Buyer's Guide to La Valentina
I've owned the La Valentina espresso machine by Ala di Vittoria for two years. The notes that I jotted down a few months after purchasing it still hold true today: "I still can't come up with a better way to say it beyond my day-one impression: wow. It's worth saying again: wow."
I started looking for an upgrade because of my frustration with delays when making back-to-back espresso-based milk drinks on my Rancilio Silvia / Rocky combo. With La Valentina, instead of me waiting for the machine, it's always waiting for me. I soon discovered that producing a superior shot with Valentina was also a fraction of the effort that Silvia required. In very little time, I routinely pulled shots that were better than 80% of those I ever managed with Silvia, despite my adherence to a strict routine.
This espresso machine review is for the semi-automatic La Valentina, converted from a pour-over model to direct plumb-in by 1st-line. It has securely mounted brass fittings for the conversion and safety cutoff solenoid. La Valentina connects to our household water supply with a three-foot wrapped braided stainless steel hose. There is little reason to hide the hookup since it looks as serious as the machine to which it's connected.
La Valentina is a looker. It appears noticeably more "squat" in the website images than in reality. La Valentina is one of the narrower E61 heat exchanger espresso machines available and its angled sides contribute to its sleek, compact profile. It fits under standard kitchen cabinets and, thanks to the top that slopes towards the front, the cups are easily accessible. Note that it may be difficult to fill the reservoir without moving the machine out from under the cabinets. I didn't want to bother with that so I decided to have it converted to direct plumb-in. I highly recommend doing so for the convenience of an endless water supply and the elimination of the need for weekly cleaning of the reservoir.
The back wrap-around shell is brushed stainless steel and the front is polished to match the chromed E61 group. I like the "two tone" contrast as it naturally draws your attention to the business end of the machine. It also has practical considerations—the brushed stainless steel sides don't show small splashes, dust, or finger prints. Portions of the chromed front are easily scratched and, in contrast to the brushed steel sides, show every splatter or speck of dust. Fortunately it is a small area to fuss over and polishes up quickly with the wipe of a damp cloth. La Valentina comes with a single and double portafilter. The portafilter styling and finish is nice, however the hollow plastic handle feels light.
If you don't like the look of the "blocky" front black feet, there are two sets of mounting screws on the bottom of the driptray rails. The first set is almost flush with the front of the driptray. If you move the legs to the back set, it is easier to wipe up spills without having to go around them. As an added aesthetical bonus, the legs are then hardly noticeable. I admit to occasionally torquing down the portafilter quite hard, so to prevent Valentina from budging even one millimeter I used the second set of mounts to bolt the machine down. While Valentina's 40+ pounds and rubber legs hold it steady, nothing holds it more firmly than two 8mm bolts through the countertop!
If the placement you plan allows little clearance to the left (like our placement next to the refrigerator), the ball joint steam arm and its S-curve shape are big pluses since you can steam with the wand straight ahead. In similar tight quarters, it would be difficult to maneuver the pitcher with steam wand designs that only allow for lateral movement. La Valentina's steam wand can point into the driptray for the initial purge of condensation before frothing. The steam knob is large and goes from off to full blast in one-half turn. The steam shutoff is crisp and easy—there's no need to torque the valve down. A gentle twist will do.
Unlike some other espresso machines, the water tap is fixed over the driptray. I don't consider this a drawback for my usage since I like knowing that I'll never miss the driptray in a moment of inattention (a common event with young children in the house). The water tap has a large screened head on the end that prevents obnoxious splattering. Americano fans will appreciate the +185°F water the tap puts out.
Note: The water tap drains from the boiler, not through a second heat exchanger. Draining too quickly will precipitously drop the boiler pressure and potentially expose the boiler element; don't drain water through the tap faster than the pump can refill the boiler.
The driptray is quite large and deep, holding one quart of water with room to spare. Because it slides out on drawer-like rails, it is easy to empty without spilling. The whole front tray is one piece that slides out; only the grill is separate. The back edge of the driptray slips under a small lip at the bottom of the grouphead area backsplash, which redirects wayward splatter into the tray instead of behind it.
The semi-automatic model of La Valentina has three rocker switches. The leftmost switch activates the pump for brewing. The middle momentary switch opens the water tap and the rightmost switch is for the power. The three switches are the same size, color, and are evenly spaced apart. The brew and power switches toggle with a satisfying snap. To reduce the possibility of you inadvertently switching the machine off, the designers wisely added a clear flexible cover over the power switch so there's never a chance of confusing it with the others by sight or touch.
All the rocker switches are clear red plastic with international symbols denoting their purpose. The brew and power buttons have lights inside. The brew button aluminates whenever the pump is engaged, either explicitly during an extraction or implicitly when the machine auto-fills the boiler. The coloring reminds me of old pinball machine lights. The green boiler heater element light is to the right of the three switches. It aluminates when the 1300W element is on, which is typically for about 7-10 seconds at a time (except at startup where it stays on for several minutes).
I have one minor complaint about the front layout: The distance between the grouphead and the square cover over the three-way solenoid is quite small (i.e., that narrow "box" directly beneath the grouphead). I often bang against this cover when unlocking the portafilter or inadvertently brush a cup against it. After several months of use, the cover has a lot of scratches, as does the driptray surface plated with equally easy-to-mar chrome. This is the bane of all polished chrome espresso shrines and not particular to this machine. However, a more scratch-resistance finish in "high-traffic areas," such as brushed stainless steel, would retain more of its original appearance over time.