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Isomac Amica / Zaffiro
By Dan Kehn
The conclusion of Mark Prince’s detailed review stated, “I do highly
recommend the Zaffiro if you are someone who is an espresso purist, and
give this machine a 9 out of 10 as an espresso machine.” His
strong recommendation led me to wonder if is was really that great, and
more importantly, how it compared to my own espresso equipment. In my
own selfish way, I hoped to improve my technique on such a machine and
perhaps better temperature-regulate my heat exchanger espresso machine
with the advantage of a notably stable single-boiler next to it.
Note: If you are considering the Amica or Zaffiro,
Mark’s review is a must-read. Frankly, his report leaves very
little left to say on the subject. So instead of repeating what
he’s already said quite well, I will emphasis the “day in
the life” aspects of the Amica and also contrast its use to my
experience with the Rancilio Silvia and La Valentina.
This machine is smaller than I expected and lighter. It’s no
featherweight mind you, but it is only slightly larger than the Rancilio
Silvia in depth and height. The Amica looks decidedly narrow and tall.
The front and side view draw your attention to the sculpted E61 group
and attractive lever. Placed on our center island, the rear view is more
mundane since it emphasizes the flat featureless back. Still, there is
the compensating consideration that the polished stainless steel can be
used as a small mirror for a last-minute check on your appearance before
dashing out the door.
The packaging adequately protected the machine’s expansive
delicate surfaces. Double-boxing would be a must for it to survive
shipment without damage. The instructions are minimally informative and
the translation is unintentionally humorous in several places ("The
coffee machine AMICA has the following peculiarities: ... Professional
erogation group in chromes brass", "We suggest keeping the
original packing (for eventual sending back)", and so on).
Isomac espresso machines have the reputation for impressive stainless
steel casing. Undoubtedly this machine embodies that claim to fame, as
evidenced by both the finish and the thickness of the exposed edges of
the back wrap-around cover. I was impressed that the cover and the frame
are all made of the same polished stainless steel. There is absolutely
no risk of errant drips causing long-term damage to this baby! You
should plan on spending some time touching up the appearance after each
use since every fingerprint and splatter readily shows. The top is an
especially good dust magnet.
The Amica comes with a single and double portafilter. They are are
Faema-style with a rounded bowl (unlike the Rancilio commercial and La
Marzocco portafilters, whose bowls are flatter and thicker). The styling
and finish is nice, however the stock handles are light and feel cheap
in comparison to the rest of the machine.
Like many of the Isomac espresso machines, the Amica has a L-shaped
steam arm that moves laterally in an arc. You can bleed condensation
into the driptray when the wand is in the far downward position. I
probably would keep it parallel to the countertop and maneuver a twenty
ounce pitcher underneath it since there is inexplicably no grab-tab. If
you do move it, be careful, it’s easy to burn your fingers even
with a towel wrap in a moment of inattention. The swivel joint also
looks like it might need retightening over time if the arm is moved
excessively, but in any case, the steam wand has ample clearance for the
largest pitcher you would ever want to use. I prefer a twenty ounce
pitcher since the Amica rolls and spins the milk so nicely, so why not?
The look of the star-shaped steam knob nicely complements the luxurious
curves of the grouphead. Appearances aside, I admittedly prefer rounded
knobs that flick open and closed very easily. This closure valve has the
feel of a compression fitting, much like Silvia’s, which tend to
drip with age.
The three pin switches have red lamps below them to indicate power,
pump on, and steam temperature (looking from left to right). The pin
switches click crisply. The symbols indicating their use are across the
horizontal edge directly above them. These lights are difficult to see
under average kitchen illumination. This wouldn’t be much of a
concern except I prefer to start the pull at the top of the heating
cycle to enhance the initial starting temperature accuracy (otherwise
the initial temperature can vary as much as 7-8°F). In addition, the
extra “uumph!” that you get if you steam while the heating
element is active at the top of its cycle is worth waiting for (although
the pressure gauge serves as a more accurate predictor of the onset of
the Amica’s perfect steam zone—more on this later). I added
a small “hood” made of electrical tape so I could see the
indicator without dimming the kitchen lights. The center pin that
controls steam is directly above the grouphead and the boiler. It gets
uncomfortably hot after about an hour. Not enough to burn you but
it’s assured your fingers won’t linger when toggling from
steam to brew temperature.
Mark’s detailed review mentioned the sputtering of the water
tap. Despite this warning, I mildly scalded myself. If I pay careful
attention, I can fill a cup with water safely but not a demitasse. If I
want hot water I fill a pitcher and then transfer instead.
To avoid wasting beans on sour or bitter shots, I spent a good
half-hour verifying the temperature setting. The factory setting at the
top of the cycle was around 204°F. Because of the large boiler, this
regulation is time-consuming since each boiler cycle takes a minute or
so. In the end, I barely moved it down by two degrees. This turned out
to be a tricky endeavor since the adjustable thermostat is very
sensitive. Mark suggested starting by adjustments of about 2-5 minutes
compared to a clock face. This is no exaggeration and moving the dial
one millimeter represents a couple of degrees. You will need steady
hands and patience, so I advise either leaving it at the factory setting
or adjusting it once and forgetting it. Those who wish to temperature
tweak for a given blend might consider flicking the steam switch for a
few seconds to bump up for higher-temperature blends. This same comment
applies to the expansion valve adjustment which determines maximum pull
pressure. This brass barrel-type valve is attached to the the
pump’s output and regulates it down by returning excess water to
the tank. Like the thermostat, it doesn’t lend to precise fine
tuning. So I tweaked it a mere 0.5 bars downward to 10 with a smigeon of
a turn and see no need to ever touch it again.
With the machine warm as it gets and freshly calibrated, my
anticipation got the best of me and I forgot to wait for the top of the
heating cycle. Disappointment! The first shot was sour. Well, at least I
confirmed that the coffee grinder settings for La Valentina and the
Amica were the same. Lesson learned, I reloaded and tried again.
Impressive! The Illy Nude cup really showcased the building of
mousse-like crema, stopping at a ¾” layer and then settling
down. That second shot and those that followed consistently exhibited
one of the espresso characteristics that I prize, namely a thick,
full-bodied, almost chewy consistency.
A Typical Weekday Morning
I allowed at least 30 minutes for the espresso machine to warm up. My
routine starts with a straight espresso later followed by a cappuccino.
Having re-read Mark’s review after my first session, I decided to
wait for the top of the boiler cycle to avoid the 7-8°F latency. For
days running, this never disappoints, each shot has been spot on.
That’s impressive for a machine that I’ve only laid eyes on
Below is the drill for the first shot of the day. It will only cover
the basic steps, you should see Mark’s well-written review for
- Measure out enough beans for one shot. I use 17 grams. Start the
- Pull up the lever for 15 seconds to put the finish heat up on the
portafilter. It really is unnecessary since the machine has warmed up
long ago, but remember, I want that top of cycle temperature. The
boiler won’t click on during the blank shot but will about 30
- The grinder should be done by now, so fill, tamp, and lock in.
- Pull up the lever and watch the pour. With luck, 27 seconds of
crema-laden espresso nirvana.
- Unlock, rinse the portafilter. Lock it back in. Enjoy!
Now it’s time for that morning cappuccino. This has been a real
treat, since Amica is a steaming demon. Mark’s review mentioned
the long ramp-up to steam temperature. It is worth the wait, even though
I have to preheat my cup and let the shot sit. The steam does initially
spittle more than Valentina, but is greater in volume and velocity IF
you follow Mark’s instruction (key point is to bleed the wand well
and wait until at least 3.7 bars before starting; otherwise the boiler
clicks off at 4.0 bars). Without this attention, the steaming capability
drops off dramatically from fabulous to fallow. Be patient, it is worth
Materials and Workmanship
The wrap-around cover comes off with six screws, two on each of its
three sides. Be careful when removing it to “stretch” the
cover out just a little to avoid scratching its interior. It is as
gorgeous on the inside as out and it would be a shame to mar it, even
though you will rarely see it. I asked a helper to take one side while
we guided it out and when replacing it. On the same note, use care when
replacing the screws. Again I suggest finding a helper to hold the cover
in place while tightening the screws finger tight and work each one in
partway before going to the next. Once they are all finger tight, get a
screwdriver and holding it in one hand, use your free hand to make
certain you don’t slip off the screw head and scratch the cover.
The inside of this machine is beautifully laid out. Smart details
like raising the wiring connections off the bottom onto a small ledge to
avert a short in case of a tank overflow demonstrated the thoughtfulness
of the design. This may well turn out to be important, as I discovered
later, since overfilling the tank is surprisingly easy to do. The boiler
is nickel-plated and the quality of the welding is self-evident. I
admired the choice of plumbing connections. While some machines may
choose to use plastic tubing, the Amica goes one step further for the
short lead from the pump to the boiler by installing one wrapped in
braided stainless-steel, just as you see in commercial espresso
With all this high praise, it is unfortunate the thermostat quality control issues that were
mentioned several times in Mark’s detailed review continue to
linger. Chris’ Coffee Service sells a replacement thermostat that claims to address the
problem. I have no personal experience with it, although I have
converted an Amica to electronically-controlled temperature.
I really enjoyed using this machine, so much so that it rekindles my
interest in single-boiler machines. For my particular morning routine,
it is a nearly compromise-free decision. However (and you knew it was
coming), I remember all too vividly the tedium of preparing more than
2-3 cappuccinos with Silvia, and the Amica’s large boiler only
exacerbates the delay. Nonetheless its espresso performance is as
remarkable as you’ve read, and if you’re an espresso-only or
a single cappuccino fan, the Amica is a great fit.
Flushing the boiler to force a heating cycle, purging the steam wand,
cooling it down afterwards—all this takes a lot of water. I would
seriously consider getting a float system or direct plumb. The reservoir
isn’t very large, the low-water indicator shuts the machine off
early, and refilling it without removing is tricky because it is only
2¾” wide. Although the internals are wisely designed to
avoid serious damage or electrical hazard in the event of a spill, it is
worth considering an automatic refill solution just to avoid the hassle.
I was skeptical of all the praise this machine seemed to garner. For
the most part, it lived up to its reputation. My only notable
disappointment was the hypersensitive temperature adjustment. I
initially thought of it as a machine you could adjust on the fly, but
clearly that wasn’t what Isomac had in mind. The fact that
there’s no access without removing the cover should have been my
first clue. That said, I’ll agree with everything that Mark
reported in his detailed review. I’ll also go one step further and
not brand this machine as exclusively an “espresso
purist’s” choice. The steaming capacity is just too sweet to
ignore if you’re willing to limit your service to one or two
Finally, I’ll reiterate the careful selection of quality
materials and construction. The performance for straight espresso sets
the bar for prosumer machines. Quibbling aside, the steaming is
extraordinary. Those who like to occasionally tweak their
machine’s temperature will be satisfied. Those who don’t
will be pleased to know that consistent results shot-after-shot are
Important Reminder: Regrettably the flaky stock
thermostats means you either must hope to be lucky, plan on replacing it
with a reliable thermostat by Prodigy, or converting the
machine to electronically-controlled brew temperature. Another
option to consider is the Quick Mill Alexia, which has similar
specifications and the Prodigy thermostat as standard.