The Adventures of Rocky and Silvia

By Jeffrey the Barak

Yes that’s right, I said Silvia not Bullwinkle. These are the names of two machines made by Italian manufacturer Rancilio. The Silvia is the industry standard, consumer espresso and cappuccino maker, and the Rocky is her trusty sidekick, a rough tough burr grinder.

Both machines are well respected in the espresso fanatic community and the Silvia in particular, raises as much passion as other Italian icons, such as Lamborghini, Vespa, Ferrari, Sophia Loren, Moto Guzzi etc.

I know all the Italians will be sighing over that last paragraph. Oh here we go again, they lament. But the comparisons are meant in a positive way as all are iconic, uncontested expressions of Italian artistry.

All coffee heads know about Silvia. They refer to it as “her”. She is “Miss Silvia”. YouTube and Google Video have volumes of footage that people have uploaded, all for the love of Silvia. And there is no shortage of exasperated failed romantic partners for her either. People who could not get the relationship to work and ended up having Silvia leave them.

The sheer volume of user tips, comments and other writings about Silvia and Rocky is huge. Just Google the names to find more than you can read. Users have even found ways to make it better. Google “cheating Miss Silvia” to find an elaborate ritual to speed up the warm up, or try “Silvia PID” to see how homegrown engineers have taken up where the Italian designers left off.

Silvia is more than an espresso machine, it’s an institution, a rite of passage and a lifestyle, all in one heavy metal cube.

My progression to this place where I feel compelled to write about a steel cube has been along a simple road.

Basically, I like coffee. I like how it smells and tastes, I like discovering newer and higher plateaus of the coffee experience as life progresses.

In my fifty years I’ve been into instant coffee, drip coffee, vending machine coffee, even coffee with milk and sugar, and as each better experience has come my way, I’ve come to realize how tasteless the previous level was.

I’ve hung out for hours a day in cafes and owned an array of home coffee making setups. But here I am in the world of Silvia and Rocky. I have improved my techniques to a point where I’m starting to impress myself and I have a large section of my not so large kitchen set up with spotless, gleaming brushed stainless steel monsters at the ready for a session of grinding, tamping, heating, brewing, timing, steaming and of course lots of wiping, washing, cleaning, tidying, refilling, usually all for nothing more than an ounce or two of hot black water with thick brown crema on top.

Why do all of this? It’s hard to say. Until a few days ago I was pushing one button on a Gaggia super automatic and getting what was arguably an acceptable espresso. But was it? No I don’t think so. There is not a super automatic that can deliver an espresso that makes you go “wow”. It’s a compromise. And is it really a drink with the push of a button? No, not if you take into account the inevitable eventual cleaning of the machine.

No, the hard work involved in using and maintaining a semi-automatic espresso machine like the legendary Silvia is not wasted and it even becomes part of the ritual and experience to the extent that having a waiter or counter person hand you an espresso, cappuccino or latte in a public place just isn’t the same. That’s like enjoying a Ducati by having someone else ride it for you and watching it drive by.

You need a heavy tamper, a damp and a dry microfiber towel, a supply of very recently roasted coffee beans, various containers, a knock box, maybe even a cordless vacuum for spilled grounds, a tap water filtration system for goodness sake. You need all kinds of things in fact, to the extent that your Silvia begins to look small in the array. And all for a tiny shot of liquid, or perhaps a silky microfoam topped mixture of espresso and milk with a neat brown rosetta pattern on top.

And the fact that it is oh so easy to make a truly terrible espresso with the Silvia and Rocky makes it all the more rewarding when you do your homework and pull a great shot.

Actually, making a decent cappuccino or latte is not that hard as the white stuff hides the shortcomings of the black stuff to a large extent, but when you finally get dialed in and pull an amazing shot of espresso and take that first sip, or pour an artistic latte, the effect of that tiny portion of strange wet food on the tongue is worth all the time, money, trouble, research and practice that went into making the moment happen.

But we always want more. The Silvia is okay, and the ideal training device, but ultimately, why stop there? Why empty a drip tray when you can have one that drains? Why fill a water reservoir when you can have a machine plumbed in?

In some ways the disadvantages of going up to a commercial machine make the Silvia a better choice. You can move it! It warms up faster (if you cheat it), and is there a justification for something grander when no one but you is being served? Probably not, but I have to say if there had been another few inches between my counter and my cabinets I would have had the Expobar Lever gleaming in the kitchen instead of my new Silvia. Maybe next time, after I have the entire kitchen remodeled. Now won’t that be an expensive shot of espresso?

Setup includes:

* Rancilio Silvia
* Rancilio Rocky Grinder (Doserless)
* Stainless frothing pitcher
* Milk thermometer
* Reg Barber heavy steel wood handled tamper with Rancilio logo
* Shot glasses
* Diver’s watch with a second hand and rotating bezel (to time the shots)
* Rancilio two-drawer stainless steel base,
* Knock box
* Plumbed in water filter under kitchen sink
* Stack of microfiber towels, for everything!
* Espresso, cappuccino and latte cups and saucers
* Large pitcher to refill water reservoir without having to extract it
* Little brush to clear grounds from rim of the portafilter
* Ornate chopstick to level the grounds without touching the coffee with finger
* Large airtight jar to keep some air away from the freshly roasted beans
* Much more stuff
* A very understanding wife

Jeffrey the Barak , loves good espresso, and has been said to obsess over it. He is also the publisher of the-vu.

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