Nothing quickens my pulse quite like the hum and hiss of a great espresso machine stirring to life. At the press of a button, its boiler-powered muscle can pack 135 pounds of pressure onto each square inch of grounds, which is darn "near-torture for the ground coffee bean," says Mark Prince of CoffeeGeek.com.
So torture the beans, I say. Because what emerges from a perfect shot is liquid black magic, the syrupy essence of roasted java topped with a silky "crema" of natural oils, a tan coffee bloom dappled with tiger stripes.
"A great espresso will make your eyes pop," says Prince. His Vancouver-based Web site, with independent reviews on coffee and brewing gear, is one of the most thorough consumer resources I've encountered on any topic. (Its highly caffeinated contributors even review user manuals!)
That ideal shot of espresso, though, is most commonly found in good cafes. Can mere homebodies channel their inner barista to re-create the texture and flavor of a true espresso at home?
It is one of the great challenges and quests of the modern kitchen. And it can be done, Mark Prince assures me. But at what price?
That depends, of course, upon how seriously you take your espresso, how much hands-on attention you're willing to devote to each cup, and how much your counter really needs some coffee bling, which can range well into the thousands.
I've been loyal to my stovetop espresso maker for decades. But those low-tech, largely sub-$100 Italian moka pots really can't deliver the syrupy coffee texture of an electric machine, let alone an obvious option for foaming milk. Experiences with the most inexpensive electric espresso machines, usually about $100 and outfitted with glass carafes, have been even less encouraging.
So plan on spending at least $150 for the most basic "pump" machine. These use an electric pump, rather than simple steam power, to pressurize the water enough to force its way through the coffee grounds at the necessary eight to nine atmospheric bars of pressure.
But espresso machines are much like cars, with options, conveniences, accessories and style points that can make them as different as a Fiat and a Ferrari. Some "superautomatics" are so tricked out with inner grinders, auto-milk frothers, and hidden grind disposals that all the challenge, and some of the romance, has been reduced to pressing a $3,500 button.
That's fine for an office, but not my home. I'm a believer in the artistry of the human touch when it comes to coffee. So for our test, we stuck to eight "semiautomatic" machines ranging from $250 to $1,500, and it was clear they don't all drive the same.
And you don't always get what you pay for.
For example, the $400 Cuisinart EM-200 was handsome enough, with a trendy stainless steel finish and programmable features. It also pulled a solid espresso. But a big design flaw - an overly long frothing wand - made it difficult to slip anything but a tiny pitcher underneath for steaming milk.
For the most part, gradations in price have a direct relationship to the quality and weight of the parts inside a machine. And weight has a real effect on performance, in the same way that heavy cookware responds more confidently on the stove, or a hefty baritone draws more resonance for his aria at La Scala.
"The handles [holding the ground coffee] should be heavy brass metal for more temperature stability," says Jim Piccinich, who owns the online retailer 1st-Line Equipment, which sells some hard-to-find Italian brands.
The more brass weight a machine also has in its boiler, sides and interior framework, he says, the better the shot.
This was demonstrated fairly clearly in our test. Espressos drawn from mass-market brands like the Krups XP4050 ($250) and Cuisinart EM-200, both made of lighter-weight materials in China, were acceptable, and almost identical. But they were obviously thinner in texture, more bitter in flavor, and more sudsy in crema than their more expensive Italian-made counterparts.
The Rancilio Silvia ($595), which is the perennial darling of the CoffeeGeek crowd, is a 28-pound countertop commitment, with enough power and manual features to appeal to experienced amateur baristas. It delivered one of the silkiest espressos of the group. But without some of the niceties of cheaper machines (like a milk-frothing aid), it may not be the best choice for the espresso newbie.
The Le'Lit PL041 is a slimmer 18 pounds and less expensive ($459) than the Silvia, but its espresso was nearly as impressive - probably the best value choice for a quality machine. It heated up quicker, and also gives the user the option of a frothing aid.
Even these high performers were blown away, however, by the gleaming chrome gargantua of the Vibiemme ($1,500), a retro-styled semi-commercial machine weighing in at 63 pounds. With a computer board to monitor temperature, a big boiler that transitions with no time delay between coffeemaking and frothing (a major difference in some machines), and the option of going fully automatic or manual, this was the luxury limousine of the test. Its espresso was not just silky in texture, topped with a swirling, multihued crema, it sang ethereal notes of fruitiness and chocolate the other machines didn't produce.
Of course, not everyone has the counter space, budget or interest to commit to such a behemoth, let alone the hands-on mess of coffee grounds.
For these folks, the highly designed and colorful Francis Francis "pod" machines are a worthy option. Created by Italian coffeemaker Illy to be used exclusively with filter paper-wrapped discs of its coffee (perfectly premeasured, ground, tamped and sealed fresh), these have been advertised at discount rates ($195) in national magazines - provided you commit to buying four cans of Illy pods every month for a year.
There are far worse coffees to commit to than Illy (in fact, it's one of my favorites). And our snazzy red X6 model has performed admirably well, despite its lightweight handle, and some oil absorption from the paper pods that keeps its shots a shade thinner than those produced from fresh grounds on other Italian machines.
Even Mark Prince concedes that the nearly foolproof Francis Francis can produce "a better shot than 50 percent of the cafes out there."
The lack of a barista's touch in pod machines, though, ultimately has its limits: "It's not what I'd consider a 'culinary espresso,' " he says.
For serious coffee geeks like Prince, attaining coffee perfection at home is a lifestyle priority. In a helpful treatise on buying espresso machines on his Web site, he contends that we should think of our coffee bars more as entertainment centers (like plasma TVs) rather than as a simple appliance akin to a toaster - and prepare to spend accordingly.
And not only on that dream brewing machine.
"The real insider's secret to making a good espresso," Prince confides, "is having a good grinder."
To make great espresso at home, it helps to know what you're shooting for. And Philadelphia's pro coffee scene has several stellar examples of a great short shot. Here are my top three:
Osteria, 640 N. Broad St. 215-763-0920: Is it the Miscela D'Oro Italian coffee, or Marc Vetri's coveted 1961-vintage Faema E-61 machine? Whichever, a hot glass demitasse after the pizza Margherita here is like a baci kiss of gilded caffeine.
La Colombe, 130 S. 19th St., 215-563-0860: The Rittenhouse branch has the most consistent machine and baristas in town (this is where latte art first landed in Philly). But it's the elegant light roast of its chocolaty Nizza blend that makes La Colombe unique.
Chestnut Hill Coffee Co., 8620 Germantown Ave., Chestnut Hill, 215-242-8600: This two-year-old upstart from Seattle veterans Sultan Malikyar and master barista John Hornall roasts its own beans. The baristas transform them into an elixir that is dangerously dark and exciting, with a syrupy texture and complexity that lingers on the palate for half an hour after the coffee's gone.