Disclaimer: Previous to this purchase I have only used low-end Krups machines, no tamper, cheap blade grinder.
During my initial research on espresso machines, I developed a crush on the FrancisFrancis X1. The only reasons not to puchase it were: 1]price and 2]pods. Pods just seem to go against the reasons for buying your own espresso machine. Unless you have a $5 or more a day caffeine habit, why give up going to your favorite coffee shop and flirting with those cute young counterboys unless you can select your own beans and grind them fresh? Even the machines that do both pods and grounds seem suspect. There is no actual basis in my opinion, but that just sounds too much like buying a hybrid bicycle...doesn't do anything especially well because it tries to please everybody. Also decided that pressurized portafilters and crema discs were out of the question. One should have to tamp properly. Artificial aids for producing crema are like using perfume instead of taking a shower. So, this narrowed it down quite a bit, and the selection was further narrowed by an aversion to plastic parts. I spent weeks agonizing over the legendary Rancilio Silvia. She has it all going for her in the quality department, just didn't appeal to my shallow side or to my inexperienced barista side that looked forward to finding the right beans, adjusting the grind and tamp, but didn't want to turn making a good cup of espresso into a second career. Then along came the Elektra Nivola. Sleek, beautiful, semi-automatic in all the right places, 22 lbs of metal and on sale. Was a bit daunted by its newness and lack of consumer reviews, but decided to live life on the edge, that's what return policies are for. Okay, this is a bit long-winded as I'm finally getting to the actual product stuff, sorry.
The machine is amazing to look at. Retro and futuristic at the same time. One suspects that a less aesthetically-pleasing version would take up less space and cost less, but it does redeem itself by being easy to refill, easy to clean. once you find a place for it, you don't have to pull it out, tip it, etc. The instructions are adequate and everything works with a flip of a single knob. I have yet to make a truly amazing double shot of espresso, but suspect that is more a weakness on the part of the operater and her grinder. I'm not very fussy about foam, this machine seems to do the job quite well and with little skill. It's a bit disappointing that one cannot convert the frother to a basic metal arm if desired
Am not going to go over the usual tips for newbies, but will share ones that I haven't seen on this site or others. A friend of mine works at a very popular breakfast spot and was willing to share:
1] the key to good foam is cold fresh milk and a chilled frothing pitcher. My experience verifies this, as I didn't have a frothing pitcher at first and a steel travel mug made a poor substitute.
2] commercial burr grinders slice the beans in little crescents that are deposited into the doser and then into the portafilter clockwise. A steady clockwise twist while tamping will allow the water to spiral through the grinds. Unfortunately, I bought the Solis Maestro, which does not have a doser or portafilter fork, but still notice a perceptible difference between grounds scooped out of a container and when I dispense directly into the portafilter and then give a clockwise tamp. The process is just messier and requires a good eye for the correct amount. Now that I know, I would've spent more on a higher-end grinder.