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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.