There are many different types of espresso coffee machine, but they can be split into two main camps. There are machines that are like scaled down versions of what you'll find in a coffee shop, with a portafilter – the bit the coffee goes in – being filled with ground coffee that's then pressed – 'tamped' – down and slotted into a group head, where hot water is pushed through it to make espresso. However, by far the larger group of espresso machines, whether pod or bean to cup, do everything internally using a totally different process to gain more or less the same results.
Why is this? To put it simply, traditional espresso machines are harder to use and messier. You have to have some level of skill, and this can be intimidating. However there is little doubt that a trad machine gives you far greater control over what comes out and, in theory, should give better results overall. That's a bit of an oversimplification, since a lot of coffee machines get basic things wrong – grind level, water pressure, timings – and what comes out isn't very nice, regardless of your skill levels or lack of same.
Delonghi's newest coffee machine, the Specialista Arte, is essentially a coffee shop-style espresso machine, and it's one I can recommend unreservedly to coffee lovers keen to expand their skills, and also to adventurous newbies who are willing to get their hands dirty. But not too dirty, as Delonghi has added some cunning twists to the classic espresso machine design, which make it easier and less messy to use. It's also about as cheap as bean to cup coffee makers get, at just £500. I don't know if that sounds a lot to you – clearly it's a lot more than a Nespresso machine – but for a bean to cup machine of this quality, it's cheap.
I've been using the – sorry, 'La' – Specialista Arte for the last couple of weeks and while I found it a little problematic at first, I now largely love it.
The most important innovation here is this plastic cylinder that screws onto the portafilter: the Delonghi Dosing and Tamping Guide. You attach it in order to grind your beans in the excellent, built in grinder. This prevents it getting everywhere, which is what usually happens for beginners and cack-handed people at this stage of the coffee-making process.
Even better, it provides a perfect channel for you to insert the tamper, which you use to press down the coffee – an essential step that, again, is not as easy as it sounds if you are new to this type of machine. With the Guide in place, it's easy to exert pressure evenly downwards, with zero mess.
All you have to do then is remove the Dosing and Tamping Guide before slotting into the machine with a twisting motion, and punching 'go' on your single or double espresso.
The other great thing about this machine is the grinder. The built-in grinders on bean to cup coffee machines of all kinds are highly variable in quality. On cheaper bean to cups – ie: in the price range of the Specialista Arte – the grinders are often a liability; unable to grind coffee finely enough to make a really good espresso. I generally find you have to dial them right up to their very finest setting in order to get the requisite strength and crema, at which point you sometimes get a metallic taste.
With the Specialista Arte, using some pretty standard Lavazza beans, I was able to get a very usable grind with it set right in the middle of its coarse-to-fine grinding range. This gives me a lot of confidence that Delonghi's machine will work with a wide variety of beans, of different quality and roast level.
Another excellent feature is the dosing control, which gives you fairly precise control over exactly how much ground coffee is dispensed at this stage. A line on the inside of the portafilter basket shows the 'perfect' level it should be at after tamping, which really takes out a lot of guesswork.
Then there's that over-sized pressure gauge in the middle of the machine. This is far more helpful than it looks. As the water is pushed through your ground and compacted coffee beans, the pressure naturally shoots up. If it goes into the red and stays there, you have used too many beans, ground them too finely, and/or tamped them too vigorously. if it barely gets up to 10 O'clock, you have ground your beans too coarsely, not used enough of them, or tamped like a weakling. So stop doing whichever of those things you're doing on your next shot. You'll soon find the sweet spot, handily labelled the 'optimal zone' on the dial.
Thanks to all this, after just a few exploratory doses, I was able to create an extremely good espresso. And I am a crap barista, believe me. If I can do it, you probably can.
Not everything about this machine is perfect. You have to cut a few corners to make espresso this good for £500 and in this case the sacrifices made include an extremely slow water dispenser – seriously, if you want an Americano or lungo, you'll save yourself a lot of time and loud noise by topping up with water from your kettle instead.
A more serious issue for some may be that the coffee produced is decidedly lukewarm. I have to say this is not a huge problem for me, but I know a lot of British people like their morning beverage scaldingly hot. I started out using the medium temperature profile, as that is apparently optimal for the strong, dark-roasted beans I was using. However, I soon gravitated to the maximum temperature, to get a bit more heat. It still wasn't really hot, but I also can't say I detected a deterioration in taste as a result.
The other issue I found was that I simply could not froth milk successfully with the included steam wand. Yes, I was able to create some pleasantly creamy, steamed milk that made a great latte, but I was trying to get denser foam as I am more of a cappuccino guy. This was despite pre-warming the wand and following the instructions to the letter.
I have to say, this is a constant bugbear of mine. Whether it is due to a lack of skill on my part or the steam wands on cheaper machines being no good, I am never able to get decent textured milk. Luckily I have a milk frother in my magic cupboard and so can cheat, but it's not as satisfying as rustling it up using only high-pressure steam and manual dexterity, is it? Maybe one day I'll crack it.
That aside, I am a huge fan of this machine. The fact it can so easily be setup to make a very solid espresso indeed leads me to believe that with better beans, more experimentation and experience, it could be used to make something truly special.
The obvious rival product here is Sage's Barista Express. That has a slightly higher recommended price, and has better build quality but it's harder to recommend for newbies and people who hate mess. Or at least until such time as Sage comes out with its own Dosing and Tamping Guide to take the mess and hassle out of filling a portafilter with ground coffee.
The Specialista Arte is an attractive thing, and nicely compact by bean to cup standards. It gets a big thumbs up from me.