Tried & Tested: La Pavoni Espresso Machine
At first we were sceptical. This is not a fast machine. For a small drink called espresso, you’d expect, well, something more express. But that’s actually the beauty of any La Pavoni lever machine: You’re meant to enjoy the leisurely process. It’s the kind of machine professional baristas like to use at home on their days off, because it gives you complete control over every step. Most importantly, it makes a fantastic cup of espresso that’s well worth the extra few minutes.
So to show you how a La Pavoni lever machine won a group of sceptics over, we’re going to share what we discovered when we tested (and tested, and tested) this machine. There was a steep learning curve, but once we got the hang of it, we finally understood why La Pavoni lever machines have so many passionate fans across the world.
To appreciate a La Pavoni lever machine, you first have to understand how espresso is made on a granular level (no pun intended). Almost boiling water (90-95°C) needs to pass through a ‘puck’ of ground coffee that’s been pressed down by a tamper so it’s very compact. The water needs to be forced under pressure in order to penetrate those grounds. We’re talking a lot of pressure—nine bars at the least, which is nine times the pressure of Earth’s atmosphere at sea level. On a lever machine, one bar of pressure comes from the boiler, and the other eight comes from your hand pulling the lever. This lets you taste a coffee bean in its purest form, and gives you total control over the process.
Coffee beans may go in the cupboard, but you want to think of it like fresh produce. When espresso is well-made, the differences between beans—even the same beans roasted at different times—is clear. Like wine, each glass has its own unique, complex character and terroir. An espresso is the most concentrated version of that complexity.
Vintage posters of La Pavoni's first espresso machine.
The History of La Pavoni
Smithsonian magazine calls Desiderio Pavoni the ‘Steve Jobs of espresso’. In 1903, his partner Luigi Bezzera improved on an existing pressurised espresso machine by adding a portafilter and group head (what the portafilter attaches to)—items we still need for espresso today. Pavoni improved on the design by adding a pressure release valve, which prevents hot coffee from spurting everywhere. He also added the steam wand, which releases excess steam that collects in the machine’s boiler and, later on, became the way to foam milk for espresso-based coffee. That first machine, called the ‘Ideale’, worked at 1.5 bars of pressure and took a whole minute to pull a shot of espresso.
But back then, ‘pulling’ an espresso was not a valid term. That happened when the lever machine was invented, after World War II. This invention brought espresso machines into the modern age by adding a cylinder and a lever, which vastly increased the pressure and the speed by forcing the steam pressure from the boiler into the portafilter. The pressure is then increased by about 8 bars when a barista pulls on a lever—hence the term ‘pulling’ an espresso. This did two major things: standardise the serving size of an espresso to the small cup we recognise today, as well as create that gorgeous foam on the top we know as crema.
How to Pull an Espresso Shot
As mentioned before, there is a learning curve when it comes to making espresso in a La Pavoni machine. It may take many tries before you find a formula that works for you—that was certainly the case when we tested it. But when we finally found one that worked, it was a euphoric feeling, not unlike turning out your first good loaf of sourdough (except it takes much less time). Once you master this formula, you can play around with grind size, dose (the amount of coffee grounds), length of pull, how hard to tamp, and so much more, to find what’s right for you.
The following instructions are for the double dose portafilter (not the one with the tapered base, which is for a single shot of espresso). When using the single dose filter, halve the dosage and time specified below.
Bring to Pressure: Before you turn the machine on, unscrew the knob on the top of the tank and fill it with water. Screw it back on, switch on the machine, and wait for it to come to between 0.5 to 1.2 bars of pressure, which is marked green on the pressure gauge. If you’re using the Europiccola, you’ll know the machine is at pressure when the green light turns on. Attach a clean portafilter to the machine.
Purge & Eliminate False Pressure: When the machine comes to pressure, clean out any residue by 'purging' the machine of old water into an empty espresso cup. Just lift the lever for a few seconds, let the water fall, and discard the water. This warms up the portafilter and the espresso cup. Now, you have to eliminate something called ‘false’ pressure, which will make your espresso watery. The best way to do this is to place your cup or a tea towel at the base of the steam wand. Open the steam by unscrewing the steam wand’s cap, and wait for the spurts of water to turn into cloud-like steam. You want to hear a consistent hiss.
Prepare the Coffee: Fill the portafilter with 12 to 18g of ground coffee, about three tablespoons; in the office, some of us measure and some of us eyeball it. Freshly ground beans are absolutely crucial here, and they should be ground finely. We recommend the second- or third-finest setting on your grinder. Tamp down the coffee grounds in the portafilter. You want to make it tight and uniform, or else water will gravitate towards ‘channels’ that will result in uneven extraction. To get a nice layer of crema, we found that at least 15g of coffee, fresh coffee beans ground finely, and a hard (but not too hard) tamp were key.
Pre-Infuse: Place your coffee cup under the portafilter and lift the lever up slowly. If you go too fast, it will disrupt the coffee in the portafilter and lead to uneven extraction (the enemy!). When you’re at the top, you’ll hear a click. Wait 10 to 20 seconds, or until you see the first few drops of coffee, then...
- Make Espresso: Pull the lever all the way down in a slow, steady motion and watch the espresso fill the cup. We like to pull for about 30 seconds, with the lever horizontal at the 15-second mark. It is deeply satisfying to see your espresso fill the cup, watching for a nice layer of crema. Enjoy.
Now, to get more technical: The duration of your pull depends on your dosage. For espresso, you want double the amount of liquid than coffee grounds. I.e, if you used 15g of coffee grounds, you want 30g of espresso. To check your yield amount, you can place a measuring scale under your coffee cup and tare before you pull the shot; remove the cup when you have the amount of espresso you want (30g, if using the example above). Here’s a hack: count double the amount of seconds as your dosage. So for 15g of coffee, that’s 30 seconds; for 18g of coffee, that’s 36 seconds, and so on.
This will become more intuitive with every coffee you make, and as you become more confident, you can experiment with other ratios. For example, if you use 15g of coffee grounds and pull for 15 seconds (or 15g of extracted coffee), the 1:1 ratio makes that a ristretto. If you use 15g of coffee grounds and pull for 45 seconds (or 45g extracted coffee), the 3:1 ratio makes that a lungo.
How to Froth Milk
The beauty of a La Pavoni lever machine is how it can turn anyone into an espresso drinker, but sometimes a cappuccino or latte just fits the mood. There are two ways to heat milk on a La Pavoni lever machine:
Steam Wand: This wand has three holes for thorough frothing. To use it, place a small pitcher of milk just under the wand; it should not touch the milk. Unscrew the knob until steam comes out in a steady, cloud-like stream. Then immerse the wand in the milk. You can keep it still for a tighter foam (latte) or swirl the milk in a whirlpool motion for a looser foam (cappuccino). (Keep experimenting with this to find the texture that works for you!) To stop, just tighten the knob shut.
- Cappuccino Automatic: This attachment is meant to be a faucet that opens to release perfectly foamed milk. To use it, detach the default steam wand and attach the steel wand with the vertical spout. Secure the attachment by turning the small plastic knob clockwise until it is shut. You should have what looks like a faucet, under which you can place your espresso-filled mug. Then, place the transparent tube in a pitcher filled with milk. Release steam by loosening the larger knob on the side of the machine. The milk will travel through the tube and release from the faucet, straight into your glass, perfectly foamed for cappuccino.
Essential Tips for Success
- Grind your beans fresh before every cup of espresso. For espresso, you want finely ground coffee, and a high-quality grinder that’s primed for espresso. The ideal grind for lever machines tends to be two steps coarser than your grinder’s finest setting. See our selection of coffee grinders here.
- Look for beans that are fresh and slow-roasted. A local coffee shop is much more likely to have better-quality beans than a supermarket.
- Ideally, use filtered water when filling the tank for a cleaner-tasting coffee.
- Always remove the portafilter gently, stopping after your first turn for a moment before releasing. This dissipates the pressure from the machine—otherwise, the used coffee will spurt everywhere and make a mess! A knock box is a great tool to have by your machine; shop here.
- If you’re passionate about perfecting espresso, keep a piece of paper near the machine so you can note your dosage, grind size, time taken to lift the lever (pre-infusion), your final yield amount, and additional notes. That way you can figure out the recipe that works for you every time.
- Touch any metal parts of the machine, except for the lever handle or top knob (for support), when it’s on, as it gets extremely hot. Keep a tea towel nearby for when you need it.
- Open the tank (the top knob) unless the machine is off. The sudden release of pressure would be hazardous, so the tank should be tightly shut when the machine is on.
- Though you can make up to six espressos in a row, we do not recommend making more than three. That's because after three, the group head tends to overheat, resulting in bitter coffee. Turn the machine off, refill with water if necessary, then turn it on again before making your next batch.
Cleaning & Maintenance
- Clean a La Pavoni lever machine by rubbing it with soft, damp cloth after each use
- Empty the residual coffee collection basket at the base when it gets full
- Every six months, it’s worth descaling the interior of the machine. We like to use a 50/50 solution of water and white vinegar, fill the tank, and purge the solution completely. Repeat the process with water to remove any residual taste of vinegar. You can also use a store-bought solution.
- La Pavoni Professional Lusso (Wooden or Resin Handles): Introduced in 1974, the La Pavoni Lusso (with wooden or black handles) has remained unchanged because it is extremely popular with coffee enthusiasts. With a pressure gauge on the tank and 1.6-litre capacity, it’s an icon of 20th-century design that has a permanent place in New York’s Museum of Modern Art. Shop wood-handled here, and resin-handled here.
- La Pavoni Esperto (Abile or Edotto): The Esperto Abile and Esperto Edotto have a second pressure gauge and a temperature stamp, so you can monitor the activity of the tank and the group head. It allows for the ultimate precision. Both machines come with La Pavoni’s signature eagle on top. The Abile has a chrome finish, while the Edotto’s is copper. Shop Abile here, and Edotto here.
- La Pavoni Europiccola: Also called the La Pavoni Piccolo, this was the first espresso maker ever made for domestic use, and it’s been updated with the safety features of later models. It doesn’t guide the process as much as the others—there are no gauges, for example—but professional baristas and coffee fanatics love it because they already have some know-how before using it. Shop here.
- La Pavoni Cellini (Classic or Evoluzione): A semi-automatic lever espresso machine that lets you make back-to-back espressos, foam milk simultaneously, and looks beautiful on any kitchen counter. The Evoluzione is quieter than the Classic, thanks to a rotary pump, and can be connected to a direct water source through plumbing. Shop Classic here, and Evoluzione here.
- La Pavoni Botticelli Specialty: The gold standard of semi-automatic lever machines, with a rotary pump and a BPPC system, like the one on the Esperto, that has a gauge on the grouphead. The added benefit here is that you can control the pressure of your extraction, not just monitor it. This allows for consistent, foolproof espresso. Shop here.
Is a La Pavoni Lever Machine Right For You?
If you want espresso quickly, then a manual La Pavoni lever machine may not be your cup of tea (coffee, rather), and you should consider one of the semi-automatic options. But if you love the taste of espresso and want the hands-on satisfaction of pulling yourself, having control over every step of the process, consider investing in one. This is the kind of machine baristas use at home, which is to say that using it is a relaxing, meditative process, and one that exercises your creativity as a home brewer.
It’s not a small investment, and that’s because La Pavoni machines have been made in the same Milan factory since 1905. The science and craftsmanship behind every machine is exquisite and one-of-a-kind, which is why these machines last forever. There’s a whole cottage industry dedicated to refurbishing old La Pavoni manual lever machines because every part is easily replaceable. Built like tanks, they will make as good an espresso on day one as it would on day 5000.