Out of the box
Elektra has come up with a very attractive art deco shipping packaging and manuals for the Nivola espresso machine. I know many wonder at the value of throwing dollars at packaging and such, but I for one value it. If a company takes pride enough in their product to make sure it's packed well and conveys a certain level of "cool factor", I'm all for it, especially when it comes to big ticket espresso machines and grinders. The machine is packed well in a good cardboard framework that kept my test machines safe in their journey all the way from Venezia, Italia.
The instruction booklet is very complete, and while full to the rim with various warnings and "don't do's" (ahhh, litigation and outrageous lawsuits are fun, ain't they?), it also gets down to brass tacks and gives straightforward instructions on how to use the device. As always, RTFM (read the freaky manual), or don't come to us and complain you can't get it working.
The machine is striking to see. The polished aluminum outer skin is very thick and very 30s retro, and it has a lot of character; whereas polished stainless steel is flawless and very even, polished aluminum has texture - almost blemishes that really appealed to me - each machine is like an individual item - only yours may have a certain pattern in the side panel's polished finish.
| A look at the portafilter and undercarriage. Chrome and brass, attached to the boiler. Is that a circuit board I see... Click to enlarge |
It's a heavyweight too, coming in at around 10 kilos or 22 pounds, making it one of the heavier home machines out there. Much of the weight comes from the very thick aluminum outer skin which, if you remove the drip tray will show you how thick it really is.
The portafilter is not quite commercial quality - the handle is a very attractive burgundy bakelite and it is (of course) chromed brass, but it's a bit short. It's also a 57 (or possibly 56) mm filter, which means I couldn't use my stable of 58mm commercial tampers. Fortunately, Elektra's enclosed tamper fits the basket perfectly. While it is still the cheap plastic type common to almost every espresso machine sold (why doesn't one company break this trend and offer a high quality tamper with their machines?), at least it fits the filter baskets - I can't say the same for Rancilio, Pasquini, La Pavoni or other major brands.
This machine is designed to be viewed from all angles, top, sides, back, you name it. On the back is a thick emblem plate showing off Elektra's stylized logo, and the sweeping back angles of this machine make it perfect for placing up on a bar or at your breakfast nook counter so everyone can see it. There is a convenience clock on the left side. The front features a big glowing green light with the Elektra logo emblazoned on it, and the drip tray and cup warmer tray have the stylized Elektra K logo as the cutouts. As a designer appliance, this has got it all going for it.
After thoroughly reading through the manual a few times and also reading some trade show literature that Elektra sent along with the machine, it was time to plug her in and let her go through her first cycling. It's fairly easy to do the initial prime on this machine - turn the dial selector to steam, put a half-filled steam pitcher under the froth-aiding wand, and turn it on. You'll hear a warning beep for a few seconds, then the machine activates the pump and fills the boiler. After about 35 seconds, it's done.
One thing about this machine that Elektra pushes heavily - it is a "thinks for you" type machine. Not a full blown automatic, but pretty close. For instance, it won't brew a cup of espresso until the boiler is at what Elektra has determined as the perfect temperatures (around 90C). In a way this borrows from "automatic" espresso machines such as the Solis SL-90 or the Starbucks Athena in that you can turn the machine on in the morning, lock and load your portafilter, select brew, and walk away. The machine will start brewing automatically once the optimal temperature has been reached.
But it is not a full automatic machine, per se. You have to kill the brew switch (actually, a dial) when your double has poured, usually between 25 and 30 seconds. There is another automated feature for those fans of lungos or "cafe suisse" - the machine is programmed to automatically stop brewing after 40 seconds. So you can set your grind coarser and brew up one of those lovely swiss favourites, no sweat.
The machine has no switches like a typical semi-auto machine, except for the power switch. You choose brewing or steaming via a turn on the big beefy dial on the top right side of the machine. Turn the dial to brew to start your shot, turn it to stop (middle position) when you want to end your shot.
There are no steaming knobs either - the machine is one of those "all or nothing" steaming devices. Turn the dial to steam, and the single boiler kicks up the heating element and commences frothing when it reaches Elektra's predetermined optimum steaming temperature. You are also forced to use the froth aiding device built into the steam wand - removing it reveals a stubby wide open pipe that will not adequately froth on its own. Aftermarket adapters may be available.
On the brewing side of things, the grouphead is a nice solid piece of brass directly attached to the boiler sitting above it. The dispersion screen does the job, and the portafilter is easy to lock into place. No crema enhancing devices are used in this machine - a huge plus, but I was a bit surprised to see the Nivola doesn't have a 3 way solenoid. At this price point I would almost expect it as standard equipment. Without the solenoid pressure relief system, the kind found in machines like the Silvia, the Gaggia Classic, and almost every other machine above $600, you have to wait before removing the portafilter after a shot, or you get the dreaded "portafilter sneeze" where hot grounds will spray everywhere if you remove it too soon.
I pulled a few pounds' worth of coffee through the machine, and it performs more or less as you would expect it to do. There's some quirks to deal with because of the automated features (for instance, there's an audible alarm on the brewer for when conditions go south, like the water level going low), but you get used to them quick.
The shots I pulled were not the greatest espresso shots I've ever had, but on average they ranked very well, certainly better than any crema-aiding espresso machine I've tried, and better than super autos I've used. The flow rate of the pump is a bit low - I measured it at around 58ml per 10 seconds. Almost every other semi-auto and automatic machine I own or have tried averages between 70ml and 95ml.
One thing I found very impressive - even though this machine doesn't give off a lot of ambient heat (by comparison - my Livia 90 almost puts off enough warmth to heat my kitchen regularly), the cup warmer on top is easily the best I've ever tested - cups are around 50C or higher after sitting up there for an hour.
First Look Wrapup
I'll save a detailed analysis of the internals of this machine for the detailed review, but in short this machine features a cast marine brass boiler that holds, according to the manufacturer, 750 ml of water. It is also available in a pod version as well as a grounds version, and Elektra plans on marketing a conversion kit for it so you can go back and forth between the two brewing methods. I was sent a conversion kit which took about 30 minutes to change over (mainly because I didn't have any instructions).
I have to say this machine is a serious looker in person. I've only had it "on display" as it were for 3 days now, and still it's a joy to look at. When I saw pictures of it, I thought "hrmm, '57 Chevy". In person I think more of the streamlined trains of the 1930s, or Buck Roger's rocket ship. I've always been a huge fan of the streamlined deco look, and this machine definitely has those lines.
The Nivola is obviously targeted to the designer appliance crowd, but unlike some other "just for show" appliances, this one seems to have a lot going for it under the hood. I plan to give it the full month torture test, including some beta testing with a few guinea pigs.. uh, friends to give me their thoughts on it. I'll have the full rundown on this machine as both a pod machine and a grounds machine. The full review should be on this website around the start of April.
CoffeeGeek would like to thank Gianni Spinazzola of Spinazzola Direct, LLC, as well as Elektra SRL of Italy for supplying this machine for the detailed review.