Lost in translation: A 20 year espresso-machine odyssey from the Sylvia to Nespresso to the DeLonghi Magnifica S

My father, Isaac, wrote this.

In Lost in Translation, Bill Murray seems equally confused by Japanese pop culture and a middle aged guy’s uncertain emotions upon encountering the achingly beautiful Scarlett Johansson. Since much of the dialogue was purportedly improvised, I don’t think Bill was acting on either front. Over the past 20 years, I’ve had a series of mostly Italian espresso machines and my experience with these has also been lost in translation.

In 1997, Starbucks had yet to metastasize across most of America and the independent coffee house movement was nascent. So the only effective way for a writer like me to get an espresso jolt in the afternoon was to buy a machine. This was in the early years of web shopping (more Ask Jeeves than Google), but after researching products, I decided to by a Rancilio Sylvia machine, along with a Rancilio Rocky “dosing” burr grinder. I have no idea why an Italian company would decide to randomly name these machines Sylvia and Rocky (see the Lost in Translation note above), but both are still sold and get great reviews. My experience was good—sort of.

The main problem with the Sylvia was (and is) that it was (and is) gigantic. It weighs about 50 pounds. The Rocky is also huge for a burr grinder. Since I’d ordered them online, I was really surprised by their height, weight, and girth. I was even more surprised to see that the instructions for both were only in Italian! In this case, I was lost without translation.

After a series of long phone calls to the vendor back east, I was finally able to make coffee. The Sylvia makes great coffee and an enormous mess. It’s a semi-automatic machine, which means the user has to grind the coffee (hence the need for Rocky), tamp it into the espresso holder, shove the holder back into Sylvia, brew the espresso, and hand steam/froth the milk with the machine’s steam wand into a stainless steel pitcher for a cappuccino.

The good news for us coffee junkies is that the milk can be heated to 200 degrees, since it’s a manual. But steaming the milk at home also means that I had to buy a coffee immersion thermometer, adding to the countertop clutter. While this process can be fun for one or two cups, it’s exhausting to make cappuccino for a crowd. I got pretty good with the wand and could produce far better coffee than Starbucks, but I also had to clean up dry and wet coffee grounds and milk splatter. I felt like I should wear a rubber apron or Ghostbusters jumpsuit when making coffee. Still, I used this combo for about ten years.

About ten years ago, I was in Paris and encountered my first Nespresso machine. Nespresso machines use proprietary pods. This was a revelation—shove a pod into the machine, press a button and coffee, cappuccino, etc., appear with little fuss and no mess.

When I got home, I gave Sylvia to friend with a boat to use as an anchor and bought a compact machine, called “The Cube” (this model is no longer sold). The Cube only made espresso using pods and one had to use a separate frother to create a version of cappuccino. It was easy to use and created very little mess; I no longer needed the hulking Rocky next to it. The Cube system, however, produces frothed, not steamed milk, which means a lukewarm drink. The Cube is also owned by Nestle, a Swiss company, and not only were the instructions in English, but there is a help line staffed by giddy customer service reps. No translation issues with the Cube.

After about another five years, I grew tired of lukewarm coffee that wasn’t quite as good as it should have been and bought my second Nespresso machine, a DeLonghi Lattissima+. This baby was light years better than the Cube, because it is not only compact and easy to use with little mess but also produces actual steamed milk at a hotter temperature (albeit not the scalding temp of the Sylvia).

After about ten years of using Nespresso machines, I got tired of their basic problems. First, the pods have become ever more expensive with time. The pods now cost between $.70 and $1/per pod. I go through at least 10 pods per week, so this quickly rises to the Gillette razor blade problem; Nespresso could actually give away the machines, like a heroin dealer passing out samples. They know you’ll be back. The second issue, however, is insurmountable—no matter which of the so-called “Grand Cru” coffee varieties I bought, the coffee inside the pods is entirely “meh.”

After much googling and a referral from Jake (who reads Megan McArdle’s holiday gadget guides), I decided to give up on Nespresso and dig a new hole with a DeLonghi Magnifica S machine. This is my first “super automatic” machine, which means that it does everything with “one touch.”

Pour the beans of you choice in the hopper, milk in the integrated pitcher, water in the tank, select your brew and voila, there it is. The Magnifica S arrived Saturday. DeLonghi is yet another Italian company. Unlike the Sylvia, the instructions came in English, along with about 20 other languages. Unfortunately, the manual came on a DVD, and as a Mac guy, I haven’t had a DVD drive in years. Also, the first thing you encounter on opening the box is a large warning sheet in 100 point type: PLEASE TO NOT RETURN THIS ITEM TO THE STORE, CALL THE TECH SUPPORT TEAM. Hmmmm.

Back to Google to find the instructions online. For those interested in a Magnifica S, note that DeLonghi makes at least a half dozen machines, all called the Magnifca S, but different is some critical ways and with slightly different model numbers (DeLonghi could learn about product lineup from Apple). More lost in translation: why didn’t just give each one a distinct name, like Sylvia. I bought the Magnifica S model # ECAM 24.462, which has a two line display, as opposed to the 24.262, which uses a forest of pictograms like a McDonalds cash register. Word to the wise: get the 462.

The Magnifica turns out to be almost as big as the Sylvia I started with 20 years. While the instructions I found online were in English, they’d been badly translated from Italian and were incredibly complex and confusing. Now I understood why the warning sheet is included. It took me about an hour and a half to set up the machine—longer that it took me to set up my newest MacBook Pro in December. I’m confident that, while this machine has probably not ended as many relationships as assembling IKEA furniture has, it must have ended a couple.

After much fiddling and attempts to discern the odd instructions and ever stranger illustrations, I finally produced a terrific cappuccino—assuming you use good beans. The machine is indeed one touch when finally configured and, unlike the Nespresso machines, it’s self-cleaning. I used the Streetlevel blend from my favorite coffee shop and roaster, Verve Coffee Roasters. It was roasted last week and is the blend used in Verve coffee shops. Nespresso pods are never quite as good as they should be because the time between roast and use is too long. With the Magnifica, one doesn’t have to suffer mystery coffee, roasted who knows when, in expensive pods.

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