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La Valentina - Dan Kehn's Review
Posted: November 15, 2003, 1:58pm
review rating: 9.6
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La Valentina
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Quality Reviews
These are some of the best-written reviews for this product, as judged by our members.
Name Ranking
Dan Kehn 9.56
Erik Daniels 9.00
Ken O 8.42
Random Person 8.37
Dave Brown 7.42

Previous Review Next Review
Ratings and Stats Overall Rating: 9.6
Manufacturer: Ala di Vittoria Quality: 9
Average Price: $1,200.00 Usability: 10
Price Paid: $1,195.00 Cost vs. Value 9
Where Bought: 1st-line Equipment Aesthetics 10
Owned for: 2 years Overall 10
Writer's Expertise: I like coffee Would Buy Again: Yes
Similar Items Owned: Rancilio Silvia, Elektra Microcasa a Leva
Bottom Line: Months later and still the same day-one impression: wow.
Positive Product Points

- Flat-out gorgeous with innovative styling
- Great ergonomics (multi-directional steam wand, drip tray removes easily, steam knob and switches work crisply)
- Compact without compromise
- E61 delivers consistent results
- Commercial components
- Ample dry steam for frothing; accepts standard tips
- Warms up quickly and cup warmer is very effective

Negative Product Points

- Portafilters are not the same commercial quality as the rest of the machine
- Frame strength depends on "uni-body" construction
- Chromed drip tray grate and grouphead three-way solenoid valve cover scratches easily
- No E61 preinfusion chamber (it is replaced by a 3-way solenoid valve)

Detailed Commentary

INTRODUCTION

Months later and I still can't come up with a better way to say it beyond my day-one impression: wow. It's worth saying again: wow.

I started looking for an upgrade because of my frustration with delays when making back-to-back espresso-based milk drinks on my Silvia/Rocky combination. With La Valentina, instead of me waiting for the machine, it's always waiting for me.  I soon discovered that producing a superior shot with Valentina was also a fraction of the effort that Silvia required (even with temperature surfing). Today I routinely pull a shot that is better than +80% of those I ever managed with Silvia, despite adhering to a strict routine. The ability to create whatever espresso-based drink friends might ask for with ease and without delay has enhanced the social aspect of my coffee hobby.

This review is for the semi-automatic, converted from a pour-over model to direct plumb-in. It has securely mounted brass fittings for the conversion and safety cutoff solenoid. It hooks to a household waterline with a wrapped three-foot stainless connection hose. There is little reason to hide the hose since it looks as serious as the machine to which it's connected.

OVERVIEW AND HISTORY

History of Ala di Vittoria

This machine is known by different names in different countries.  The manufacturer is BFC (see "Junior").  An alert reader mentioned this machine is also available in different styles like the Grimac La Uno (another reader pointed to these excellent color parts list and schematics). There does appear to be many similarities, as evidenced by the specifications on the Grimac Italy website.  The same reader mentioned parts and reliable service are also available from the US distributor Grimac Royal Falcon Corporation in Long Island, NY.  Other than these tidbits, I haven't had a lot of luck finding out about the manufacturer and I am interested in learning about them. If you have information you can point me to, my e-mail is in my profile. Thanks!

OUT OF THE BOX

La Valentina is a real looker. It looks noticeably more "squat" in the website images than in reality. It's one of the narrower E61 machines. For comparison, the Expobar Control is 9-1/2" inches wide (both top and bottom), slightly larger than Valentina's top width. Because the sides are sloped, the machine looks sleek and compact. It fits under standard kitchen cabinets, and thanks to the top that slopes towards the front, the cups are easily accessible. Note that it will be difficult to fill the reservoir without moving it from under your cabinets. Some owners report using a funnel and tube arrangement to refill the reservoir. I didn't want to bother with that so I decided to direct plumb it. I highly recommend doing so for both the convenience and enhanced temperature stability (more on that later).

The back wrap-around shell is brushed stainless steel and the front is polished to match the chromed E61 group. I like the "two tone" contrast as it naturally draws your attention to the business end of the machine. It also has practical considerations, since the brushed stainless steel sides don't show small splashes, dust, or minor finger prints. Portions of the chromed front are easily scratched and, in contrast to the brushed steel sides, show every drop, splatter, fingerprint, or speck of dust. Fortunately it is a small area to fuss over and polishes up quickly with the wipe of a damp cloth.

La Valentina comes with a single and double portafilter. The double basket is similar to the famed "double ridgeless basket" in size and shape, except it is ridged.  The portafilter styling and finish is nice, however the handle feels light.

Inside this machine sports several commercial components. This includes the Gicar auto-fill circuitry and Sirai pressurestat. I also appreciate the thoughtful layout of the machine. The cup warming tray comes off with four screws, the U-shaped back cover with six screws. This exposes the entire working innards in less than two minutes. The construction of the boiler, wiring, and components is formidable. The only false note is the framing itself. The designers chose a "uni-body" construction, where the structural integrity depends on the strength of the wrap-around casing to offer support. That is, unlike Silvia whose components attach to an iron-welded frame, Valentina's are mounted on folded zinc-plated sheet metal. This is a minor point, since this small "flex" is barely noticeable once the covers are in place.

There are other considerations that reveal Valentina's semi-commercial pedigree. A cutout under the boiler to enable easy replacement of the boiler element, should the need arise. There is a similar cutout under the drip tray area to allow for installing a drain. Combined with the high clearance, I was able to install a drain without cutting into my countertop.

Finally, if you don't like the look of the "blocky" front black feet, there are two sets of mounting screws on the bottom of the drip tray rails. The first set is almost flush with the front of the drip tray. If you move to the back set, it is easier to wipe up spills without having to go around the legs. As an added bonus to aesthetics, the legs are then hardly noticeable. I use this second set of mounts to bolt the machine down to the countertop atop the drain. While Valentina's 40+ pounds and rubber legs hold it steady, nothing holds it more firmly than two 8mm bolts through the countertop!

Dimensions

La Valentina doesn't have a lot of right angles. The machines overall shape is that of a pyramid, slightly cocked forward, with its top sliced off at a sloping angle towards the front. Note:All depths shown below are measured with it against the wall, measuring from the wall to the front of the machine.

   Width: base 10-1/2", top 9-1/8"
   Depth: base 17-3/8", top 14-1/2"
   Depth including drip tray handle: 18-1/2"
   Depth with portafilter in place: 21-1/2"
   Height: front 14-3/4", back 16-1/2"

Cup clearances, all measurements from the drip tray surface:

   To bottom of grouphead: 5-1/2"
   To bottom of double-spout: 3"
   To bottom of single-spout: 3-1/2"
   To bottom of portafilter (spout removed): 4-1/4"

The cup warming tray narrows towards the back. Below are its dimensions:

   Width: front 9", back 7-1/2"
   Depth: 9-5/8"

The cup warmer easily accommodates eight standard demitasse cups  and nine if they are "Milano style." I place two small cappuccino cups in the back row (six ounces), two in the second row (7.5 ounces), and three demitasse cups in the front row (2.5 ounces).

Ergonomics

The ball joint steam arm and its S-curve shape is a big plus, especially since I have little clearance to the left of La Valentina (it's next to the refrigerator; I can't put it elsewhere in our kitchen). So I steam almost straight ahead, just an inch or two away from the grouphead. That wouldn't be possible with steam wand designs that, like the many of the Isomacs, only allow for lateral movement. The wand is flexible enough in its positioning to allow for "no hands" steaming. That is, set the pitcher on the drip tray and open the steam valve (this technique obviously doesn't produce optimal microfoam). The wand can point into the drip tray for the initial purge of condensation before frothing. The steam knob is large and goes from off to full blast in one-half turn. The steam shutoff is crisp and easy - there's no need to torque the valve down. A gentle twist will do.

Unlike the Isomacs and some other machines, the water tap is fixed over the drip tray. I've never considered this a problem but some may. I like knowing that I'll never miss the drip tray if I suffer a moment of inattention (a common event with three young children in the house). The water tap has a large screened head on the end that prevents obnoxious splattering.

The automatic model of La Valentina has three rocker switches. The leftmost switch activates the pump for brewing. The middle switch opens the water tap. The rightmost switch is for the power. The three switches are the same size, color, and are evenly spaced apart. They click on and off with satisfying crispness. To reduce the possibility of you inadvertently switching the machine off, the designers wisely added a clear flexible cover over the power switch so there's never a chance of confusing it with the others by sight or touch.

All the rocker switches are clear red plastic with international symbols denoting their purpose. The brew and power buttons have lights inside. The brew button aluminates whenever the pump is engaged, either explicitly when pulling a shot or implicitly when auto-filling the boiler. The coloring reminds me of old pinball machine lights. The green boiler element light is to the right of the three switches. It aluminates when the 1300W element is on, typically for about 7-10 seconds at a time, except during the initial startup where it stays on for several minutes.

First Use

My initiation to home espresso began with the Rancilio Silvia and Rocky. Subsequently some of the early routines and expectations I developed while learning had the effect of both helping and hindering my first use of La Valentina. The advantage of my experience with Silvia was that I knew what to expect from the best shots: Rich, thick crema, dreamy mouthfeel, and no bitterness. I had switched to Intelligentsia's Black Cat blend as the house favorite months ago and learned to recognize its signature complexity and depth.

The first few shots revealed how my prior experience of Silvia's limitations had influenced my technique, most notably the inability to easily modify the brew temperature. While before I would happily surf Silvia to a target temperature, now that was unnecessary. Instead tweaking the pressurestat is in order. It took me awhile to get this notion in my head. Or should I say it took at least a half-dozen shots of "Ouch! Too hot! Bitter! Yuck!" until a little light bulb blinked over my head and I moved the setting down from 1.2 bar to a much cooler 0.95 bar. Alas, victory! The subsequent shots were as good as or better than many of Silvia's best. And yet the first shot or two of the morning were still off. I still had a few "Espresso 101" lessons to absorb. Read on and learn from my hapless blunders.

OPERATION AND MAINTENANCE

The portafilter locks in around six o'clock. With all the recent chatter in the forums about the La Marzocco portafilter (not included) that accepts a triple basket, it is worth noting that it locks easily into La Valentina's grouphead, however the handle will stop closer to seven o'clock. The La Marzocco portafilter tabs do fully engage in the grouphead with the stock gasket.

The owner's manual included with the machine was a photocopy of the original. It was well translated from Italian, but contained little beyond obvious instructions. The vendor promised to provide detailed instructions at a later date (never received). The box came with a one page of quick-start instructions that describes the machine's initial auto-fill and warnings about shipping problems that may crop up (loose connections, boiler water splashing about in the machine during shipment, that sort of thing). The owner's manual does contain some inaccuracies about the machine's features. Specifically it says that the machine has a dual boiler / brew pressure gauge. That would be a welcome addition, however the front gauge is only for boiler pressure. The vendor's one-page introduction to Valentina doesn't recommend pulling a shot and steaming at the same time, presumably because it would affect temperature stability.

Standard Operation

The owner's manual claims fifteen minutes to warm up. The boiler will click off long before that time expires, however the portafilter will be barely warm. Consider twenty-five minutes as the recommended time for passively warming the grouphead and portafilter; thirty minutes is more than adequate. You can accelerate the warm up by pulling a few blank shots after twenty minutes, although I recommend waiting the full 30 minutes. Once the machine is fully warmed, the exposed portion of the E61 grouphead is hot to the touch. Not so much that a casual brush against it will burn skin, but enough to get your attention quickly. The hottest grouphead surface temperature that I measured was 180F.

Valentina has an auto-fill boiler, so you can plug it into to a timer if you prefer. I recommend the Intermatic DT17 digital timer. This timer can be programmed for weekdays / weekends and accepts up to a 15 amp resistive load. The timer’s programming is unaffected by power interruptions and it is available at Home Depot for around $25. I estimate that Valentina consumes about one cent per hour when idle (assuming $0.08 / kWh). The initial startup consumes considerably more energy than its idle time. By timing the boiler cycling, I estimate about three hours to amortize the warm-up. In other words, if the machine is already warmed up and you plan to use it within three or four hours, leave it on.

The cup warming tray is very effective, thanks to the 1.2 liter copper boiler and slotted top which allows the heat to rise quickly. In fact, the middle row of cups were warm enough that I handled them gingerly at first. The tray narrows towards the back. It can fit two small cappuccino cups side-by-side in the back two rows and one row of three espresso cups in the front. At the end of 45 minutes, the cups will be warm. I added 1/2" of aluminum-sided foam insulation underneath the cup tray to reduce the heat loss. Based on how often the boiler cycles on and off, that saved about 20% in electricity (without insulation it cycles on in less than a minute for about 7-10 seconds; after adding insulation it cycles on after a little more than a minute).

You'll hear a little gurgling sound coming from the machine a few minutes after it first starts up.  That's the noise of water boiling before the vacuum breaker has closed off the boiler. A last few fizzles as it snaps shut, then no worries about false pressure (you must initially bleed pressure through the steam wand on machines like the Nuova Simonelli Oscar so the boiler pressure gauge works correctly; this isn't necessary for Valentina, thanks to the vacuum breaker).  

Like all heat exchanger (HX) machines, Valentina requires a cooling down flush before pulling the first shot. For the first month or so, I noticed that the first shot I pulled was off slightly, either too hot (bitter) or too cool (sour). After a bit of trial-and-error, plus the help of a digital thermometer, I narrowed the cool down flush to five ounces. I'll return to this point again later in the review.

Maintenance

Maintenance mainly consists of frequent water backflushes and espresso cleaner backflushes from time-to-time. The specific details covered in Espresso Machine Cleaning - Why, How, and When. The boiler itself will need some level of descaling depending on your water source. This is covered in excruciating detail in the Insanely long water FAQ by Jim Schulman. You may want to skip to Section 4.2, Preventative Descaling. If you wish to direct connect your machine, remember to budget for a good filter and water softener system. Also plan on a regular preventative maintenance regime as Jim suggests.

The drip tray is quite large and deep. It holds one quart with room to spare. I filled it to 40 ounces but wasn't able to carry it far before spilling. About 32 ounces is the practical limit. Because it slides out on "drawer like" rails, it is very easy to empty without spilling (unlike Silvia, which requires a slight tilt to clear the leading edge). The whole front tray is one piece that slides off; only the grill is separate. It's easy to take off, but pouring the tray out invariably splashes the chrome facing. Oh well, that's a small sacrifice of appearance for convenience. The back edge of the drip tray slides under a small lip on the bottom of the grouphead area backsplash. This redirects wayward splatter into the tray instead of behind it.

As an aside, I have one small complaint about the front layout common to all E61 machines: The distance between the grouphead and the square cover over the three-way solenoid is quite small (i.e., that narrow "box" directly beneath the grouphead). I often bang against this cover when unlocking the portafilter or inadvertently brush a cup against it. After several months of use, the cover has a lot of scratches, as does the drip tray grate plated with the equally easy-to-mar chrome. I suspect this is the bane of all polished chrome espresso shrines and not particular to this machine. However, a more scratch-resistance finish such as brushed stainless steel in such a "high-traffic area" would retain more of its original appearance over time.

MACHINE PERFORMANCE

Now onto the part that sets your heart aflutter! What can this baby do?

Water Tap

Americano fans will like the water tap. I measured an initial temperature of 185F. The water tap drains from the boiler, not through a second heat exchanger. When you first press the water tap switch, about 2-3 ounces come out before it sputters as the water mixes with steam. Pause for a moment, the pump will start, and then finish filling your Americano. Note that draining too much will precipitately drop the boiler pressure and potentially expose the boiler element; don't drain faster than the pump can refill. Rinsing the portafilter from the water tap requires some care since it is only 1-1/2" from the edge of the drip tray. If you don't pay attention, you'll dribble water onto the countertop instead of into the tray.

Shot Performance

Except for the cool down flush, Valentina is nearly hassle-free. It produces good and very consistent results day-after-day. Getting the brew temperature and pressure adjusted correctly was the only tricky part (more on that later). I usually pull 1.25-1.5 ounce double ristrettos. To avoid the heating element coming on during a pull, I start the shot at the top of the heating cycle.

I started with Silvia and upgraded to Valentina. Consistency was much more of a challenge than it is with Valentina and the Mazzer Mini. As a habit from my Silvia days, I weigh the beans before each shot. While Silvia preferred a little over 17 grams, I've found that Valentina does just as well with 16 grams (a heaping portafilter). I tried a few different double baskets and noticed no significant difference between those and the stock basket.

I recently started experimenting with the La Marzocco triple basket. It certainly makes for potent, nearly channel-proof shots. It is a fun toy to add to your accessory kit, but I can't say that it transforms Valentina in the same manner as some Silvia owners have described. My buddy who bought my old Silvia/Rocky setup tested the LM 3x basket and it did make for a better shot in our tests (more crema, less blonding, richer flavor). With Valentina, I have found it useful for making stronger lattes and richer decaf shots, although I rarely fill to its capacity of 21 grams. The shots are sweeter when it holds less grinds. Around 19 grams seems ideal so far in my experience.

The consistency and temperature stability of the E61 design is everything that you've heard. It is straightforward to get nearly one-degree accuracy and stability during your pulls. One minor complaint: It is easy enough to adjust the temperature, why not make the adjustment screw accessible without removing the cup warming tray? As a consequence, I rarely fiddle with it now that it's correct. That may be an issue if you wish to change temperatures on a day-to-day basis. However, I don't know of any machine in this price range that allows that sort of flexibility.

ADJUSTING BREW TEMPERATURE

I use a digital thermometer and the "Styrofoam cup technique" for measuring temperature as described in the article My Espresso is Cold!  Remember to calibrate your thermometer in boiling water (212F).  I prefer digital thermometers, which you can find at any fine kitchen store like Williams-Sonoma for less than $20 (e.g., Taylor #9824). These thermometers react quicker than frothing thermometers, settling in after eight seconds or less. I adjust the pressurestat occasionally, but about 1.05 bar at the top of the cycle is a reasonable starting point. That correlates to about 202F at the grouphead after a six ounce flush. However, mine is direct plumbed with a filter system, so there's no "reservoir warming" effect. If you have the model with a reservoir, that will affect your temperatures slightly. I did my measurements at three minute intervals pulling two ounces of water in about 15 seconds. However, the key point is that you always do it the same, since temperature consistency is more important than knowing the precise temperature. Make note of the boiler pressure at the top of the cycle as a reminder of where you last set the pressurestat.

La Valentina's temperature adjustment is easy. First remove the four screws of the cup warming tray. Then remove the small brass screw holding on the cover of the pressurestat. It's the black box in the back right corner. That reveals a large screw with +/- arrows denoting the correct direction. Notice that this pressurestat is commercial quality (Sirai). It includes an extra set of electrical contacts for quick repairs if they fail because of carbon build-up or pitting due to arcing. Of course this sort of wear is unlikely in a home environment but it's nice to know that the pressurestat can be repaired easily (non-commercial pressurestats are generally sealed and cannot be repaired; see Temperature Regulators 101 for more details).

The pressurestat allows for very fine adjustments. For example, the lowest temperature / pressure I set is about 198F / 0.95 bar. The highest is about 203F / 1.15 bar. That corresponds to approximately six half-turns of the pressurestat screw, so it is very easy to fine-tune.

ADJUSTING BREW PRESSURE

As shipped, the over-pressure valve (OPV) was set at 12 bar (mine has an Ulka vibration pump model EP5, not the Fluid-o-matic). If this pump is unregulated, it can create as much as 15 bar, producing an overextracted, bitter shot. The OPV can be adjusted to open at the desired pressure by turning the barrel of the valve. Adjusting it down to nine bar helped the consistency of my shots immensely. Unfortunately you need a portafilter pressure gauge to adjust it because there is no brew pressure gauge like on the Isomac Tea (espressoparts.com sells a pressure gauge kit that screws onto any portafilter; better yet ask the vendor to do the adjustment before shipping). Once I adjust the OPV down from 12 bar to nine bar, Valentina was transformed from finicky to fabulous.

Following a number of discussions in the forums, Chris' Coffee and others recommend around 10-10.5 bar for the OPV. Maybe my machine was set so high at the factory because they assumed that the Fluid-o-Matic pump would be in place. In any case, I recommend that the vendor adjust it downward for any direct plumbed version of La Valentina.

This is another case where La Valentina's commercial quality shows itself. The OPV is an industrial fluid control valve, rated for two years of continuous use. That translates into forever in a home environment. The OPV allows for very fine adjustments. Some non-commercial OPVs one-bar adjustment corresponds to a slight turn of a small screw, Valentina's is finely adjustable and is done simply by turning the OPV barrel itself. This means that you have a lot of control without fear of overshooting the desired pressure with a slip of the pliers.

Steaming Performance

La Valentina is reputed to be a powerful steamer and my home measurements bear that out. Following the format suggested in Whole Latte Love's Compare-O-Matic performance statistics, I measured the starting liquid / time / total liquid as follows:

   8oz / 31s / 8.5oz
   10oz / 42s / 11oz
   12oz / 47s / 13oz

I measured the volumes with ordinary kitchen measures, so they are only accurate +/- 0.25 ounce (if that). I began with water at refrigerator temperature and heated it to 160F. Each test was repeated at least three times and then averaged. The eight ounce measurement was in a 12 ounce pitcher and the other two in a 20 ounce pitcher. Initially there is 2-3 seconds of spittle then very dry steam. The biggest difference I notice in comparison to Silvia is that the steam pressure is constant, that is, no hills and valleys. With Silvia's stock one-hole tip and in its "perfect steam" zone, Silvia's velocity is greater. However Valentina's two-hole output is about 75% of Silvia's one hole "perfect steam" output and there's no spittle at all. Silvia is a very competent steamer but requires a fair amount of finesse and attention to the boiler cycle. While La Valentina will produce slightly stronger steam pressure when the boiler element is on, it isn't critical.

For comparison, the values below are from the Whole Latte Love website for ten ounces (time / total liquid):

   ECM Giotto  -  56s / 11.75oz
   ECM Giotto Premium  -   51s / 11.5oz
   Expobar Control  -   81s / 11oz
   Pasquini Livia  -   39s / 11.5oz
   Rancilio S24  -   42s / 11.5oz
   Salvatore  -   49s / 12oz
   Solis SL70  -   83s / 13oz

The stock tip works well with larger amounts of milk (e.g., nine ounces in a 20 ounce pitcher). At the time I purchased the machine, the vendor had specialized two-hole steam tips on backorder. I didn't want to wait and bought one from Chris' Coffee (C2HST). For smaller one-serving amounts, I exclusively use the C2HST. The stock tip is certainly too fast for anything less than six ounces. After a few weeks of practice, I produced better and more consistent results with no waiting, validating one of the major reasons I upgraded from Silvia. I recently acquired the Rancilio S23 three-hole steam tip. My first impressions suggest it is roughly comparable to the C2HST, although it isn't as easy to swirl the milk.

The original tip was a bear to remove because it had lots of thread sealant. I had to take off the wand and put it in a soft vise. I then wrapped the tip in thick tape and eased it off with vise grip pliers, resulting in only one very small nick. I suggest asking the vendor to remove it before shipping.

After I had a chance to work with La Valentina for a little over a month, I retook these statistics. I wanted specifically to see how two changes affected steaming performance, namely:

  • Reducing the boiler pressure (from 1.2 bar to 0.95 bar, resulting in a brew temperature of approximately 198F)
  • Using the Chris' Coffee two-hole steam tip (C2HST) instead of the stock tip.

Below are the numbers for the C2HST (starting liquid / time):

   8oz / 45s
   10oz / 58s
   12oz / 65s

It is noteworthy that the boiler pressure "equalization point" during steaming was much higher for the C2HST. It didn't drop below 0.8 bar. With the stock tip, the boiler pressure bottomed out around 0.6 bar. The increased velocity of the C2HST makes it great for creating microfoam, especially for small amounts. In effect, the C2HST seemed to transform La Valentina into more of a "long-distance runner" than sprinter steaming-wise. Finally, I repeated the ten ounce measurement with the stock tip to isolate the affect of dropping the boiler pressure. It increased steaming time by a second or so.

Operational Tips

edited: I thought this information was useful enough that I converted it to articles.  See Espresso Machines 101 and How I Stopped Worrying and Learned to Love HXs.

MAXIMIZING STEAM OUTPUT

Having the heating element on while frothing on is a good thing. The 1300W element in La Valentina will give an extra "oomph!" to the steam pressure if it engages from the get-go instead of mid-session. In fact, this hint applies to all espresso machines that don't explicitly turn on the heating element when you open the steam valve (the Solis SL70 and SL90 have a micro-switch that kicks the heating element on the moment you turn the valve).

To force the heating element on, begin by opening the steam wand wide open, and then close it for a moment in order to put the wand into the pitcher. Now let 'er rip. The steam pressure varies a little and this will get it going flat-out in just a few seconds since the heating element will remain on until the steam valve is closed. The boiler gauge is a leading indicator of when the boiler element is about to go on or off. That period lasts only 5-7 seconds, so the gauge helps when steaming (since I want the heat on throughout, I start just before it clicks off so the pressure is maxed). Timing is less important if the pressure is cranked up to 1.2 bar, but that's way too hot for our house favorite, Intelligentsia's Black Cat. A bigger boiler like in the Expobar (1.7 liters) or Oscar (2.0 liters) probably negates much of the value of timing the heating cycle.

MY SHOPPING GUIDE

It isn't easy to decide on an espresso machine and it is a considerable financial investment. This section documents some of the decisions I made and why. It includes those machines I considered and ultimately rejected. Understand that at this level of espresso machine, the differences do become subtle and the important factors all the more subjective. I liked the looks, commercial components, size, and performance of La Valentina. It was a close race with several other machines, including the ECM Giotto as second runner-up and the Isomac Tea as third runner-up. The Pasquini Livia was eliminated for not having an E61 group and the Expobar Office because my wife was less enamored with its appearance.

Deciding Factors

La Valentina has a smaller following in CoffeeGeek-land than the Isomac offerings. Below are some of my reasons for selecting Valentina over its peers.

APPEARANCE: While I find the Expobar a reasonably attractive machine, almost Silvia-like, my wife looked at it for two seconds and said "It's well… OK."  Similar lukewarm comments from my coffee buddy didn't help. For Valentina, nobody has said anything but "wow, that's gorgeous!"  Ironically, I initially preferred the looks of the ECM Giotto, but the smaller size, better ergonomics, superior components, and glowing recommendations from others pushed me over the edge towards Valentina. It's funny how after a week or two, I grew to prefer the two-tone look. The website pictures are not bad but make it appear larger and more "squat" than it is in reality. I like how it looks sharp but doesn't scream "Look at me! Look at me!" as some larger machines in full gleaming chrome seem to do.

SPACE: My available space has the refrigerator and the Mazzer Mini on the left and it's tight (a split desk area only 22" across). Valentina was one of the few machines with an S-curve 360 degree swivel steam wand. That means I can steam straight ahead, on the tray, left at an angle, whatever. Too bad more machines don't have the steam wand on the right-hand side like Silvia. Even with the Mazzer to the left of Valentina, it doesn't look cramped. I think this owes in part to Valentina’s narrow width and tapered sides. The base is 10-1/2" at the widest point but the top is only 9" wide, the same as Silvia.

COMPROMISES: Cheap ill-considered compromises grate on my nerves. Spending that kind of money on a machine and having a plastic "Tupperware-like" reservoir, a non-functional sight glass, no boiler pressure gauge, and cheesy lid (as was the case with the original Expobar) are in the same league as a luxury car with custom hand-sewn leather interior and flimsy cup holders. What can I say, those details mean a lot to me. After four months with Valentina, my first impression has been validated many times over: The manufacturer chose the right balance of components, inside and out. One notable miss -- the portafilters are nice looking but lightweight and the handles feel chintzy.

PRICING: The price of Valentina recently went up. Even if you offered me full retail for it today, I can't think of a better substitute for the same price given my requirements. I do believe there are better machines at a slightly higher cost and the Wega Lyra Rotary at the recently advertised price of $1399 would give me pause. However, that is one hulking beast by comparison and I don't want to make my wife's kitchen look like my personal café. She's already given up the counter space and all the cabinets above and below my workspace with only minor complaint.

Typically I make price the major factor in a purchase. However I have found for a few select items where I really care about the details, shopping on price was invariably a mistake. I learned a few times that a couple years down the road, I wouldn't miss that extra money, but I'd sure regret my price-driven choice. It helps if you decide up front if this falls into that "rare air" category (in contrast, automobiles do not fit in this category for me -- they are "point A to point B" machines within any price range I am willing to consider).

DESIGN: The layout and design inside and out are pretty smart. I've come to appreciate this more as I've tinkered with it. It's a breeze to work on, six screws and the whole back shell lifts off. Little things like this demonstrate to me that this machine was designed for a light-commercial environment (except the Ulka vibration pump, which I understand replaces the original Fluid-o-matic pump; apparently they had a higher early failure rate).

DIRECT PLUMBING: It is something to consider at the time of purchase. Some machines, like the Wega, come out of the box ready for either. If you're handy, the necessary plumbing parts to tap into your existing plumbing are inexpensive and easily found at Home Depot. I added a drain and love the convenience. My main point being that if you tell the reseller you'd like the option of direct plumbing they may be able to alter the machine before shipping to make the transition between bottle and direct hookups trivial.

Other Considerations

QUESTION: Do you miss not having a brew pressure gauge like on the Isomac Tea?

Given my usage, a pump pressure gauge would serve little purpose. I almost always pull ristrettos and the OPV is set low at nine bar; I see it crack open since it drains into the drip tray. A built-in pump pressure gauge would only confirm that setting. If I screwed up so badly that it read otherwise, I wouldn't need no stinkin' gauge to tell me. Of course I've assumed that the vendor has set the pressure to your liking or that you can borrow or purchase a portafilter pressure gauge. Otherwise, you can't tweak the OPV except by willy-nilly guessing, although that's a pretty rare event indeed.

I put a lot more weight towards ergonomics like the ease of working with the steam wand than the presence or absence of gauges. When I was comparing I did like the idea of a pump pressure gauge on the Tea. Now that I have a better understanding of how the system works, it's more a curiosity than anything.

QUESTION: What about a single-boiler machine like the Zaffiro?  Wouldn't it pull better shots?

I think Mark said it well in his detailed review:

"I do highly recommend the Zaffiro if you are someone who is an espresso purist, and give this machine a 9 out of 10 as an espresso machine... For an all around machine, I give it a 'good' rating, or a 6.5 out of 10. The ramp up time for steaming milk is quite long..."

If you're making milk-based drinks even 20% of the time, a single boiler machine will get very tiresome. You might not think a minute is long now -- wait until you try to make 2-3 lattes in succession for company. That's what got me to upgrade from Silvia to La Valentina. It is a minor inconvenience to draw a few ounces of water to cool the group before your first shot, but that's about it.  If you want to read more, I've added my review of the Isomac Zaffiro.

QUESTION: Why the semi-automatic? The automatic is only $100 more.

Good point, but I was concerned about adding more expensive and repair-prone parts. Sure, it only costs an extra $100 for the automatic, but if the dosing processor board for that machine goes, it will run over $200 for a replacement. I won't discuss the injustice of that sort of pricing, however, I will admit that I would like the automatic only for programming in the cool down flush amount. I might even program in the shot amount so I could steam at the same time, although that isn't recommended because it may compromise temperature stability. I'll also admit that I prefer the look of the rocker switches. Touch pads remind me of those fancy coffee vending machines that dispense instant-o-swill.

QUESTION: Isn’t installing plumbing for direct connection a hassle? Why bother?

The principle advantages of a direct connection are:

  • Never have to refill a reservoir (sliding La Valentina out from under a cabinet is not easy)
  • No risk of "slime" build-up in the reservoir
  • Initial water temperature is unaffected by the boiler. Since the water filter system holds more than enough water at an ambient temperature, you are assured a stable temperature.

Once you start down the path of unlimited water, you'll find yourself "wiggle washing" the grouphead more often. Ask your vendor, many machines can be converted to direct connection. Such as conversion doesn't preclude drawing from a water jug should you wish to go "touring" with your machine. I don't foresee myself wishing to subject a finely finished machine to this sort of (ab)use, but some like the flexibility of being able take it along for a weekend with the folks.

The connection from the machine to your existing plumbing is surprisingly easy. Chris' Coffee offers a filter system that should have everything you need. I discovered that wasn't the case for me, since the Max adapter is 3/8" and my icemaker shutoff valve is 1/4". I learned that the John Guest push-in fittings sold by Chris' are not available in my area. Fortunately, Home Depot sells a similar brand of push-in fittings called Watts. There you will find every possible adapter, tubing, and valve you would ever need (you may need a particularly patient employee to guide your selection). The push-in fittings are a cinch to assemble. As the name suggests, you cut the tubing with scissors and push the end into a fitting. Once water pressure is established, the tubing is held tightly. If you goof, it's no problem. Simply shutoff the water and press the release collar on the insert of each fitting to disassemble. If you have a nearby water hookup you can tap into, it's literally 30 minutes and you're done (assuming of course you have all the fittings you need; it pays to do a little homework and alert your vendor about your plans).

Summary Judgment

Weeks and weeks of information gathering, comparisons, and asking questions inextricably leads to the moment of truth. I am probably not the only one who has invested as much time and effort (or more!) into this decision than buying a car or even a house. At this level of prosumer machine – what I refer to as the "second tier" – the differences are maddeningly subtle, and the value of each distinction subjective.

Below is my "short list" back in June 2003.

  • ECM Giotto - I was between this one and La Valentina; aesthetics played a part. An offline recommendation from another CG whose opinion I respect put La Valentina over the top ("I think it is about the best prosumer machine there is right now.").
  • Isomac Tea – too large, too much chrome, too popular.
  • Expobar Office – lackluster appearance, no pressure gauge, no visible E61 group.
  • Wega Lyra - over my budget and too large (i.e., would barely squeeze under my cabinets).
  • Pasquini Livia 90 - no E61 group.

This summary judgment might strike you as anticlimactic. What? You hoped for black-and-white criteria that would help you out? Sorry, your choice will be as personal and unique as the "ultimate espresso" machines we long for. Comparing performance, ergonomics, and components might get you the first three-quarters of the way home, but the last quarter is all about you and the myriad of minor differences that distinguish your choices for first and second place.

CONCLUSIONS

It is rare that I find any café that can compete with what I make at home (Silvia/Rocky or La Valentina/Mazzer Mini). I know of none in our area, although I'm still looking. That unfortunately is more a statement of commercial establishments' failure. This ain't rocket science and yet... well, don't get me started.

La Valentina is a well designed machine. The careful selection of quality components is clear and the performance for straight espresso and steaming is impressive. Those who like to tweak their machines will be thrilled. Those who don't will be pleased to know that consistent results shot-after-shot are easy without a lot of effort.


REFERENCES

This is my "top ten" list of espresso and frothing related references.

In Depth Look at Frothing Milk by David Bogie
The Milk Frothing Guide by Aaron De Lazzer
How to review Domestic Espresso Machines by Alan Frew
My Espresso is Cold! by Jim Piccinich
Temperature Regulators 101 by Jim Piccinich
Single Boiler vs. Heat Exchanger? by Jim Piccinich
Isomac Millennium First Look by Mark Prince
Isomac Zaffiro Detailed Review by Mark Prince
Milk Texturing Basics by David Schomer
Insanely long water FAQ by Jim Schulman

My thanks to these authors for sharing their experience and expertise.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

I've always appreciated a good cup, but never as much as when I started writing. Many a day, night, and weekend, I hauled my laptop to a local café and tapped away while sipping a large latte and chocolate biscotti (or two). That got me hooked on espresso. To celebrate the book's publication, I got Silvia and then Rocky.  My espresso consumption has since skyrocketed. As more of my friends and work colleagues came over our house to revel in my budding hobby, the more evident it became that I would need a more serious "crowd pleaser." Our family budget couldn't accommodate such an extravagant expense as La Valentina, so I worked overtime for several weekends writing articles (Extend Eclipse's Java Developer Tools) and reviewing books (Enterprise Java Programming with IBM WebSphere). La Valentina and the Mazzer Mini are a nice daily reminder that hard work does pay off.

You can see the book I'm talking about, The Java Developer's Guide to Eclipse, on amazon.com.  As a tribute to this book and my inculcation to the espresso culture, I changed my CoffeeGeek avatar to the book cover graphic. It seems appropriate since it depicts a lone computer with a reflection of a partially eclipsed moon in the display, much like many of the nights during which I wrote this review.

Buying Experience

The vendor was helpful during my selection process. Follow-up after the sale, whether by e-mail or telephone, has been courteous and generally prompt.

Three Month Followup

Moved to 1 year followup.

One Year Followup

It's actually been over a year...

With concerns about warranty behind me, I eliminated any appreciable pump noise by moving it outside the machine. Mounted in the cabinet below the machine, it's very quiet now - so quiet that I can hear the water gurgle through the heat exchanger. Heck, the Mazzer Mini makes more noise!

No regrets -- I would buy it again.

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review rating: 9.6
Posted: November 15, 2003, 1:58pm
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