(Edited 5 May 09)
After my beloved Silvia met its demise in a recent moving accident, and because the new house, car, and furniture has left me with no disposable income to speak of for the next year or so, I set out on a mission to find a temporary replacement under $150.
Now, I'm what you call an all-around snob. Coffee is not my whole life (wine takes first place in my heart), but both doing things the right way and not wasting money on anything that's not quality ARE central to who I am. I looked at some used Gaggias and felt a little uncomfortable with second-hand machines. I looked at some cheap machines at Bed, Bath, and Buyer's Remorse and found them to be simply crap. I poked around on Amazon and found this Ariete Prestige, and despite the good reviews, was skeptical. I went back to looking at used machines, hoping to score an amazing deal on a replacement Silvia, and then one day while shopping, stumbled across a mom-and-pop kitchen supply store that had a few of these Lello-distributed Ariete machines. Seeing it in person, I decided to give it a shot.
Let me just say that I'm glad I did. It's not a $500-700 machine, and it shows, but it's leaps and bounds better than the electric kettle-steamers at any price and loads better than the other entry-level pump products I tried, including the $250 Breville Roma and the Nespresso demo units I tried at Sur La Table. Purely on the basis of aesthetics and construction, it blows away the plastic abominations that dominate the entry-level market, soundly outperforming nearly all of them in taste as well. The biggest disappointment is the portafilter. It is a lighter grade of brass than what I'm used to with the Silvia (Edit: compared weight with known brass Breville at BBB and it's actually 2 grams heavier, so it's likely brass, just not quite as hefty as the Silvia I'm used to), and it uses a pressurized design that masks true crema. That being said, though, with a little time and trial and error, it can produce shots that are really quite good. You'll find mixed opinions on tamping pressurized machines if you do some research, and it's true that it IS important not to over-tamp, but I've found that there is a sweet spot, which according to my kitchen scale is in the range of 22-25 (Edit: off by 10...oops) pounds for a typical espresso grind.
I haven't found any of the fearmongering about thermoblocks to be true--temperature is consistent, recovery time seems reasonable to me, and steam production is more than sufficient (but please, please remember to remove the stupid rubber frothing aid!). The performance of this thermoblock seems to be on par with low-end "true" boilers (<$450). (Edit:) The steam wand works quite well and does a glossy, passable microfoam, but tends to heat the milk a bit too quickly for my liking.
Determining shot quality is difficult with the pressurized portafilter masking the true crema, and a machine of this caliber is never going to produce The Shot, but after the first few "learning" shots, I was able to pull consistently drinkable shots above Starbucks grade, and equal to or better than my local Peets (mine is a particularly good one, but nearly all are better than "Char"bucks). Flavor and body is good, without any of the off flavors from poor machine workings, too hot/cold water, uneven extraction, or high/low pressure.
On the value per dollar front, this is a great machine. Taking into account all factors, I'd say on a scale of 1-10, this pulls shots at about a 6, sometimes 7. For calibration, I'd give the Silvia a solid 9.5, the steamers a 1, and a moka pot/aeropress a 2-3. Considering that this little guy is about one-quarter to one-fifth the price of a new Silvia, it's quite an achievement to make espresso that's more than half as good. For those super serious about espresso, I'd recommend looking at something more upmarket if the budget allows, but for those considering machines in the sub-$400 range--rethink it. The Ariete I have is every bit as tasty as the $250-300 machines I tried and much cheaper. You can buy TWO (or even better, put the savings toward the grinder).
I have a really nice Anfim grinder, and that probably plays a role here, but I have been pleasantly surprised by this machine. It's certainly no Silvia, but it will definitely get the job done. If you can't spend $400+ on a machine and are considering the $250-300 plastic ones, give some serious thought to the Lello/Ariete instead. You could put the savings toward better uses, like a more upmarket grinder or savings for a future espresso machine investment, and STILL be enjoying quite good espresso in the meantime.
A word of caution: As some of the Amazon reviews indicate, tightening the portafilter to the machined marking may not be sufficient. Everyone on CoffeeGeek should know to tighten the portafilter until it seats properly, and not because of some silkscreened line. Doing that will avoid the "exploding" problem a few ignorant users experienced.
Edit: Some additional notes for potential buyers
- Make sure to seat the water reservoir tightly or it will leak
- To open water reservoir, pull straight up and THEN rotate toward the back--a little tricky the first time, so be careful not to break the hinge tabs
- Newbies: Find the Sunbeam EM4800C manual from Australia (same machine, much better information)
- The first few shots will likely run through a bit too quickly. I recommend slowly increasing your tamping pressure before messing with the grind (especially if you're using a grind setting you know works well on other machines)
- The power cord is only about 30 to 32 inches long. Plan accordingly.
- One area where the low cost shows through is the shutoff valve. You'll get a waste dribble from this machine that doesn't happen with $500-700 machines. Remove your demitasse/shot glass as you switch off and let the low pressure dribble drain into the pan.
- Switching to a non-pressurized PF basket is possible, assuming one of a matching size can be found. I plan to look for one and will update this review if I am successful.
- If you fill the PF basket close to the top and allow 45 seconds to elapse after brewing, the puck will not be very soupy at all.