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Silvia has a lot of fans and mountains of online forums detailing every aspect of her performance. She can make very good espresso and steam impressive microfoam, if you're willing to learn a few of her idiosyncrasies. With just a little time and effort, you'll enjoy as good or better espresso than you'll find at many cafés.
The carefully detailed steps in Cheating Miss Silvia are one example of the lengths people go to learn the intricacies of this little powerhouse. Taken to another extreme, there's also instructions for serious hobbiest modifications like Murph's Silvia PID Page. These articles demonstrate the level of dedication to this espresso machine—and the tradeoffs that Rancilio made to create a consumer product at this price point. Few would argue the result isn't impressive for a home unit. However, there are reasons why one finds equipment costing far more—those nagging compromises.
If you're a cappuccino lover, the biggest compromise is that Silvia is a single-boiler espresso machine without a heat exchanger; in other words, you must wait a minute or so between steaming milk and making espresso. This delay can be quite irksome if you wish to produce more than two milk-based drinks in succession. Silvia is at her best for one or two drinks.
The Rancilio Silvia is one of the notable advanced entry-level machines that demonstrate the adage "weight makes the difference." To put it another way, the more brass the better, since that's key to temperature stability. The boiler and grouphead are bolted together, so good heat transfer is assured. Compared to an E61-style machine, however, Silvia reveals her weakness: A nine-pound brass grouphead like an E61's combined with its +liter boiler won't deviate more than a degree or two from the target temperature with the influx of a few ounces of water. Silvia's two pound grouphead and 12 ounce boiler can't make that same promise. In addition, Rancilio uses a thermostat with a wide range between "too cold" and "hot enough" to keep the heating element from constantly cycling (this range between the thermostat's on/off cycle is known as the deadband). A large deadband increases the likelihood of the brew water temperature being off the mark when you start an extraction.
The practical consequence of the thermostat swing is that obtaining spot-on brew temperature requires timing the start of the extraction to a specific point in the boiler's heating cycle; this technique is known as "temperature surfing". This sort of pickiness won't be an issue if you're exclusively making milk-based drinks, since milk in espresso, like rich sauces on steak, hides many sins. But for espresso au naturel, it makes a significant difference (to read about my own experiments on the subject, see the thread Some extraordinary results by reverse temperature surfing). Put together this technique, a good grinder, practiced dose-distribution-tamp, and you're on the path to espresso nirvana.
Getting "latte art" quality microfoam was my biggest challenge and Silvia's most evident weakness, I believe owing to the rise and fall of steam forcefulness that occurs as the boiler cycles on and off. This isn't to suggest that you can't produce an admirable result—it's just far from a no-brainer.
Note: While it is true that Silvia will have some steam twenty seconds after pressing the button, it's not forceful enough to reliably produce microfoam. You must wait closer to 50-80 seconds until you can begin frothing.
As discussed in the previous section, surfing addresses Silvia's brew temperature shortcomings. Steaming, on the other hand, requires more than a consistent routine. It requires more intuition and a clear understanding of Silvia's steam "hills and valleys." Below is how you can learn about these ebbs and flows, thereby becoming one with your machine:
Also experiment with longer and shorter delays (15 seconds, 45 seconds, 1 minute). Consider taking notes of your observations.
Now try the same thing, but instead of spraying the countertop, use nine ounces of water in a 20 ounce pitcher. This time you'll focus on creating a "standing wave" or swirling turbulence. The goal is to acquire an intuitive feel for when Silvia is in the perfect steam zone versus the wimpy steam zone. It isn't easy to froth microfoam with wimpy steam. You'll get a lot of medium-sized bubbles that won't break when you thunk the pitcher on the countertop. The perfect steam zone also carries a caveat: Too much in too small a pitcher and you'll paint the walls with milk. I suggest nine ounces of milk/water and a 20 ounce pitcher until you have a good feel for the cycles I'm talking about. Then you should try a twelve ounce pitcher and a single-sized amount of milk, say six ounces.
Whole Latte Love and 1st-line offer three-hole steam tips for Silvia. The one from WLL is actually the Rancilio S23 steam tip attached to a handy adapter. The three-hole steam tip from 1st-line is exclusively theirs. I've tried both and I'm not overly impressed. They are OK, although they feel like "cheater" tips when I use them. They produce average foam very easily, but truly great foam with much effort (see this discussion for more opinions).
My final suggestion for latte-art quality microfoam: Stop the "stretching" phase early, around 70-85°F and spin longer. Following suggestions in The Milk Frothing Guide, I've tried stretching as high as 140°F for cappuccinos and that works well on heat exchanger espresso machines, which have lots of steam volume in addition to high velocity. You will get way too much milk expansion if you do the same with Silvia.
In short, Silvia is a great steamer, but does require a certainly level of finesse. Set aside a few hours, focus on the basics outlined above, and be patient.
Silvia at her worse is finicky and demanding. At her best, she'll kick butt on espresso machines costing twice the price. The difference is all in the barista. In some respects this makes the Rancilio Silvia an ideal espresso machine for those wanting to "be one with the bean." For those with extra cash and less patience, there are better choices. The good news is that if you decide to apprentice on this machine, you won't have an inordinate cash outlay and are assured good resale value should you want to upgrade someday.
If you see yourself preparing lots of cappuccinos or lattes, you may want to consider a heat exchanger (or dual-boiler) espresso machine. However, for a drink or two, a heat exchanger or dual boiler borders on overkill. Again, putting the temperature surfing issue aside for a moment, the most important consideration is whether you want to serve successive milk-based drinks.
If the answer is yes, then Silvia is not a good fit. If you are very focused, you can prepare milk-based drinks for four people in 20-25 minutes. I found it became more chore than pleasure, so I limited group service to three people (myself included). After upgrading to a heat exchanger espresso machine, I never wait for it, independent of group size. To be clear, I can recommend Silvia if you're willing to work a little harder and don't mind the inherent delays. If you decide later to upgrade, its resale is very good.
Reminder: Don't skimp on the grinder. I initially paired Silvia with the Solis Maestro. It is a capable grinder for drip coffee and a good price-to-performance value. However, frustrated by inconsistencies in my pours, I later upgraded to the Rancilio Rocky. Rocky doesn't have the "float" it its settings like Maestro, thanks to Rocky's top burr being set in a threaded brass cylinder; in contrast, Maestro's rides atop a nylon bushing. Like Silvia, Rocky is also a heavy, solid performer (approximately 25 and 15 lbs, respectively).
This review was my first official consumer review and it was originally written in 2003 based on a stock Rancilio Silvia. See Rancilio Silvia Flash Review, Reloaded for an update based on a modified electronically-controlled version of this very popular home espresso machine (NB: this modification is often called a "PID" because of the Proportional-Integral-Derivative algorithms the controller uses).