Isomac Amica / Zaffiro
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 this month.
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 more details:
- Measure out enough beans for one shot. I use 17 grams. Start the grinder.
- 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 seconds later.
- 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 it!
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 machines.
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 cappuccinos.
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 nearly effortless.