Reminds me of an Italian girlfriend - almost perfect and one hell of an experience.
Positive Product Points
Quiet, beautiful and produces the most clear tasting and balanced espresso shots. Just as it looks the whole making a coffee is majestic to people that visit. The manual process, the noises it makes all become a form of communication that you learn to listen for. The steaming ability of the machine is almost perfect (as others have said you have a limited water supply) resulting in the most velvety silky microfoam.
Negative Product Points
Extremely fussy about bean freshness and grind size. If you think about pre-ground, tinned beans then think again - only expect to use freshly roasted beans, freshly ground using a good quality grinder (I have an MCAP MC4 stepless) that will allow you a good level of adjustability. Without doing this you will either gush or choke. I don't see the 2-3 shot maximum as a problem as this is a personal espresso machine but think about that if you have friends over. Lastly - expect to spend a while learning the machine before you get consistently good shots from it. Oh and throw away the plastic tamp that comes with it! Brass/Copper finishes for the MCAL can easily be scratched but this adds to the unique nature.
I've had this machine since late August'08 after it was hand built to order and shipped from Italy (so ~5 months). I'd been thinking about a manual for a while and having an Italian girlfriend resulted in the green light even at this price. How would it live up to Italian cappuccinos and espressos was my worry but being designed and made in Italy gave me a little comfort in this regard. I ordered the chrome-brass just as the photo shows.
It arrived, I opened the three layers of boxing and was instantly left stunned and in awe. A contraption of magnificence that Jules Verne would have been proud of! The colour, the shapes, the dial, the lever - I love engineered things and this is a thing of beauty. You do have to bolt the eagle onto the cap yourself. The physical presence of this machine something that I've heard people discuss in reviews but I've seen the reactions from guys (who love it's arcane engineering) and girls who love the curves, colour and beauty and don't mind this size/space it takes on the counter top. The lever is normally up and so requires (along with the eagle) quite a bit of clearance above the machine so if you have low kitchen cupboards it may need a little re-think on positioning. The only bad thing that comes with the MCAL is the little plastic ill fitting tamper, the only cylinder that this will be entering is the bin. I have a 49mm EU curve Reg Barber tamper - it works perfectly with both the single and double basket that come with it.
The dome-eagle lifts off to uncover the filler cap, pressure relief valve. Filling is easy and like all machines of this type it's advisable to use soft low-solids water. I use Norwegian Glacier water which as 32mg/l solids to reduce the amount of scale build up. You'll get about two litres into the boiler at 3/4 full on the glass water level meter. Screw on the filler and switch on. The dome is optional really (and gets hot like the rest of the machine). As it warms the sound of boiling appears and the pressure relief valve hisses a little before *pop* it seals.
The machine boils quite quickly; the dial rises and once at pressure sits stable. This may vary for the reader as the UK has 230V mains electricity. The fact that the machine has achieved working pressure is not an indicator that the machine is ready for use.
In use the machine takes a while to warm, there's no heat exchanger so group head temperature results from conduction from the boiler and through the steam from use. It does take a while to get up to temperature and if used before it's ready will result in a sour espresso. Simply flushing hot water through doesn't really speed the process and it's better to switch on and let the heat conduct through. In the same way once used, there's no mechanism to cool the group head either other than switch the machine off. If you try a shot at his stage you will get bitter/burnt tasting espresso. Although the machine cycles through it's heating automatically there's an element of heat control you need to learn over time and experience to get consistent shot temperatures - time and learning is a common theme with this machine.
Next up is the coffee preparation. The basket that comes with the MCAL slips in and out of the portafilter easily which is bad for spent-puck removal but I use the basket, grind directly into it then distribute before tamping. Once tamped I'll then slot the basket into the portafilter. The portafilter itself is a solid lump of metal ground out with two holes drilled through - unlike any portafilter on any other machine I've seen. You'll break your counter top before you break the portafilter.
The MCAL is extremely sensitive to grind setting and the freshness of the bean. With tinned beans you'll get very little range of grind adjustment between gush or choke (even with a stepless) and you'll get very little crema. So expect to use fresh roast and freshly ground only - at this level of machine I'd expect nothing more. As the machine uses a spring to push the water through the puck of grounds which means the pressure profile is easy to predict but does mean you have to work with that when you grind the coffee and tamp as you can't apply additional pressure like a Pavoni. This does not mean it's easy to get good coffee out of - it took me two/three months of daily use to get consistently drinkable coffee out. Again it takes time and experience.
The machine doesn't move around when the lever is pushed down, the amount of strength required to push the lever down to compress the spring is far less than a Pavoni but to get some force it helps if your tall enough to use your weight. This may disadvantage those that can't get over the lever todo this or lack the strength. I'm 6'4 so it's not a problem for me.
Once the coffee has poured, the portafilter cannot be disengaged immediately - if you do you'll get the dreaded portafilter sneeze. There's no solenoid divert the pressure so to choke the machine leaves you with the situation where you either switch off and come back half an hour later, or, get a towel wrap it around, switch off and use the lever to reduce the spring pressure - the towel, and the majority of the machine will end up coated in steaming hot coffee grounds. This makes dialling in of the grinder an experience that's had me swearing a few times.
Cleaning is a must too, the standard clean of the basket/portafilter is easy and the dispersion screen that sits where the portafilter locks into is held in by just the O-ring. Cleaning the inside of the group head is simple - undo the two hex screws at the top and the whole spring-lever assembly lifts out in one. You then have access to the entire group head cylinder. Getting water out of the boiler is straight forward and when disconnect and on it's side using the steam wand to drain is the easiest route.
Espresso. The espresso from this machine is unlike anything I have ever experienced. I would say if you've ever had Cheval Blanc compared to a £30/bottle St.Emillion this is a similar experience. It seems to produce a naturally balanced cup - with enough crema to provide the taste and texture, whilst not producing too much as to drown the coffee body taste profile. The result is that it produces the flavours of the coffee in a clear perfect balance. This may not suit every coffee or consumer. Some blends that rely on crema heavy result to give the taste will not come through well. Whereas some single origin and blends that do not rely on this trait will result in an unmatched cup of flavours. Some people prefer crema rich expresso - then this is not the machine for you unless you want to open your eyes. In short this is like a magnifying glass - what you put in you will get out in perfect detail. I'm now really shocked at a good 95% of espresso I had served in coffee shops and restaurants. This is the down side of living with an MCAL.. but not one I'm worried about.
Cappuccino. Opening the steam valve is quick 1/2 turn affair. The velocity of the steam is shocking at first like as if they've managed to pack a fire breathing dragon in there. All this exists through three holes in the steam want tip. I use a 0.75 litre Motto jug for steaming and have tried 1%,2%, 4.3% and 5.2% full jersey gold milk. The only down side of the wand is that it's fixed position (held by a bolt so it can be changed with tools) but the position is just right for me. Steaming is a quick, affair and after you've got the hang of it the milk comes out with bubbles so small you have to look at it closely to see them. The texture is velvet, silk. I've made cappuccinos for friends that have a sweet tooth and don't like bitter coffee - they didn't even need sugar and commented that it was like nothing like starbucks etc (good point) because it tasted sweet, not bitter and the foam was fantastic. The same comment about coffee shops - once you get good then living with the MCAL makes you look at the cappuccino served to you in a different light. Initially I started with cappuccinos but because the espresso is so go I now drink almost exclusively espresso.
For reference I normally use single origin coffees, roasted the day before arriving on my doorstep. I have an MCAP MC4 doserless-stepless grinder.
If this review sounds like a glowing affair - it is. However like all good things you need to be patient, learn, keep with the tempo and you'll be rewarded. Attempt to short cut this and the MCAL will sulk leaving you without doubt you have done something wrong. I have spent many nights attempting to get good shots out, trying different things to improve the result. I kid you not - you will build up a relationship with this machine. If you want a machine you push the button for coffee or for dinner parties then this is not the machine for you - although once you have learnt how to use it then it's as fast as a normal pump coffee machine but quieter..
I hope this slightly verbose review helps anyone considering this machine. The price I paid is probably all over the place due to exchange rates of the euro, sterling and dollar so but about RRP.
Tortuous - ordered, six weeks later it arrived after being made to order. All forgotten when I opened the box..