The Rancilio Silvia (*Est. $700) is a machine with legions of fans. Coffee guru Mark Prince, who runs the enthusiast site CoffeeKid.com and contributes to CoffeeGeek.com, says the Silvia is "built like a tank," a sentiment echoed by numerous owners. It has a stainless-steel housing and uses a marine brass group head and boiler for better heat retention, as well as a multidirectional steam arm and an ergonomic portafilter appreciated by users.
In an investigative review for The Boston Globe, Ike DeLorenzo says that among inexpensive espresso machines, the Silvia is a good buy if you're willing to spend more for hassle-free, great-tasting espresso. Owners posting feedback to enthusiast sites WholeLatteLove.com and CoffeeGeek.com call the machine "one step away from going commercial" and "best in class," and say the "machine reads your mind." Many users note that the Silvia's resale value is excellent and repair parts are readily available, important for a machine that can be expected to last 10 to 15 years.
There's a learning curve to every espresso maker, however, and the Rancilio Silvia is a bit finicky in terms of temperature, tamping density and grind fineness. In a review for SeriousEats.com, professional barista Erin Meister recommends the Silvia, noting that it's both user-friendly and geek-friendly. Hard-core espresso devotees will also appreciateh the option to add features such as proportional-integral-derivative (PID) technology, which allows for highly precise temperature control.
Several owners suggest buying a higher-quality tamper than the one included, and a pod adaptor kit (*Est. $90) is available for those who prefer the convenience of coffee pods. Since a precise grind is essential for optimal use and taste, experts recommend using the Silvia in combination with a top-quality burr grinder. Overall, reviews say the Silvia is a workhorse that's built to last, and editors at CoffeeKid.com call it "the best machine you can buy for under $700."
Mid-priced espresso machines run the gamut in terms of quality: While some rival the Rancilio Silvia, others are mediocre and a waste of money, according to owners. For the average home user -- not an espresso guru with exquisite taste -- it's possible to purchase an espresso machine for less than $500 that will meet your needs.
The Gaggia Classic (*Est. $450) earns praise from both professional reviewers and owners, with several saying it rivals the top-rated Silvia. The Gaggia has a 72-ounce water reservoir and stainless-steel housing, and boasts many of the same high-end features as the Rancilio. The Classic's updated frothing head is easy to use and clean, and users like that it produces perfect crema. Complaints include a dark water reservoir that makes it difficult to judge water levels and an aluminum boiler that's more susceptible to corrosion than brass.
Besides price, the Classic has one advantage over the Silvia: It can make espresso from freshly ground coffee or Easy Serving Espresso (ESE) pods without having to purchase a separate adaptor. ESE pods differ from other types of pod coffee, like K-Cups and T-Discs, which are compatible with different espresso makers. The Gaggia Classic's build quality is also applauded in reviews, with multiple users saying they've owned this machine for years without a single issue.
The DeLonghi Lattissima Plus 520.W (*Est. $400) is comparably priced and earns promising feedback in one professional comparison test. It boasts one-button operation to make espresso or cappuccino. The Lattissima Plus works with either fresh grounds or Nespresso pods, although some users gripe about the limited selection of pods available.
The DeLonghi's premier feature is its exceptional frothing ability and easy-to-use frothing mechanism. A simple push of a button activates the steam cycle and also cleans the frother after use. The milk reservoir slides into place and can be easily stored in the refrigerator between uses to create froth from real, fresh milk for each cup. The DeLonghi Lattissima Plus is a sizable machine, but is attractive enough to leave sitting on a countertop.