to say I've "fallen" for it, inasmuch as you can fall for a machine. I totally get why people rave about these machines. When you are an espresso aficionado, I have to tell you there's just something intrinsically special about using a manual machine. Something very cool about really "pulling" when you pull a shot. Color me a lever machine fan.
I've learned in the past week that lever machines really are all about you - the barista. You make the shot good. You make the shot bad. Use fresh beans, fresh grind them, find the right grind, do everything else right, and you can still ruin the shot with the wrong operation of the machine - it can be touch and go for that great shot. Man, do I love this stuff!
And I had a very pleasant surprise during my first week (this is the "good thing" I hinted about above). Something I didn't even have a clue about regarding the Pro and Romantica lines from Pavoni.
These are "steam on demand" machines. As in no wait time for steam operation. Sweet. Very sweet. I'm not even quite sure how they achieve this - provide brew water at good temperatures, but still generate steam. Daniel told me that the Pro and Romantica machines use a pressure trick - the machine mechanically knows when you start steaming. There's already steam in the top of the boiler, which is what you first use, but the boiler kicks in overtime to continue the steam. I'm still not sure what that's all about, but I'll find out for the Detailed Review.
Steam performance was great. With the plain wand, there was good agitation, and frothing up five or eight ounces of milk took a minute or less. The positioning of the wand is a bit awkward, and you have to be careful not to burn yourself - remember this machine is hot, blazing hot. The cappuccinatore wand also impressed me. Believe it or not, this thing microfoams! You can actually pour rudimentary latte art with it. Perfect for frothing neophytes, but somehow, I don't see someone who owns a La Pavoni Professional remaining a neophyte in anything for long.
Because of the manual nature of this machine, you do suffer the dreaded "portafilter sneeze" if you try to remove the PF too soon after pulling a shot. There is a trick to minimize it - lift the lever about 3/4 of the way to relieve some pressure inside the portafilter and grouphead. But it's touch and go.
I had some good success with this machine while even using Illy preground espresso (at least the first day I opened the can). I even got crema on those shots, but only about midway through the pull. But my best results were from fresh roast, fresh ground coffee. I found that a 20 second pull was probably my best target area for timing, but again, this is more about "feel" than timing or volumes or the like.
The Bad Stuff
Before you think I'm completely smitten with the La Pavoni (well, I almost am), there are a few things I didn't like. The biggest issue is the weight balance of this machine - the front water drip area has no weight at all - and because of this, when you pull up on the lever, you tilt the entire machine back, sliding it around. Five, seven or more pounds of ballast weight in the front portion of this machine would do a world of good.
This weight imbalance was especially noticeable during the brew operations, and can be a real pain. I'm thinking of dropping as much lead as I can inside that machine when I take it apart for some inside shots for the Detailed Review.
The cappuccinatore steaming wand option does do some amazing froth, almost microfroth, but it doesn't get milk hot enough. Early measurements show about 135F to 140F in a pitcher. Also, the machine isn't really friendly to lefties like myself - the position of the steaming knob and steam wand force me to froth with my right hand. It felt awkward.
And the machine is a potential hazard to careless operators. Most of the machine - the boiler, the grouphead, the back portion of the machine all get literally boiling hot. I cannot emphasize this enough.
First Look Wrapup
As always, this is just our first look, and is not a CoffeeGeek Detailed Review. Opinions and other comments may change between now and the time we post our detailed look at this product. But in these early days, color me impressed. Heck, color everyone who has seen this machine impressed. The instant steaming ability was a huge and pleasant surprise, one I haven't read about before online (at least not directly referenced - it's talked about as if we should all know this automatically :)).
The La Pavoni Professional lever machine is a real beauty. But where some products fall a bit short in the brawn behind the beauty, it is looking as if this machine for producing espresso has all the tools necessary for doing the job it is designed for, and doing them well. My favourite feature of this machine is... me. Seriously! With lever and piston machines, you become part of the process, much more so than with semi-auto machines like the Livia 90, or other pump-driven espresso machines. I found myself thinking that if I had to do it all over again, go through my coffee progression, I might have preferred going the lever route instead of the Silvia / Livia 90 way. It is that good.
CoffeeGeek would like to thank Aabree Coffee Company for their help and participation in bringing you this First Look, and our eventual Detailed Review of the La Pavoni Professional.