Rancilio Silvia Coffee Machine Review

An image of Rancilio Silvia, a reliable semi automatic espresso machine

Rancilio Silvia Espresso Machine 

8.4 Total Score
Rancilio Silvia

This is a solid machine with a well-respected history. Unfortunately, it has struggled to keep pace with more modern equipment.
Recommended for: Not newbie friendly, but recommended for anyone else.
Note: With the PID retrofit, add 0.25 to the final rating of this machine

Reservoir Size
9
Overall Brew Quality
9.5
Customization Options
9
Ease of Use
6
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Overview of the Rancilio Silvia Semi Automatic Espresso Machine

Are you a diehard Do It Yourselfer, looking for a well-priced, old school machine that allows you to control every aspect of the process of crafting your favorite specialty coffee drinks?

If so, then you’re going to love our in-depth Rancilio Silvia Coffee Machine review. 

A word of warning, however:  This machine is not for everyone.  It’s a classic design, made by a legendary company, but it can be a bit twitchy.  It has been described as a bit of a harsh mistress.  A good machine, but it can take skill and finesse to use well, and those are things that people new to the world of specialty coffee just don’t have.

We’ll walk you through everything this machine can do, and outline some of its problem areas, so you’ll have all the information you need to make an informed decision!

Rancilio Silvia History

Roberto Rancilio founded the company and launched the Rancilio brand in Milan, Italy, in 1927.  The company quickly gained a reputation for producing rugged, durable machines known for their quality and reliability.

Although the Silvia, introduced in 1998, is sometimes referred to as the “Rancilio Silvia commercial espresso machine,” this is a bit of a misnomer.  While the company is known for making high-quality commercial machines, the Silvia is primarily designed for home use.  As you’ll see when we get into the meat of the review, some of its features make it suboptimal for use in a business environment.

The model is now on its fifth version, so it’s clear that the company is not content to rest on its laurels.  Even so, as you’ll see, some of its features will leave you a little underwhelmed, with other brands offering more advanced functionality.

That’s not to say that the Silvia is a bad machine – far from it!  It’s just that you’ll have to learn to work around some of its limitations, which we’ll cover in the sections that follow.

Form Factor, Footprint & Aesthetic

The first thing you’ll notice about the Rancilio Silvia coffee machine is that it has a decidedly industrial appearance.  Dressed all in silver, owing to its high polish, stainless steel construction, and designed around an old-school aesthetic, this machine looks like it means business.

Despite its rough and ready, commercial appearance, the machine only measures 9.2” x 11.4” x 13.3,” which makes it ideal for home use, although its commercial look and feel may make it clash with some people’s kitchen décor.

Given its size, it shouldn’t be too difficult to find a permanent home for the machine, which is good, because it weighs a hefty thirty pounds.  That’s not excessive, but it’s also not something you’ll want to move around all the time if you don’t have to.

Reservoir Size

An image of the stainless steel Rancilio Silvia coffee machine

This is always an important feature for us because we drink a lot of coffee.  Our ideal machine has a sixty-ounce water tank, minimum, and the Silvia exceeds this mark, offering a top-loading 64-ounce reservoir.

Of note, the tank does not have or accept a water filter, and the Silvia is not engineered to have a dedicated water line run to it.

An image of the Rancilio Silvia's 60-ounce water tank

We’re okay with both of those things.  It’s rare to find a machine designed for home use that does have a direct-line option, and we don’t mind the absence of a filter, because the only real advantage it offers is that it reduces the need for descaling, but you can achieve that simply by using distilled water, or filtering it at some other point (say, the tap on your kitchen sink).

Integrated Grinder

Although there’s not really a “best grinder for the Rancilio Silvia,” the grinder that often gets paired with it is the company’s Rocky grinder, which is exceptional by any reckoning.

If you’d rather get something else, our main advice would be not to skimp.  You don’t want to spend hundreds of dollars on a specialty coffee machine, only to pair it with a sub-standard grinder.

To that end, steer clear of blade grinders, and get the best ceramic burr your budget will allow for.

An often-overlooked advantage of buying a dedicated grinder is the fact that if you get a super automatic, you’re saddled with whatever grinder the manufacturer decides to give you.

Sometimes, that works out in your favor, but more often than not, you’ll find yourself wishing you had more grind settings and control because small changes in the way you grind your beans can lead to tremendous variances in the flavor of whatever drink you’re making.

The Boiler System

The Rancilio Silvia semi automatic machine features a single, insulated copper boiler, which is reflective of its old-school design philosophy.  Most of the machines on the market today use an aluminum boiler, lined with stainless steel.  Copper’s a great choice, though, and is known for its rapid heating properties and even temperature.

This though, is where we come to one of the features of the Silvia that makes it a “harsh mistress.”

There’s no good way to set or control the temperature of the boiler, which has led to an elaborate workaround that fans of the machine call “temperature surfing.

There’s a big difference between the temperature the water has to get for milk steaming, and the temperature coffee is brewed at, and with no way to tell exactly how hot the boiler is, the idea is that you let the boiler heat up, then kill power to the heating element and “count down” until you think it’s at the temperature you want, then pull your shot (this assumes that you steamed milk first).

An image of Rancilio Silvia's insulated copper boiler

Mostly, it comes down to experimentation and knowing your equipment, so if you’re new, you’re probably not going to enjoy learning on this machine, and you can expect less than optimal results until you get a good feel for the timing.

An image of the PID on the front part of Rancho Silvia espresso machine

Rancilio Silvia Espresso Machine With PID

For an added $235, at the time this review was written, the PID Retrofit Kit gives the Rancilio Silvia espresso machine a PID on the front face of the unit that you can use to precisely control the boiler temperature.

It’s expensive, but it does, at least, take the guesswork out of the equation and makes the machine easier to use.

Telescoping Coffee Spigot

As a semi-automatic, the Rancilio Silvia does not have coffee spouts that move up and down.  Located on the underside of the portafilter, they are fixed in their position. 

Note: You get two portafilters when you purchase the machine, along with water hardness testing strips, a plastic tamper and a black rubber plug for your single shot portafilter, which takes the place of a traditional backflush disc (we’ll talk more about backflushing in the section on maintenance).

Pro Tip:  We were a bit disappointed with the plastic tamper.  You’ll almost certainly want to replace this with a better, higher quality one – given how well-made the machine itself is, we were surprised that they skimped here.

The Brew Unit and Control System

We’ve mentioned this before, but it bears repeating here:  This is an old-school machine.  Crafted of stainless steel inside and out, it was designed with the die-hard Do-It-Yourselfer in mind. 

All of the components are of exceptional quality, and the machine was designed so that anything that fails can easily be swapped out for a new part.  Because of that, with proper care and maintenance, this machine could last you decades.

The front face of the Rancilio Silvia coffee maker really puts its old-school design on display.  Unless you’ve outfitted the machine with the PID retrofit, there are no complicated electronics to be found here.  You’ve simply got knobs, levers, switches, and two indicator lights that tell you whether the power’s on, and the state of the boiler.  That’s it.  That’s all there is to it.

Having said that though, we can’t emphasize enough the fact that this model is not for the faint of heart.

While the controls themselves are fairly simple and easy to master, actually pulling a decent shot with this model takes practice, because you’ve got to “temperature surf.” 

Without the PID retrofit, the Rancilio Silvia has no brew thermostat, so you don’t have a good way to tell what temperature your shot will be when it hits your cup.  The only way around that is to simply practice with it until you get to know the equipment.

An image of Rancilio Silvia's control knobs, levers, switches and indicator lights

Sadly, the manual isn’t much help in this regard.  It’s fairly short, and technically dense, filled with schematics, and basic instructions on the initial setup of the machine.

Once you run through the setup, you’ll have mastered the controls, but it will probably take you at least half a dozen drinks before you get a good feel for how to pull what is the ideal shot for you.

An image of the milk steaming wand of Rancilio Silvia

The Milk Frothing System

In our view, this is the best feature of the Silvia Rancilio.  The steam wand is amazing, although, again, an advisory to people who are new to the world of specialty coffee – steam wands take time and practice to use well, and this one is incredibly powerful.  If you’re not careful, you could easily overheat your milk!

New users tend to prefer an auto-frother, but if you’ve got your heart set on this model, then don’t let the steam wand intimidate you.  It’s true that your first few drinks won’t turn out quite as well as you’d hoped, but if you keep at it, you’ll have it mastered in no time, and can make some real coffee magic!

In effect, the milk steaming function suffers from the opposite problem you see when you pull a shot.  Your biggest danger is in overheating the milk, whereas when you’re making an espresso, you run the risk of waiting too long and letting the boiler temp drop too low.  Again, the word of the day with this machine is practice!

Cup Warming Tray

The Rancilio Silvia home espresso machine has a passively heated cup warming tray, and you’ll almost certainly want to make use of it, especially as you’re learning how to properly pull shots with it.

The cup warming tray may not seem like an all that important component, but it makes a bigger difference than you might imagine, and has a significant role to play.  That role is in the area of mitigating heat loss.

If you brew your shot into a cold cup, you’re going to lose a significant amount of heat.  Brewing into a warm cup minimizes the loss.  If you have any doubts about this simple, but effective way of improving the temperature of your drink of choice, try an experiment:

Make two, brewing the first into a cold cup, and the second into one you’ve had on the cup warming tray for a while.  You’ll be amazed!

An image of Rancilio Silvia's passively heated cup warming tray

Notoriously Tricky to Use, Fairly Easy to Clean

We’ve already talked at some length about how twitchy the Rancilio Silvia espresso machine is so we won’t rehash that here.  Suffice it to say that this is not the machine you want to start your specialty coffee journey on because it will probably frustrate you to no end!

If you’re going to buy one, you’ll save yourself a lot of frustration by going ahead and spending the money on the PID retrofit.  Even if you do, you’re still looking at a sub-$1k machine, and for the money, you’ll be hard-pressed to find a better value.

Regarding cleaning, it is pretty easy, although that comes with one important caveat.  As a semi-automatic, all the maintenance has to be done manually.  Your primary maintenance tasks will be these:

  • Periodic descaling
  • Keeping the drip tray empty (a task that you’ll have to do more often than you’d care to)
  • Keeping the steam wand clean
  • Backflushing (about once a week)

This last item may require a bit of explanation.  Backflushing is to a semi-auto what cleansing tablets are to super automatics.  Simply put, it’s a way to clean the brew group.

Front view image of Rancilio Silvia with a coffee grinder

Most semi-automatics come with a stainless steel backflushing disc.  The Silvia comes with a rubber gasket that you insert in your single shot portafilter which plugs the hole.  With the gasket in place, this portafilter pulls double duty as your backflushing disc.

From a practical standpoint, it amounts to the same thing, and the process of using it in that capacity is identical.

Rancilio Silvia Versions

Since its release in 1998, there have been five different versions of the Silvia, numbered 1-5.  Of these, it’s almost impossible to find the Model 1 anymore.  Two and three can still be found on Ebay from time to time, and some vendors still carry and sell version 4.

The differences between them are rather slight, amounting to incremental evolutions of design and updated components, rather than radical revolutions.

Rancilio Silvia Warranty

We included this section in our Rancilio Silvia Coffee Machine review because we’ve gotten a few questions about it, and for the sake of completeness, the Silvia has an industry-standard 2-year warranty.

That’s excellent, but honestly, given the durability of the machine, it’ll last decades with proper care!

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Pros & Cons of the Rancilio Silvia Espresso Machine

There’s undeniably a lot to like about the Silvia.  It’s a rugged and robust espresso machine that gives you all the tools you need to make any specialty coffee drink you can imagine, and if you can master it, then you won’t have any difficulty using any other machine on the market.

An image of the Rancilio brand logo for Our Rancilio Silvia Review

It’s one, glaring weakness, in our view, is ease of use.  In this, we include the whole “temperature surfing” phenomenon, although in fairness, that part of the machine’s operation is mitigated by the addition of the PID.

It’s also worth mentioning that for a machine with a 64-ounce reservoir, it’s got a positively tiny drip tray, and you’ll find yourself having to empty it far more than you’d like.  That’s certainly not a deal breaker, but it is an annoyance.

In our ideal world then, those are the two things we’d change if it was up to us.  We’d increase the size of the drip tray, and would make the PID standard on the machine.

Rancilio Silvia Coffee Machine Review Conclusion

And that wraps up our Rancilio Silvia Coffee Machine review.  A solid machine, no matter how you slice it, but in our view, it falls short of true greatness.  If you get the PID retrofit, it would make an ideal addition to a home with 1-2 coffee drinkers, but more than that, and you’ll probably want something different.

It is, nonetheless, a living piece of specialty coffee history, and the people who own them tend to be rabid fans, and incredibly protective and defensive of their favorite brand.

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