A man has just cooked and served a very successful dinner at his home for the woman of his dreams. She is -- so far -- impressed. As he clears the dishes away, he offers her a cappuccino. Surprised, she replies with a wholehearted "Yes!" The man retires to his kitchen and begins making "Schoo Schoo Schoo" noises with his mouth, mimicking the sound of milk steaming on an espresso machine, like some modern love call.
Meanwhile, he tears open two packets of instant cappuccino mix, dumps them into mugs, adds hot water, and returns bearing these "cappuccinos" for his beloved, who has now fallen completely in love with her perfect man.
If you happen to own one of the less-expensive versions of home espresso machines on the market, you may have considered -- in the midst of sheer frustration -- this type of instant cappuccino creation yourself. Or perhaps you already stoop to it. I know the feeling provoked by a poorly designed espresso machine: alone in my kitchen, a tableful of guests clamoring for cappuccino a few rooms away, facing a rinky-dink machine that's spurting out dishwater coffee and frothing milk to a tepid state. But if you seek out some simple quality characteristics when purchasing a home machine -- and commit to parting with a nice wad of cash -- the result will be many a happy dinner guest.
Espresso machines, whether for the home or the cafe, operate on a pressure principle. A certain amount of pressure -- nine bars, to be exact -- is required to correctly force hot water through the espresso grounds you've packed into the perforated metal filter and produce a properly extracted, crema-capped espresso. Espresso-machine pressure comes from one of two kinds of pumps. Volumetric pumps are generally found inside commercial machines and are preferred because they are consistently able to produce those nine bars of pressure no matter how many coffees they are asked to produce. While some home machines utilize volumetric pumps, they generally cost at least $2,000.
Most home machines -- definitely those costing $1,500 or less, as well as low-grade commercial machines -- use vibration pumps. Others use the oldest pump of all: the human arm. In fact, for enthusiasts who want to focus on the proper espresso, a manual pump, or lever, machine is the only way to go. It's a control issue, really. The person creating the espresso essentially becomes one with the machine, learning the nuances of how hard the lever must be pulled and how many times in order to coax perfect espresso into the cup. It's also the only reliable pump on a home machine that can actually produce the same amount of pressure that one would achieve from a unit costing around $7K. It does pose some drawbacks when it comes to steaming milk, but if espresso's your poison and your passion, it's the perfect machine.
Another important issue is who makes your machine. Are you buying a machine made by a manufacturer that is first and foremost a commercial espresso machine producer? If so, you'll probably be investing in a top-quality machine that uses much of the technology found in the commercial machines, but on a smaller scale. Manufacturers like Rancilio, Faema, Gaggia and La Cimbali produce top quality home machines as a complement to their commercial machine production.
If the company you're buying from specializes in other appliances, like toasters and curling irons, you may want to save your money and wait until you can buy one from a commercial manufacturer. Additionally, if you buy your machine from a commercial distributor, you can take it directly to the place where you purchased it for service or repairs. If you buy your machine from a department store, you'll likely have to send it back to the manufacturer for any maintenance. (Good luck getting your machine back before you're 40.)
I have two espresso machines, so I can meet the needs of any occasion. One is a chrome piston-lever beauty that I coveted for years. I love the control and understanding involved in sweet-talking a great espresso from this machine. It's perfect for making a few on Sunday morning. Unfortunately, it's difficult to produce a dinner-party's worth of cappuccino on it.
I also have a semi-automatic La Cimbali. It doesn't overwhelm the small amount of counter space I currently possess, it's beautifully designed, and it offers enough pressure to easily create cappuccino for a house party (I think I've made up to 10 at one time). My husband imports the machines -- along with their commercial brethren -- from Italy, so I know I can get any service I need at any time, and not just 'cause I'm his wife. But I've owned it for several years, and I've never had cause to request a repair, despite New Jersey's grimy excuse for tap water, which can wreak havoc on the internal workings of any espresso machine, commercial or residential. The bottom line is that a great home machine will make drinks that rival the drinks produced at the cafe, and you don't have to leave your house. Your cappuccino will taste better than the instant stuff -- and should be almost as simple to make!