I’m not exaggerating when I say that the Rancilio Silvia is perhaps the most famous domestic espresso machine on the market. There are only a couple of other models with a similar history.
But just because it’s a well-known machine that’s been around for a while, it doesn’t necessarily mean that it makes excellent coffee considering today’s high standards.
After all, the Silvia was first introduced in 1997.
That’s 25 years ago 🙅
Luckily, Rancilio has kept updating the machine over the years. For this review, I have been testing the latest model, V6.
Read on if you want to determine whether this model still has what it takes.
About the brand
Rancilio was founded by Roberto Rancilio in Milano back in 1927.
That places the brand as one of the original northern Italian espresso pioneers with Bezzera, Gaggia, and La Pavoni.
Today it might be hard to fathom but making espresso at home is relatively new. Rancilio and all its Italian peers solely focused on making commercial equipment.
However, in 1997 Rancilio produced a miniature version of their professional machines as a thank you gift for the company’s business partners.
A few years later, this espresso machine would become available to the general public as the “Silvia.”
Rancilio has updated the Silvia several times, and we’re now on the 6th version, which was launched in 2020.
Rancilio also launched a “pro” version of the Silvia more recently. While it has similarities superficially, it’s fair to say that this machine is entirely different internally with its two boilers and PID. So for this review, let’s focus on the original.
Design & Build Quality
The Silvia is a compact and boxy unit. I always found it confusing that the espresso machine is also known as “Ms. Silvia” among coffee geeks when there’s nothing feminine about its presence.
Other Italian design classics such as Vespa scooters or Ascaso espresso makers evoke something that could be described in that direction. Still, the Rancilio Silvia – at least to me – seems rather functionalistic or perhaps even brutalist.
That doesn’t mean that it’s an ugly machine, though. On the contrary, the most recent version has had a bit of a facelift with new button icons and a black group head, making it look more modern.
Having just reviewed two of the machine’s main rivals (the Gaggia Classic Pro & Breville Bambino Plus), I have to say that the Silvia beats them both when it comes to the feeling of quality and durability when you compare them up close. I think the Gaggia and Breville models are more photogenic. Still, when it comes to materials and giving you that premium “feeling,” I have to award the victory to Rancilio Silvia.
The drip tray on the Rancilio Silvia is made out of metal, and it feels like no corners were cut here. For example, there are different grill patterns under the brewing and steaming sections to account for the difference between slowly dripping coffee and forceful steaming. On Gaggia and Breville’s entry-level models, you have plenty of cheap-feeling plastic in comparison.
The portafilter and tamper also underline the quality and heft. It’s a heavy (and dare I say commercial feeling) portafilter that destroys the offerings from Breville and Gaggia in this price class.
The same thing goes for the tamper. However, even though it’s heavy-duty, power-users will eventually want to upgrade to a precision tamper.
On the inside, the Rancilio Silvia has also been updated slightly with an insulated boiler and a new power saver switch that makes the machine turn off after being idle for 30 minutes. The “E” in the name stands for ecological.
Other than that, the machine is simple and well made as it’s been for years. It has a generous 300 ml brass single-boiler and a 3-way solenoid valve, causing the puck to be less messy and wet post-shot.
In my testing period, I didn’t see the need to play with anything inside the machine, but by all accounts from people who service Silvias for a living, it’s a well-made machine that can last for a long time. And if there’s a problem, it’s something you can fix.
In Daily Use
The Rancilio Silvia has a single boiler used for brewing and steaming. This is a fact that will both limit and determine your interaction with the machine.
Brewing espresso ideally happens around 200F/93C degrees, while producing steam requires way higher temperatures.
So that means that the same boiler has to be able to go between some pretty big extremes. This means that you have to practice what is referred to as “temperature surfing” to get the best results with the Silvia.
It sounds like a fun and thrilling activity, but it’s a lot more tedious than it sounds in real life.
Temperature surfing explained
Imagine this scenario: You want to make a cappuccino.
- First, you pull your shot as you’d expect.
- However, to steam milk, you have to wait for 90 seconds while the boiler gets up to temperature. It might not sound like a long time, but the crema of the shot will start to fade during that period.
Also, this waiting period is a bit like the microwave minute. It just feels longer than the regular time.
Of course, you can do what many Rancilio users do:
- Steam first
- Then brew
However, I’m not a big fan of this workflow for several reasons:
- You have to purge a substantial amount of water and steam to get the boiler to the correct brewing temperature. It feels like unnecessary work.
- If you use a particular bottled water or soften water yourself to protect your machine, purging is an expensive activity in the long run.
- Also, if you want to pour latte art, you have to keep grooming your milk while dealing with the temperature and prepping/pulling the shot.
I’m not saying that you can’t become a master at this and get a good workflow down (I’ve certainly seen YouTube videos of it), but to me, it’s a bit faffy.
Making Tasty Shots?
Of course, this process is more noticeable if you’re making a lot of milk drinks. Then it’s a lot of surfing back and forth.
But what if you’re mostly drinking espresso? Well, it’s better, but you’ll still have to do some temperature surfing. More modern espresso machines have a PID temperature controller, which will give excellent temperature stability down to a single digit.
But since the Rancilio Silvia has a thermostat, it will repeatedly fluctuate over and under the desired brew temperature. So if you want to brew at the same temperature every time, it’s required to purge some water and then wait for the boiler to reactivate. Once it shuts off, you can brew immediately, and you should have a relatively temperature-stable shot.
This sounds like a lot of work, but after using the machine for a week, you’ll quickly get it.
Also, I will say that you’ll be rewarded with some delectable shots. The chunky 58 mm portafilter helps with temperature stability if you warm it up in the group head. At the same time, you can grind very fine when using a commercial 58 mm basket.
So overall, when you get a shot right, it’s exceptionally delicious and as good as most coffee shops.
I will also say that the 300 ml boiler is a generous size. That means that you’ll be able to pull a good lungo or “sprover” without suddenly worrying about brewing at lower temperatures.
During the testing period, I pulled a lot of light-roasted 1:10 shots with a grinder equipped with SSP Multipurpose burrs, and they just tasted terrific.
I’m not much of a latte artist, and when I produce some, it tends to be of the Salvador Dali, slightly abstract kind. However, if you want to get into this aspect of coffee making, then the Silvia is an excellent machine to learn on.
It has a ton of steam power. It almost has a bit too much if you ask me. I was surprised by the explosion bursting from the steam wand a few times, which resulted in a mess on the kitchen counter to clean up.
The Rancilio Silvia V6 E I was using in my test had even more forceful steam than the Breville Dual Boiler I usually use, so I think it’s fair to say that it has enough and more than you need.
However, this vast amount of powerful steam also comes with a price; this is why it takes some additional time to go from brewing to frothing. The Gaggia Classic Pro, which produces weaker and smaller amounts of steam, has a shorter transition time between the two modes.
Ease of Use
Overall, I wouldn’t say that the Rancilio Silvia is a straightforward machine. The temperature surfing and the powerful steam mean that it’s a device that requires some practice. But, in this era where we have smart devices and are used to convenience, it’s certainly an experience that will divide people.
It’s already entirely of a challenge to make great espresso and coffee drinks, and this is especially the case with something like the Rancilio Silvia.
If you want a hobby and plan to spend some time on coffee forums and watching latte art tutorials online, you’ll have a rewarding coffee journey with the Silvia.
But if you want to turn on a button in the morning, and get a latte with the least effort, then stay away from this machine.
This is an espresso maker for people who own (or are planning to get) a burr grinder specifically for espresso. It’s for people who aren’t scared away by acronyms such as RDT, WDT, TDS and EY.
Rancilio Silvia Drawbacks
- Temperature surfing is required. This leads to:
- water waste
- unnecessary mess around (or outside) the drip tray
- Convoluted workflow
- Some experience is needed to get the best shots
- It takes up more counter space than other entry-level espresso makers
- Slightly too high steam power
- Requires at least 15 minutes to heat up
Gaggia Classic Pro
I think most people considering the Rancilio Silvia will also want to look at the Gaggia Classic Pro.
In Europe, the price difference between these two machines isn’t that big, but the difference can be significant in other markets. Therefore, if they are both within the same price range (≈ 25%), I will lean towards the Silvia.
Nevertheless, the Gaggia Classic Pro does have a few upsides:
It’s smaller and slightly more elegant looking in its new colorway. Also, it has a way faster transition between brewing and steaming, making for a better workflow if we’re talking about a single cappuccino.
However, the Gaggia also feels cheaper and more flimsy when you inspect it up close. The plastic parts aren’t as lovely, and it’s a less powerful machine with a smaller boiler overall.
Breville Bambino Plus
Another machine that will often come up in this price bracket is the Breville Bambino Plus. In many ways, it’s the antithesis of the Silvia V6. However, in my opinion, it’s just a way more modern machine with a better workflow.
This machine uses a thermocoil and has a PID, so you don’t need to worry about the temperature. This is the machine I’d recommend to most people. It is the device to get if someone wants a quick milk drink and has zero interest in reading about coffee online.
Yes, the ceiling is higher on the Silvia; in the hands of a barista champion, you can get a better coffee from it. But in real life, the Bambino Plus will put out better drinks with less effort.
The Rancilio Silvia V6 is an odd one. On the one hand, it’s boxy and complicated to use. But at the same time, I can’t help thinking that you get a lot of premium steel and quality for your money.
In the right hands, it’s a dependable machine that can make fantastic espresso.
However, the single boiler and the lack of PID should be a deal-breaker for most modern people. I wouldn’t recommend this machine to an aunt or somebody who’s only superficially interested in coffee. They would be much better served with a Breville Bambino. Or even a Nespresso machine.
On the other hand, if you’re a massive coffee geek or are on the way to becoming it, most likely, you’ll want to upgrade to a dual boiler or heat-exchanger soon. So in a sense, the Rancilio Silvia is also sitting between two chairs.
There’s no doubt that it’s a quality machine. But, unfortunately, it’s a bit like a manual transmission Mercedes in a time of Teslas.