La Pavoni Buyer's Guide (10 Things to Know before you buy.) updated 6/20
They look so cool, so iconic, that even people who couldn't care less about "hand crafted" espresso, or chasing the mythical "god shot," stare in awe when faced with one of these sexy Italians.
Maybe it's the big chrome thing sticking out.
Whatever the reason, the universal fascination is pretty undeniable.
Sometimes the sheer design of an object exceeds it's functionality so much, it almost doesn't matter how it functions.
Like a Volkswagen Bug. Or an Eames chair. Or a young Brigitte Bardot.
Of course, La Pavoni's little lever espresso machines do function. But whether they're more Fiat than Ferrari, remains open to debate.
Ok, here's a good point to interject that this rough "buyer's guide" for La Pavoni lever machines was getting a little long in the tooth, and overdue for (since we're using auto metaphors) an overhaul.
Since I first wrote this my experience with Pavonis has expanded exponentially. I was trying to stay "general," for a mass audience, at that point when the website was new. I didn't want to "offend" anyone, and I wouldn't have considered myself an "expert" on Pavoni levers anyway.
I'll probably never call myself an "expert" on La Pavoni espresso machines (there will always be people who know more) but think I know enough about them at this point to have an opinion.
And since, as with most things in life if we're honest, that opinion is "mixed." There are things to love about a La Pavoni lever, and things that annoy me personally. And this update will add a few of those...
For people considering spending money on a La Pavoni, there are some things that are good to know.
First of all, the machine is Art. (Being in the New York MOMA collection makes it "official.")
So you're already armed with one retort for the first question you'll likely face about why you spent "so much" on an espresso machine. The one you may get from your significant other who poses the incredibly boring question, "Isn't it kinda expensive?"
The logical response,"How much is Art worth?" is not likely to win the day.
But the truth is there always a certain satisfaction with the SEEING a chrome La Pavoni on the counter.
So maybe you should just be honest (with them, and yourself) you want a La Pavoni because of the way it looks. That may sound shallow and misguided. But you can then roll out the shock and awe coffee jargon. Something like,"You really need a lever machine to hand craft crema, and achieve a mouth feel that is different from an electric pump machine."
If all else fails, there's always the pathetic, "Can't I have just something for ME for a change!?"
Of course the truth is any espresso machine over 200 bucks could be considered "expensive" to a normal human being. It's only among coffee geeks that half a grand is often considered "entry level," that gets you some minimal "newbie" gear. It's hard to explain to anyone who "doesn't get it" that the shiny plastic, Made in China, push button Crappresso on sale at Macy's for $200, just won't make you feel good in the morning.
So if you're reading this far, you may have already convinced ourselves it's "worth it." If for no other reason than the pure joy of gazing at a mid century Italian machinery every morning.
Some of us thought it was insanely cool when Marty McCasling crafted the bong from a 5 foot Italian Chianti bottle found behind the pizza place in high school, which required at least two people and several inhalation cycles to operate. It was plain awesome, no matter how "impractical" it may have seemed to "the uninspired" (non-teenage boys.)
But unless you've actually tried to make a coffee drink with one (a La Pavoni lever, not a giant Chianti bottle) you should probably do a little investigation about what you're getting into. Do your due diligence before fighting for something you'll regret.
Wouldn't it be nice to tell yourself you've at least done some research BEFORE you pull the trigger on that ebay "bargain," or craigslist deal? If only to avoid the humiliation of having to explain to that same significant other why scalding water is streaming out of the machine when it's not suppose to by responding with something like, "Probably just needs a 20 dollar seal kit."
Or when your six year old runs screaming down the hall after touching the shiny 300 degree boiler, you can counter with,"I told you they got hot."
Anyway, maybe you can get something out of the observations below that will actually inform your decision.
So let's go:
1- There are two main La Pavoni "home" lever espresso machine models. The original Europiccola, and the more modern big brother Professional.
2- At first glance the two machines may look "alike," but if you've been making espresso a while, you'll notice, and appreciate, the differences between these two pretty quickly. The boiler on the Europiccola is much smaller. In fact, you'll be lucky to get two or three espresso shots, and/or some milk steamed, before having to cool and "reload" the water reservoir.
You may also discover, especially on the older "hi/lo" models with dual heating elements that require you to manually turn on and off the heating elements, that you can't seem to pull three consecutive shots without the machine getting so hot that steam sputters out instead of hot water.
The Professional boiler holds almost TWICE as much water, has a pressurestat to automatically control temperature, and a pressure gauge to help you graphically see how hot your water actually is.
(After the mid 90s the Europiccola got a pressurestat as well, and went to the same single heating element, but Pavoni never added a pressure gauge, and you're still consigned to the smaller boiler.)
Otherwise, the two models are pretty much the same.
3- They DO get hot.
How hot? About a million degrees. And that's on the outside! You cannot touch the boiler of a La Pavoni once it warms up (and they warm up in about 10 minutes normally) without a trip to the emergency room. Even the base can get uncomfortably hot. So you'll need to work on your technique of holding the portafilter handle to steady the machine with one hand, while leaning down on the lever with the other. You can't really "grab" the machine, ever, once it heats up. And you really do have to keep the kids away. It's almost like the La Pavoni couldn't be made today if some industrial designer tried to pitch the idea. No corporate executives or insurance companies would take the law suit risk!
4- Making espresso in general, but especially with a La Pavoni lever, is a Science Project!
I never would have realized just how true that is until using one. They aren't your Starbuck's Saeco, where you just load the basket, and push a button. You are actually going to have to experiment with the right beans, the roast, the grind, the tamp, the temperature when you pull the lever, and even how hard you pull it!
The term "hand crafted espresso" is really not just bullshit with these.
You've got to experiment with all the "variables" to pull a good shot on one of these. It's a little like learning to surf on a really gnarly breach break. If you can learn to surf there, you can probably surf anywhere.
Once you get your technique down enough to make espresso you like on a Pavoni, you can probably quickly transfer that technique to any espresso machine.
Of course one of the harsh realities of becoming an "espresso geek," is realizing the more you learn about good espresso, the "harder" it can seem to consistently make it.
But that's ok.
Variety is the spice of life, right?
It's way more fun to hit a home run when it's really appreciated, than every at bat.
So don't let any scary chatter on the coffee blogs scare you off from buying a Pavoni, or any lever machine, if you really want to try one.
Once you get your technique sorted out, and your microfoaming skills down, you're.... part way there.
There's one last thing. If you do milk drinks. Making "microfoam" can be a challenge on a Pavoni. Especially with the factory "three hole" steam tip.
A best "tip" for making microfoam on a Pavoni lever? (Get rid of the factory tip, and replace it with a single hole one. You can find those with various suppliers for not too much money. Or even DIY.)
5- They are relatively "small" machines.
Which is great in terms of kitchen space, especially compared to the commercial beasts some of us use as our "other" machines. But means you won't be impressing the gang on Saturday by making lattes for the neighborhood. You're not going to open a coffee shop with one. With the "small" size of the machine, comes a small group, and a small portafilter (with a small basket.)
People who've been using home pump machines with "commercial sized" portafilters, or have been buying their drinks from the local cafe, may find themselves disappointed with the SIZE of the shots. These were invented by the Italians in the late 50's, whose idea of an espresso was a tiny intense shot of coffee, and a cigarette, before work.
You'll find that the small shot is something you can get used to quickly. We Americans like Grande size everything. But making a small exquisite shot of espresso after all the careful prep ritual, can seem perfect after sitting down to look out the window with a good record on.
You can go to a "bottomless" (naked) portafilter, which I would advocate for almost any machine, and put a slightly deeper aftermarket basket to get more coffee in your puck, but you'll still be limited to the same amount of water on each pull. (Which leads to some people doing double pulls, or the "Fellini" move, which you can Google, but is basically a "pull and a half.")
6- Which brings us back to HOT. Temporarily. Because it's one of the "issues" Pavoni fans have to contend with before they sit down with their bliss described above. The group (the thing the water/espresso comes out of) gets fricking hot on a Pavoni after pulling the first shot.
Because the group is mounted directly to the boiler, and they're both made out of brass, it's pretty hard for the group to not end up almost same temp as the boiler. And because the boiler has to make steam as well as make coffee, it can be "too hot" for optimal espresso brewing.
People have come up with all sorts of creative tactics to deal with this, from cold towels, to running water over the group (messy and not very practical) to pulling the shot before the machine gets all the way heated up, or turning the machine off and waiting for it to cool down, but there's really only so much you can do. Commercial machines meant for serious production (lots of drinks in a row) have WAY bigger boilers, and those boilers are separated much further from the group for this very reason.
Which means you need to have some patience and develop tactics for dealing with the heat to really enjoy a La Pavoni lever machine. You may just have to wait longer between shots for the best results.
The bottom line is these are "personal" espresso machines. And can be really good in a "slow food" world.
7- And that leads us to some MORE "heat stuff."
Pavoni has been aware of the "heat issues" for decades, and made some "design changes" over the years to address them.
First, of course, was the "hi/lo" switching thing. That was of limited utility. So with the introduction of the Professional model, in the late 70s, they increased the boiler volume and added the pressurestat to automatically control the heat. (The pressurestat you'll normally find on a Pavoni is adjustable, and it's our opinion that it should be set at a temp as low as possible that still allows decent steaming. Around .9 BAR. If you don't steam milk drinks, you could turn it down even more!)
The last attempt started in the late 90s with the introduction of a "plastic" piston instead of brass, and then again with the introduction of the redesigned group of the"Millennium" models (year 2000.) They enlarged the casting of the brass group slightly in diameter, and inserted a "plastic" (polycarbonate) liner to try to reduce the heat transfer from the group to the water. Some people have even added aftermarket teflon gaskets between the group and the tank to isolate the group even more.
Unfortunately, the water is just as hot in the boiler, and that, along with the proximity of the group to the boiler is where the heat problems lie, and that pretty much comes with the Pavoni design.
The problem for Pavoni, and post 1995 owners, is that the plastic pistons can crack or unscrew themselves. This "loose" piston can mean you lift the handle and no water will come out. It can even result in pushing the shower screen out into the portafilter!
And the plastic liners have a gasket around them that get's old and hard, and can cause a steady leaky drip from the group. They can also get scratched of scraped in exteme situation, and allow more piston "blow by" than the old brass cylinders of the "Pre-Millenniums."
The "plastic" parts on these later machines got a bit of a bad rap, as people assumed Pavoni was "trying to save money," but they were really making a good faith effort to mitigate the "heat" issues.
The problems with the plastic stuff showed up later.
Once people started showing up at service centers having with broken pistons, Pavoni converted back to brass.
But they haven't gone back to the old smaller diameter group casting. So Mellinnium models are "stuck" with the plastic liners. The truth is probably that there's nothing really "wrong" with the "Mellennium" era machines. But I personally would avoid them if you have a decent vintage alternative..
You probably can't tell a shot from a working 1978 "Pre-Millennium" from a 2012 "Millennium," but they ARE different. Pavoni seems have steadily gone (like more Western Corporations) to steadily cheaper materials.
If you pick up a 1982 and a 2012 Europiccola you can feel the lighter weight. The chrome plating got thinner over the years as well as the thickness of the steel base.
The earlier Pavoni levers (painted with "hammerone" colors) had aluminum bases, which were very stiff and couldn't rust. When they went to metal bases in the 70s they were ok with a heavy chrome plate. But as they went to lighter metal and thinner plating over the years, rust issues became more and more serious for Pavonis. (Always ask to see the drip tray area under the cup grid before buying one from pictures alone, like on ebay! People will HIDE their rust and call it everything but what it is. RUST.)
The low point for Pavoni was probably the early 2000s when they used some plastic nuts on the sight glass (instead of chromed steel) and even a plastic nut to hold the boiler onto the base instead of the long use of a brass one.
The result was sightglasses that leaked, and boiler that would loosen up and spin around on the base. Attempts to tighten the giant plastic nuts often led to them breaking, and having to be completely replaced (or donated to Goodwill.)
Thankfully, both of those mistakes were rectified, and Pavoni went back to metal on those parts.
But you get the point. The new machines are still "pretty" when new, and really work about the same as always, but they're just not quite as heavy duty. And with that the "charm factor" for us is reduced.
9- Since to the untrained eye"all Pavonis look alike," it behooves any prospective La Pavoni buyer to make sure they understand what year, and model, they are looking at.
The heating elements changed over the years, even as the exteriors remained largely the same. The early models have brass "screw on" elements that Pavoni has stopped making, and that can be difficult to find now. You'll have to "convert" to put a new style heating element in an older Pavoni. Obviously you'll need to take that cost into consideration when buying one. Especially if you're uncomfortable working on them yourselves. Some people even say you shouldn't buy a vintage Pavoni (or any espresso machine) if you can't fool with them yourself.
We wouldn't go that far, but repairs from a Pro could easily double the purchase price of that "bargain" you found on ebay.
If you buy something that has been "restored" (shameless plug for the likes of Voltage110) you shouldn't have to worry about that kind of extra spending for quite a while. But having bought Pavonis on ebay, we can tell you 90 percent of them will need SOME kind of work. So keep that in mind (and budget.)
We're not La Pavoni purists, and don't call ourselves"maestros of the chome peacock," but have now seen and dealt with all the usual problems of La Pavoni machines for a few years, the "sweet spot" for Pavoni production to us is the time frame of 1973-1995.
And we'll always take a Professional over a Europiccola (if we have the extra cash!)
Since many of the heat and volume "issues" of the early La Pavonis were attacked with the release of the Professional, it's kind of a "no brainer" to look for one of those in the classic time range. As we said before, Europiccolas eventually got a pressurestat themselves in the early 90s, and you can add a pressure gauge to them if you want to, but all things being equal, the Professional has the edge for practical reasons.
Of course only the Europiccola has the vintage hammertone paint jobs, and thick rich chrome plating of the early years. So if aesthetics are a big consideration, and you just like the look, by all means buy a vintage Euro. Making coffee you like in the morning has a lot to do with liking the equipment you're making it with. Nothing wrong with that!
10- Last, but not least, to keep in mind (and sort of already mentioned) is "condition."
Because Pavoni changed so little over the years and the parts are still mostly available and cheap, it's not that critical to worry about "condition" if you don't mind a little rust, or are down with sinking some money into your new love. It's funny to think of anything Made in Italy as being "bulletproof" but the La Pavoni, especially up til the mid 90s, is genuinely Old World quality. You can fix them and keep them going forever. But anything that gets wet all the time and cycles from HOT to cold every day, is going to eventually need some help.
For us, the first thing to ask is, "Is it rusty?" The base will rust if not properly cared for, or are one of the dreaded "hole through the drip tray" models (circa 1984-2006.)
Scale is actually kind of a rare problem with Pavonis, but make sure the
As already noted, always ask to see UNDERNEATH both the plastic drip tray insert in later years, and even the actual bottom side of the base (with the wiring exposed.) Once you have rust you'll have to be comfortable "living with it" aesthetically. The only way it's a make or break issue if it's around the boiler. We've seen them so bad a new base was required just to keep the thing from collapsed with lever pressures.
The boiler and group are brass, so they can't rust.
The steel levers will pit and rust eventually, but obviously won't effect your coffee, and are easy to replace with modern levers if you want to.
You'll definitely want to know, "Does it get hot?"
If not it could just be a fuse, or a bad switch, but more often the early heating element is bad. And as noted before the early screw on style brass elements are made with Unobtainium.
If you're looking at a "hi/lo" dual element, make sure both setting work.
There are other electrical quirks with the 60s and 70s Europiccola models (like until 1973 there was no on/off switch! You had to yank the plug out of the wall to turn off the heating elements.) If it has a pressurestat, make sure it turns the heating element off.
Which finally brings us to our last point:
10a: Unless you plan on putting your lever in the garage near the dryer, make sure you're buying an American model, with native 110/120 US standard electric specs. You'll see many La Pavonis on ebay from Italy or elsewhere, even "new," but be warned that they are almost invariably 220 volt European models. Which means you can't plug them into most American kitchens. (Ask to see the plug end if you're not sure about it!)
It's possible to convert everything you need over to US voltage but by the time you pay someone to do that, you might as well spend your money on a US model. (The various "upvoltage" contraptions you can buy on Amazon, can't be relied upon to give you the kind of current a 220 heating element wants.
Other than that, the La Pavoni levers are marvels of mid century Italian design, and if it's what you want after reading all this, you really can't go too wrong. Even just having it sit on your kitchen counter! Your neighbors WILL be impressed.
So the bottom line on a La Pavoni espresso machine is, if you want one, go ahead and buy one. You'll have a great time playing with it. Just buy with your eyes open!