Over the last 10+ years, Silvia is unquestionably the most heavily discussed and documented home espresso machine on the Internet. Perhaps counter-intuitively, that's precisely why skipping the Rancilio Silvia would seem like an error of omission. Besides, it was my first "real" espresso machine, so admittedly I looked forward to seeing how my 2003 review held up today given my added experience and test techniques. So partially for comprehensiveness, partially for nostalgia, I spent a couple weeks reacquainting myself with an old friend.
The Rancilio Silvia's casing is brushed stainless steel with exposed black powercoat frame; it blends well with modern kitchens, especially those featuring stainless steel appliances. Silvia's countertop footprint is small, allowing plenty of working space in front of the machine. The driptray is very shallow; you'll need a catch container for flushing water through the group, otherwise it will need emptying every second shot.
Since its introduction over a decade ago, Rancilio has made esthetic and functional improvements every few years. The evaluation model shown to the right is known as "version 3". It includes a newly designed steam wand that rotates on a ball joint. As one of the many newbies who struggled with the multi-hole steam tip on the original Silvia, I welcomed the new beginner-friendly one-hole steam tip. The steam boiler produces ample volume and velocity, which makes it easy to roll the 8-10 ounces of milk latte lovers in the US demand.
ESPRESSO: During the research phase of this review, one of my goals was judging the Rancilio Silvia's forgiveness factor. If you've read a sample of the many "I'm a New Silvia Owner, Help!" type threads in the forum, you know that this popular entry-level espresso machine has a reputation for being finicky. Is it justified? Honestly, I would say yes and no. To make matters worse, many first-time buyers economize on the grinder under the assumption that it doesn't matter (it just reduces coffee beans to powder, right?). While Silvia did exhibit minor fussiness, the majority of extractions were even from start to finish. The taste inconsistencies I noted from shot-to-shot occurred when I skipped the temperature surfing step because of video production futzing (temperature surfing is explained in the full review).
In group taste tests and later in a blind taste test, participants noted the Rancilio Silvia espressos tend to a less complex flavor profile than commercial gear, depending on the dose (higher dose -> chocolates, lower dose -> fruits). Those who drink cappuccinos and lattes won't notice this difference, but experienced espresso aficionados who prize multi-layered flavor profiles may be disappointed.
STEAMING: Rancilio listened to the complaints of many first-time owners, because the current model's steam tip is much more newbie friendly. It has a single hole and the boiler pressure is steadier. The steps to good microfoam are simple:
- Purge condensation from the steam the wand
- Steam milk, surfing slightly under the surface to inject air until milk is warm
- Immerse tip and angle it to produce a nice rolling rise from top-side-bottom-top circulation
- Keep warming milk to serving temperature (around 150°F)
- Turn off steam, wipe wand, and pour.
CONCLUSION: When the Rancilio Silvia was introduced over a decade ago, there was no entry-level competitor on price or shot quality. Thanks to its unbeatable price/performance combination, it was adopted in droves by home espresso enthusiasts. Today there are more options from manufacturers like Quick Mill and Gaggia, though arguably the Rancilio Silvia's rock-solid construction and timeless, kitchen-friendly looks are strong selling points. The design improvements over the years like the swivel steam wand with nicely balanced tip, adjustable maximum brew pressure, and cosmetic changes (shapely commercial portafilter, steam knob, driptray, etc.) are certainly appreciated, but the need to temperature surf and slightly finicky nature can be frustrating for inexperienced baristas.
Rating: ☆☆☆☆☆ (no reviews)