At under $300 this is a capable machine for great drinks. At $100 it might just be the best buy around
Positive Product Points
This is a sturdy machine that produces great tasting espresso, crema, and foamed milk with very little fuss or learning curve. At a list price in Starbucks of around $270 it outperforms my Gaggia Coffee Deluxe, and at $100 at Costco it is a fantastic bargain. It easily produces enough steam in one pull for two cups of cappucino.
Negative Product Points
The panarello atachment on the steam wand is a bit low and can result in milk spills when removing the pitcher. It also exits on the left unlike most machines I have seen, which is a bit clumsy when steaming milk. The industrial look of the black painted case is not the most eye-catching Italian design I've ever seen. Saeco's product support is less than stellar. Some might find the drip tray a bit shallow unless it is emptied after each use.
I have been using a Via Veneto by Saeco for several years, and recently decided to upgrade to a “more sophisticated” machine. I bought a Gaggia Coffee Deluxe, which produced very weak crema with the Illy pre-ground coffee I use and poor foamed milk. I joined the Gaggia Yahoo forum to learn that I needed to get a high quality grinder, modify the machine, buy only whole beans that were less than two weeks old (or, better yet, roast my own), etc. While I love Italian-style espresso and cappuccino I just want good coffee with much less fuss and money.
The only thing “wrong” with the Via Veneto was the need for a new portafilter gasket, which means a virtual total teardown of the machine. I bit the bullet on that job and will sell the Gaggia to anyone with more time to invest than I have.
Meantime, my wife called me from the Costco in Folsom (California) to say there was a stack of Via Venezia machines there for $100. I had seen these in a local Starbucks for substantially more, and told her to get one, as I knew Costco’s great return policy would allow me to bring it back if I was unhappy with it.
This turned out to be a great decision. From the first shot it has performed flawlessly. Unlike the Via Veneto the case is all metal and outweighs that machine by what I think must be a dozen pounds. It definitely does not want to “walk” around the counter. It has a large capacity (96 ounce) reservoir that is both easy to remove and to fill though a snap-open top hatch.
The drip tray cleverly doubles as the top of a pullout drawer that allows storage of the tamper, pod basket, and the rubber gasket used with it. The front contains the usual three switches for power, brewing, and steam, while the left side has a big silver steam valve knob.
The steam wand pivots and swivels, allowing great latitude in positioning it relative to the milk pitcher. However, the plastic panarello makes the assembly fairly long. Care must be used in not overfilling the pitcher as then the required tilt to get it out from under the wand will likely result in milk spills. In addition, the wand swivels to the left as you face the machine. I’m right handed and learned to develop my frothing technique holding the pitcher in that hand while adjusting the steam flow with my left. To do this with the Via Venezia is a bit clumsy as I have to reach across my body with my left hand to control the steam knob.
The portafilter is the pressurized variety, but unlike the Via Veneto the holder is chrome plated, and the handle is both weighted and covered with a black, non-slip rubberlike material. With its elegant curve and silvered end it feels like a commercial portafilter but looks like some actual design thought went into its creation. Accessories include the usual scoop (but no plastic or any other tamper), the pod basket and gasket, and a nifty dual use tool that locks into the portafilter holder to scrape off any dried coffee that has managed to get on the portafilter gasket, and when turned over holds a Phillips screwdriver used to remove the metal filter.
Using the machine could not be simpler. Assuming the water tank is full and the unit is plugged in, simply press the power button on the right. The international “on/off” symbol will light in red. When the brew button on the top left lights up its red coffee cup symbol, press it to pull your shot. For steam press the button below it with the rather obvious symbol on it. When that lights crack open the steam knob on the left of the machine and allow any water to flush out before foaming your milk.
I found the panarello, while different from the one on the Via Venzia, is easy to use by inserting the tip just under the surface of the milk and very gently opening the steam valve, lowering the pitcher as foam develops to keep it just barely under the surface. Oddly, the Gaggia uses the identical panarello but I was much less successful with it.
While flushing the boiler to cool it down by pushing the “brew” button with the steam wand open I did notice a characteristic that might explain why the Via Venezia frother seems to perform better than the Gaggia. The pump continues to operate as long as the steam valve is open, even after turning the brew button off, thus adding force to the flow of steam.
I highly recommend the Via Venezia for casual coffee geeks who want great drinks with minimum fuss. At $269 it is a sturdy and capable unit. At the Costco price of $100 it is a fantastic buy.
Costco is not the place to ask questions about products, but their prices and quality are hard to beat. Their return policy is about the best out there-no questions asked.
Three Month Followup
Three months of living with the Via Venezia totally confirms my original review of it. The only additional things worth noting are:
1) except for the case being black metal rather than all stainless and using smaller button switches, it is exactly the same externally as the expensive Barista model formerly sold through Starbucks. From my prior investigation of other manufacturers various models I suspect it is identical internally as well, as it appears common practice to use the same internals such as pumps and boilers and simply add "bells and whistles" to differentiate the more expensive models.
2) In my review I noticed that the pump came on even if the brew button is not pushed if I opened the steam wand. This turns out to be a great way to avoid having to deal with the mess of a wet puck when cleaning the machine. I simply open the steam wand and purge the machine until the steam turns to water and immediately shut off the steam knob. This of course is necessary to cool down the boiler, but it also results in a nice dry puck that is easy to knock out of the portafilter.
In terms of the espresso and foam quality it is exceptional, with consistent thick crema and good density foam. All in all every bit the fantastic bargain I thought it was when I purchased it.
One Year Followup
This unit is still a champ! I continue to use the Via Venezia daily, producing at least two short pours (ristretto) and a cup of cappuccino from a single generously rounded scoop of Illy dark roast pre-ground coffee. I have become accustomed to the panarello being on the left rather than the right like my old Via Veneto , still used in my camper, by the way. The Via Venezia produces richer coffee with a thicker crema than that unit, and the frother on the steamer works to make a much stiffer foam. The amount of foam it produces is more than enough for two cups of cap, and if I wasn't pulling the two short shots first the unit will easily produce two full pours from a single scoop, although the crema won't be as rich.
In my three month review I noted that opening the steam knob with the steam button not pushed activates the pump. This turns out to be a benefit. After my two short pulls, and the full pull plus steaming the milk, the puck is quite dry and easy to dispose of without the mess brought by wet pucks. Simply point the steam wand at a glass, shut off the steam button, and open the steam wand to cool down the boiler until what is produced is water instead of steam, and you'll have a nice, dry, solid puck.
Another plus is that, once the machine is warmed up to the "brew temperature" it then heats to the steam level very quickly. You do need to purge some water from the boiler before actually frothing milk, but it only takes a few seconds to do this competely, unlike the Via Veneto which continues to spit water along with the steam and makes it very hard to produce froth that is not watery.
About the only negative I've found is that it is difficult to see the water level against the dark plastic of the tank, and can be hard to pour water in while trying to keep an eye on the level mark. One slight improvement would be a deeper bottom drawer as it is too shallow for a tamper (or thermometer either, for that matter). Finally, I guess to differentiate it from the Barista stainless steel case, the buttons are small and the lighting on them is a bit tough to see. I've inadvertently left the machine on after cleaning it a couple of times because of this.
These are nits. At $270 this is a good machine, and at the $100 I paid for it it still seems a fantastic bargain.