I have just become the owner of a La Pavoni Europiccola Lever Espresso machine, so naturally, I’m sharing my experience of this machine with you.
I don’t really want to call this a “review” – as this machine has been on the planet for nearly 20 years longer than I have ;-), it’s a very, very tried and tested machine, and I think it’s way beyond the need for a review from someone who has been brewing Espresso at home for a couple of years.
Instead really what this is a review of, is of my experience using this machine vs using a semi-automatic Espresso machine, which is the only Espresso machine I’ve had experience with until this point.
A traditional manual lever machine probably isn’t the first choice for most people when considering buying an Espresso machine, probably because, like me, they thought it was far too much like hard work (it’s not, keep reading and you’ll see what I mean).
I started out my home Espresso making with an Espresso machine on the very other end of the spectrum from the La Pavoni Europiccola.
Back in 2015, I’d never made Espresso myself, I brewed via other processes at home but not Espresso. Then, Sage appliances sent me their “The Oracle” Espresso machine to review, which isn’t just a semi-automatic, it grinds, doses, tamps – just about the only thing it doesn’t do is get the cup out of the cupboard for you ;-).
When the Oracle went back, I was hooked on making Espresso at home, but I wanted to develop some skill, so I didn’t want a machine with as many automated features as The Oracle. I also didn’t want to have to explain to my wife that we couldn’t pay the mortgage for the next couple of months thanks to my new Espresso machine ;-). So I started off with the Gaggia classic, which I modded with a Rancilio Silvia steam wand. Click here to read my Gaggia classic review.
I had this machine for over two years, and I was very happy with it. Then, thanks to my wife and family – for my 40th birthday, I was put on a 2 day Intermediate SCAE Barista training course at Has bean. I hugely enjoyed the course, I learned so much, and when I got back I felt that I needed to upgrade from the classic to something a bit more capable. I was thinking along the lines of a prosumer Espresso machine that was closer to the commercial level, similar to the Nuova Simonelli machine I trained on.
But I also had an interest in Lever machines. I’d watched videos with the YouToube star Barista Dritan Alsela pulling Espresso on his 4 group lever machine, and it struck me just how much more authentic it looked to see a Barista actually ‘pulling’ a shot, with a traditional lever machine – than pressing a button.
I know from my own recent experience doing Barista training, there really is a lot more to being a barista than just pressing a button, but doing it the old-school way with a lever machine just seems so much more cool!
I think it’s probably because it reminds me of when I was in Frascati and Rome a few years back, and being in a traditional cafe’ where there were two Baristas pulling Espresso on a Lever machine, it felt like being in the birthplace of Espresso, which it was, well – nearly.
The first true Espresso machine was invented my Mr. Achille Gaggia, in Milan, in the late 1930s. La Pavoni was already very well established, but the La Pavoni commercial machines at this time were purely steam powered, and steam didn’t create the kind of pressure that we now know Espresso needs. So the coffee that was being enjoyed in Italy back then was strong, but it wasn’t quite Espresso as we know it, and there was no crema.
Gaggia developed the piston machine, and this is what gave us Espresso as we know it. The first domestic lever Espresso machine came along around 10 years later, again from Gaggia (The Gaggia Gilda).
About a decade later, another firm in Milan called DP who specialised in producing heating elements, came up with the Europiccola, which was acquired by La Pavoni, and the rest is history. The Europiccola has been going strong ever since and is still in production, along with the “Professional” version, which has a larger boiler, and some other versions which have been added more recently (Stradivari and Romantica), which are just aesthetic variations as far as I can tell.
So anyway, I’d been thinking about using a Lever machine, and about how it would make for an interesting blog post if nothing else. I didn’t expect that I’d take particularly well to such a machine, from what I’d read I thought that a machine like this would be above my skill level, and that I’d just use it for a few weeks, write a blog post about my experience, sell it and replace it with a semi automatic machine.
I did some research, I joined the official La Pavoni Owners FaceBook group, and I found a guy on there called Max Selb in Germany, whose passion is restoring La Pavoni Espresso machines, and he had a few machines at the time. He had a 2005 Europicolla, a 2015 Europiccola, and a 1991 professional.
To begin with I was thinking of going for a professional, but when I told him that I usually made one, two or three Espressos at a time, he advised me that the Europiccola was probably right for me, it heats up quicker, and has the same capability in terms of Espresso quality and steam power, but that the only plus for the Professional is that you can pull more shots in a row before having to turn it off and let it cool in order to refill the boiler.
Here’s the photo he sent me of the Europiccola being restored.
A few days later, it turned up in the UK :-).
The first thing to say, is that this thing is beautiful. When I got it out of the box I didn’t know whether to plug it in or put it on display, it really is a piece of art.
The second thing to say is, despite all I’d read about using a fully manual lever Espresso machine being some kind of a dark art requiring a huge learning curve – actually, the first Espresso I pulled with the Euripicolla after getting it out of the box and letting it heat up, was probably the best tasting shot of Espresso I’ve ever produced at home!
This left me wondering what all the fuss was about re these machines being difficult to master or that they really require serious skill – maybe it was just a fluke and all subsequent shots until I got the hang of it would be sink shots? No, I have continued consistently pulling fantastic shots of Espresso with this gorgeous-looking Espresso machine!
So first of all lets go through the initial setup.
Step 1: Fill with water until the water level is nearly at the top of the sight glass.
Step 2: Switch it on.
That’s it 😉
Other than the on button, there are no other switches or buttons. There are some versions of the machine which have two power settings, one for brewing and one for steam, but that’s it.
Warm up time.
When the machine reaches 1 bar, it’s warmed up. If you go for a standard Europiccola without a pressure gauge installed, you can wait for the green light to go off, indicating that it’s reached full temp, but you’ll hear the boiler as it’s heating up anyway, it goes silent when it’s reached full temp. My machine sings to me as it’s heating up ;-), it starts off with a hiss, then turns into a low level hum, and then stops when it’s heated – quite handy really ;-).
I mentioned this to the guy who restored it, and he told me that it’s one of the special things about these Espresso machines, not one is exactly the same, and one result of this is that they all make slightly different noises. From what I can tell, these machines – especially the older ones, have been manufactured in a fairly artisan manner, to the point that not just different years are made using slightly different parts and/or slightly different processes, but even individual machines manufactured in the same factory, around the same time, were made slightly differently. I really like this non-clinical approach to manufacturing, as I think it creates more unique machines – but having said that, it’s quite simple to make these machines unique yourself. If you have one with a plastic piston, it’s quite easy to switch it to brass – it’s a doddle to replace the boiler cap and the handle, for instance if you want to source some nice wooden replacements. Some people have done some really clever things with thier Europicolla, such as this character ;-).
One of the things I love about this machine is that there is really no hard and fast rule about how you pull a shot with the La Pavoni machines. It’s a case of finding out what works best for you, and there are quite a few ways that you can personalise your own specific method to get your Espresso or Ristretto exactly how you like it.
The key regardless of the particular method you go for is, of course, getting the grind right and using great quality coffee beans – but pre-infusion and the way that you pull the shot, is down to you. I doubt there are many users who do this exactly the same.
When it comes to pre-infusion, this is done by lifting the lever up to allow water to enter the group (there’s enough pressure there to let go of the handle, it will stay upright), and leaving it in this position until you’re ready to pull the shot. Some users wait until coffee begins to drip from the portafilter, some say the pre-infusion is to long or your grind is too coarse if coffee drips before you start pulling. I find somewhere between 5-10 seconds is about right, but I also find that I tend to get more volume but a faster pull the longer I leave the pre-infusion.
Regarding the pull itself, there is the standard method and various versions of what has become known as the Felinni move. The standard method is to just pull the lever in one sustained move once pre-infusion time is complete. The Felinni move (named due to a Barista being seen doing this move in a film by Italian director Federico Fellini), is basically a form of active pre-infusion. This means that you’re pre-infusing the puck of coffee with some pressure.
There’s one method (which I’ve seen some refer to as the ‘mini Fellini’) which is a series of mini pumps after pre-infusion, which don’t draw any additional water into the group, and then there’s what I assume is the ‘full Fellin’ where pressure is applied to the lever during pre-infusion, to somewhere between a third to a half of the usual full pull, and then the lever is returned to the beginning and a full pull performed.
When doing it the standard way without any active pre-infusion, I find that what I’m producing is more Ristretto than Espresso. It’s great, don’t get me wrong – and I’m glad that I can pull Ristretto with this machine, but I wanted to find a way to pull what would be classed as a full Espresso. From asking the seasoned users on the Facebook group, the general consensus is that really the La Pavoni Europiccola does tend to produce more Ristretto than Espresso generally speaking, but that there are various tweaks you can make to personalise your shot with the Europiccola, so I’ve been experimenting for the past week or so.
The method I’m using now is yielding around 32g from 16g, and I’m doing this with an 8 second pre-infusion followed by four ‘mini Fellini’ pumps, with the last one flowing into a full pull of the lever.
If I’ve made the above sound really technical ;-), it’s really not – all this means is that in order to get a bit more volume in the shot, I’m lifting up the lever and then instead of just starting the pull after the pre-infusion, I’m doing four little pumps with the lever before continuing to pull the shot. I’m not doing this really heavy handedly, by the way, as I don’t want to disturb the puck of coffee too much.
One thing in the favour of the Europiccola over similarly priced (and much higher priced) single boiler semi-automatic Espresso machines, is that there’s no waiting around for steam after pulling the shot.
This depends on the model, with some of the pre-millennium models there are two power settings, and you may have to wait a short time after switching the power to full, for steam, but with this model the steam is always ready.
This means that as soon as the machine is ready to make Espresso, it’s ready to steam milk, so you can steam your milk and then pull the shot straight after – or do it the other way around, whichever suits. I prefer to pull the shot first and then steam the milk, personally.
The steam power on the Europiccola is brilliant! I find this machine much more consistent for steaming milk than I did with the Gaggia classic, it’s much quicker at steaming milk too, I’m finding.
One thing I would say though, is that you probably need to change the steam tip, if you get one with the standard three hole tip. A three hole tip on this machine just doesn’t seem to perform well, and I’m not sure why they provide this as standard. The commercial espresso machine I was working with during Barista training, had a three hole tip, and that was great, but for some reason these machines with this kind of tip just don’t seem to produce decent microfoam. I bought this one on eBay for £7, and it’s great. Just get some pfte plumbers tape stuff to put over the thread before you put the tip on, I was getting a bit of steam leaking from the thread until I did that.
I’m still using my brilliant Espro Toroid 2 milk jug, by the way, that I found improved my milk texturing with the Gaggia classic. I’ve not tried a different jug so far with the Europiccola, so I’m not sure if it makes the same difference than it did on the classic, and I suspect that with the steam power from this machine, it would do a great job of steaming milk regardless of the jug.
A Word of Caution
There are a couple things you need to keep in mind with the Europiccola. One is that the machine, in particular the boiler, gets VERY hot. An experienced user would have no issue with this I’m sure, but as someone who’s used to using a semi-automatic machine, I hadn’t given the boiler much thought, until I caught my arm on it… I won’t make that mistake twice!
Usually with semi-automatic machines, the boiler is housed inside a casing so you can’t touch it directly. The boiler is the main part of the Europiccola, so of course it’s exposed – and if you touch it with your bare skin as I did while reaching behind it, it will take a bite out of you – what some on the user’s group regarded as a “love bite” ;-). This wasn’t a little burn, it didn’t even blister, it just took a big chunk of my skin straight off, it flippin’ hurt, and hurt even more when I put my arm under the cold tap!
The nut on top of the piston also gets hot so you need to be careful that if you keep one hand on the boiler cap as I find myself doing sometimes when pulling the shot, that I don’t let my arm touch that, although it’s not as hot as the boiler.
The other thing is that while you can just leave a semi-automatic machine turned on as there’s a tank to fill the boiler – there’s no water source for the boiler on the La Pavoni, the boiler is the tank, so if you let it run out of water, it will probably blow the thermal fuse, and may also pop the heating element. I have mine plugged into a timer which I’ve set to turn it off after 20 mins if I forget.
I think I’m hooked!
Getting the Europiccola was more of a experiment really, I wanted to include the La Pavoni machines in my Best Espresso Machines post, and I wanted at least to have had some experience of using a traditional lever machine, but I wasn’t expecting to really get into using a machine like this in the way I have.
What I think is really special about using this machine, is that you’re so involved in the whole process, and you have enhanced sensory feedback from the machine while pulling the shot. You are actually pulling a shot when you’re using a La Pavoni machine, you’re not doing part of it and then letting a pump do the rest while you watch, you’re fully engaged in the process as part of the machine.
You can see the shot flowing as you would with a semi-automatic machine, but also you can sense how the shot feels from the lever, and I’m already getting a feel for when I’ve got it right. It’s a really satisfying feeling when the lever just seems to be moving at the right rate with the Espresso flow looking right, and seeing the crema forming in the cup.
I’m really liking the short warm up time too, it’s almost as quick as just putting the kettle on ;-), and while the drip tray is only small, the benefit of this is that I’m getting into the habit of emptying it and cleaning it after each use.
But going back to the taste, which is the most important thing of course, I’m just amazed by the quality of Espresso this machine makes. The Espresso I’m making with this machine is the best Espresso I’ve ever made at home without a doubt, and that’s amazing given that it’s a machine you can buy new from about £400, and used from a couple of hundred.
Life is like a box of chocolates, so follow me on Twitter, and that’s all I have to say about that.