The perfect cup of espresso tastes rich, balanced, earthy—and vertiginous. If made correctly it can be every bit as nuanced and satisfying as a great glass of wine. Herein lies the problem: Properly brewing that perfect cup of espresso is no easy task, especially if you attempt to follow the guidelines set forth by Italy's Istituto Nazionale Espresso. The slightest misstep—say, using water that's above 190 degrees Fahrenheit, adding less than a quarter-ounce of coffee, or applying more than 130 pounds per square inch of pressure—can turn a potentially transcendent beverage bitter. It's enough to daunt the most optimistic of home baristas. Fortunately the number of quality espresso machines available in the United States has jumped significantly in the past few years. These devices run the gamut of tried-and-true hand-operated models that have been fixtures in European homes for years to ultramodern one-button contraptions that take the guesswork out of the process.
With the guidance of several coffee experts—and many delicious jolts of caffeine—DEPARTURES selected the following seven models, all of which have the capacity to produce a flawless shot.
Espressomakers can be grouped into four categories: manual, semiautomatic, automatic, and fully automatic. With technology dating back to the thirties, manual models are glamorous old-school devices. You have to grind, dose, tamp, and pull that shot all by yourself. "It takes a lot of practice to know exactly how hard to press the lever on a manual machine," says Corby Kummer, author of The Joy of Coffee and certifiable espresso connoisseur. "Both the loudness of the hissing and the amount of resisting force determine how quickly or slowly to push down the handle." A lot can go right, but there's also a lot that can go wrong.
Many espresso devotees prefer semiautomatics because the pressure is created by an electric pump, which is significantly more consistent than the human arm. Here the home barista retains control over everything else: grinding, tamping, dosing, and the length of the shot. Automatics only differ from semiautomatics in that the machine, not its operator, controls the length of the shot (the amount of water that presses through the coffee grinds).
On the other end of the spectrum, fully automatic espressomakers do everything but the dishes: Put the beans in, coffee comes out. They're a tempting option for those who may find terms like atmospheric pressure somewhat intimidating.
All these machines can foam milk for cappuccino, and each will help you make that wonderful drink-in-a-cup—even before you've had your coffee.
FrancisFrancis! is known for its high-quality, high-design espresso machines. This semi-automatic—available in a rainbow of colors—is made in collaboration with the venerable coffee company Illy. It uses ground beans or pods: handy ready-to-brew packets of pre-ground coffee. $650 ($700 in metallic aubergine); 877-455-9347; www.illyusa.com.
Known for its impeccable design sensibilities, this Danish company has been manufacturing coffeemakers since the late fifties. The Granos, however, is Bodum's first foray into the world of espresso. This semiautomatic machine uses ground coffee or pods and comes with some clever perks, such as pressurized filters, which focus the water directly through the pod. You can also attach a one-liter bottle of your favorite mineral water in place of the normal reservoir. $500; 800-232-6386; www.bodumusa.com.
SAECO VIENNA DIGITAL
Espresso enthusiasts may look down on fully automatic machines, which make a perfect shot at the push of a button. But in the early morning, many users need just that. Kenneth Davids, editor of Coffee Review and author of Espresso: Ultimate Coffee, picks Saeco's Vienna Digital over other fully automatics for the ease of maintenance. "You literally take all the parts out, wash them, and put them back in," he says. "If you keep it clean, it will last forever." $750; available at Whole Latte Love, 888-411-5282; www.wholelattelove.com.
FAEMA E61 LEGEND
"Serious coffee people fantasize over the E61 as if it were a 1965 Mustang," says coffee expert Corby Kummer. Not only did this Milan-based firm revolutionize espressomakers in 1961 by replacing the lever with the electric pump but it also introduced a new boiler system and grouphead for unmatched temperature control. To celebrate the machine's 40th anniversary, Faema crafted the E61 Legend, an updated version of the classic. $8,680; available at Omnipak Import Enterprises, 718-353-8700; www.omnipakimport.com.
ECM GIOTTO PREMIUM
The attractive retro look and simple, clean design of this semiautomatic is an immediate draw. Kenneth Davids calls it the best home machine on the market. He especially likes the fact that it is fully adjustable, since "a real fanatic wants to precisely control the water temperature." Though it has the rugged construction of a commercial-grade machine, it's made for the home (and runs on 110V). $1,700; available at Whole Latte Love, 888-411-5282; www.wholelattelove.com.
LA PAVONI ROMANTICA PROFESSIONAL
The technology is outdated; the results are uneven. And yet, this classic manual machine, which was a fixture in many Italian households in the sixties, still inspires loyalty. "You develop a personal bond with your La Pavoni and feel pride in creating each and every shot of espresso," Corby Kummer says. The gleaming brass (it also comes in chrome) of the Romantica Professional gives the look of old-world glamour to your new-world kitchen counter. $990; available at Forzano Italian Imports, 914-664-2227; www.forzanoitalianimports.com.
This brand-new fully automatic is the easiest of the bunch to use. It takes Nespresso coffee pods, which come in 12 somewhat boastfully named "grand cru varieties" and two ranges of "flavor intensity." Press the button and the pod is pulled in from an adorable small balcony on the front of the machine. You select the pod, input the length of the shot on the digital display, and the machine elegantly spits out the brew. $800; 800-562-1465; www.nespresso.com.
Cups of Plenty
The demitasse cup comes in endless variations, from the humble—the brown ceramic staple, beloved by espresso obsessives for its Italian authenticity—to the artistic, found in Illy's collectible limited-edition series. Some, such as Hermès's luxurious silver cup and saucer, are simply extraordinary.
Made in Liguria, Italy, the Classic is the caffè originale. $30 for six; 831-295-3568; www.greatinfusions.com.
2 CONRAN SHOP
A twist on the traditional, these mugs come in an array of colors. $6; 212-755-9079; www.conran.com.
Each cup in the Pistoletto set was designed by a different artist. $100 for four; 877-455-9347; www.illyusa.com.
The Military cup and saucer is the ultimate in espresso elegance. $350; 800-441-4488; www.hermes.com.
The Canteen glass shows off a perfect crema. $12 for two; 800-232-6386; www.bodumusa.com.
6 KATE SPADE
The Collins cup was inspired by the colors of Miami. $75 for four; 866-999-5283; www.katespade.com.
The most hard-core espresso aficionados have commercial machines installed in their homes. LA MARZOCCO, based in Florence, Italy, is considered the king of the espresso world. The company's GB5, with a water-heating system that allows for super-precise temperature control, is quite possibly the best machine out there. "It uses two boilers so both processes—producing steam for the milk and brewing water for the coffee—are independent," explains La Marzocco engineering manager Bill Crossland. Be warned: Those who buy the GB5 should expect to hire a plumber and an electrician to get it up and running. The GB5 must be hard-plumbed to your home's water supply and requires a 220V electrical line. From $10,000; available at Espresso Specialists, 800-367-0235; www.esiepresso.com.
Grinder to Get
If there's one thing all espresso fanatics can agree on, it's the importance of a good grinder. Creating the proper pressure—which is directly related to the grind—is key to producing a quality shot. Burr grinders form fine particles of identical shape and size, leading to consistent resistance and even pressure. They also generate less heat, preserving the fragile oils essential to the coffee's appearance and flavor. The best introductory-level grinder is the SOLIS MAESTRO PLUS ($150). At the prosumer level is the MAZZER MINI ELECTRONIC ($700); its burrs are built to last a lifetime. Available at Whole Latte Love, 888-411-5282; www.wholelattelove.com.