Some people have stories of their first car, a lovingly remembered bucket of bolts that carried them through high school, across the country to college, and to their first real job interview. I do not drive, so I had an espresso machine. She saw me through high school, college, and beyond. I would also say that she brought me much more joy than sorrow, but it was close.
It was an espresso machine with one kettle branded with Starbucks, like this one. It had a simple, straightforward design, but lots of plastic parts that cracked as they got older. Still, the sleek, classic design made it a great choice for home espresso. The Rancilio Silvia Pro is the spiritual successor to that machine. They have a lot in common, but Rancilio delivers a professional-quality espresso that surpasses even some of the most expensive machines on the market.
Ghost in the machine
When I saw the Rancilio Silvia Pro in the background of a YouTube video, my jaw dropped. I paused the video and rolled years back through my photos. There it was. This mysterious machine looked like a modern update of my beloved and long dead single boiler espresso machine. It was only months later, when I unpacked the Silvia Pro, a machine with two boilers, that I realized how deep this resemblance ran.
To be clear, my old faithful had a pretty standard design and construction for medium and advanced espresso machines. It’s far from unique, but it’s a design that’s fallen out of fashion over the last decade or so in favor of wider, more cafe-style espresso machines like the Breville Barista Pro.
The profile is nice and narrow. It fits well on a small flat countertop without taking up too much space. Unfortunately, my feet marked my tabletop when I moved it. This is partly because they slipped and slipped every time I lifted the portafilter back in place unless I stabilized the machine with my free hand. However, it is not a big deal and it is a problem that Silvia Pro shares with almost all other espresso machines of this approximate size and weight.
It is a striking espresso machine in black and stainless steel with a steam pump in professional quality. On your counter, it is discreet but powerful. It’s like a panther ready to go down – and when you turn it on, it even growls as one while it drips up the water and heats it.
The buttons on the front are all mechanical buttons or switches: one switch, a manual brew switch, one for heating steam and another for hot water. There’s a small LCD display for adjusting the temperature, and that’s it. Silvia Pro removes anything but the naked, so there is nothing between you and the perfect extraction but yourself. It’s kind of scary. Every time I drew a watery shot, it was because my grind or min tamp was off, not because the machine had failed in some way. This is true for all manual espresso machines, but here the spartan design and expert design just underline it.
My old machine taught me a lot about how to make good coffee in light of long odds. Does this shot taste funny because the grinding is a bit off or because I need to scrub the rubber hose inside again? Is this taste burning because of my beans, or because something strange is happening to the portafilter? Making coffee with the old machine was a bit of a minefield, but it taught me a lot.
Therefore, I can appreciate Silvia Pro’s expert technique. I know what it looks like when a machine with this general design gives me a hard time, or when it throws errors. Early on, I had a few bad extractions and learned a few of Silvia’s quirks. The portafilter was a little lower than I was used to, so make sure you do not overfill or tighten too much. It is easy to over- or under-tighten the filter when you lock it in, so make sure you do not pull too hard. Use just enough force to get the portafilter back to the starting position, pointing straight at you – do not try to muscle it as tight as it goes, or you will end up with a thin, bitter shot.