Review: DeLonghi La Specialista Arte Delivers for At-home Baristas
If you're ready to take the step up from a pod-based espresso machine but don't want to plop down the big bucks for a full superautomatic machine, the DeLonghi La Specialista Arte fills that niche. The La Specialista Arte has an integrated grinder so that you can choose your beans. And you controls everything from bean grind and dosing to tamping pressure and water temperature. In short, for $699.95, the La Specialista Arte is a very flexible machine that delivers excellent results, whether you're a beginner or an espresso aficionado. However, if you're looking for one-button simplicity, this probably isn't the machine for you.
The La Specialista Arte is a manual espresso machine with an integrated conical burr grinder. The grinder offers eight levels of fineness, and you can control the dosage level from nada to 40. Note: the dial settings do not correspond to specific measurements; it's just a reference you can use to adjust the dosage depending on the roasting level of your beans and your individual tastes. In practice, somewhere between 15 and 20 always worked best for the variety of medium to medium-dark roast beans I used in my testing, and I can't imagine needing to go much higher or lower than that.
If you're coming from the pod-based world, you may find the process of getting the right bean dose to be a bit frustrating. But it's hard to go too wrong if you follow the included dosage guide – you may just need a little trial and error to get it perfect. And once you're dialed in, there is no need to adjust the settings unless you're switching out the type of beans you buy.
Where the La Specialista Arte differs from other espresso machines with integrated grinders (including DeLonghi's) is its "barista kit" that includes a dosing funnel, tamper, and a mat to hold the filter while you're tamping. Created for the average home user, I found that the dosing funnel helps reduce the mess from the grinds, making cleanup easier. The tamping mat took up additional room on my counter, and I ended up storing it on top of the machine. The La Specialista Arte includes both single and double-shot filters. They're a pain in the butt to switch out without breaking a nail (a butter knife helps), though you're likely to be using the double shot filter more than 99 percent of the time, so it's not a huge deal.
Also important is that, unlike some prior La Specialista models, the Arte uses a standard (not pressurized) portafilter. Whether this is a drawback or a benefit depends on how you weigh foolproofness versus flavor. Pressurized portafilters are more forgiving if you don't have the ideal grind or tamping pressure for your beans, but do so at the expense of flavor extraction. For a machine like the Arte, I believe flavor should be the prime consideration, so going with the standard portafilter was the right choice by DeLonghi. The Breville Barista Express comes with both pressurized and non-pressurized filters, giving users the option.
One thing the Arte is missing is a bean sensor to stop the grinding when the beans run out and allow you to add more beans before finishing dispensing. While not a common occurrence, it's frustrating to have to toss a partially run dose or try to guess how much coffee is in the filter because you don't know how far the machine got before hitting empty.
The La Specialista Arte provides water temperature and quantity customization, as well. Each drink quantity – espresso (single/double), Americano (single/double), hot water – can be set separately across a wide range of volumes. Most people will probably stick with the default 70ml for a double expresso. For those who like big coffees, the Americano defaults at 8 ounces but can be set to as much as 14 ounces. Unfortunately, the clearance for the coffee dispenser is only high enough for a standard 12oz coffee mug; taller mugs or to-go cups can only be accommodated by removing the drip tray. Water temperature offers three settings: 197.6F/92C, 201.2F/94C, and 204.8F/96C. In my testing, the machine heated up in under 20 seconds – it was ready to go before I finished grinding and tamping my beans. The La Specialista Arte will pre-infuse the grinds to ensure more even extraction, and the overall process to dispense a double espresso is around 30 seconds.
A pressure gauge shows whether your grinding and tamping efforts have been a success and you're extracting your espresso at the "optimal" pressure (which should be around 9bar at the grinds). There is no option to customize the machine pressure (rated at 15bar at the pump); this won't be a concern for most home brewers, and issues with improper pressure are usually a matter of adjusting your grind fineness, tamping, or quantity.
The La Specialista Arte has an integrated steam arm that swings out for use and out of the way when not in use. The Arte uses the same boiler to produce both espresso and steam, so there is about a 10-second delay between when your drink is done, and the frother has enough pressure to begin steaming your milk. The frother is a standard all-metal design (none of the plastic bits of other machines) and works well for producing microfoam for your cappuccinos, though I wish it provided a little more clearance for your frothing pitcher from the machine. When swung back, the frother can be purged directly into the drip tray for cleaning. The La Specialista Arte includes a stainless-steel frothing pitcher in the box, and I use this frothing thermometer to keep an eye on my milk temp to avoid scalding.
Ease of ownership
Beyond occasional descaling (as you would with any espresso machine), the La Specialista Arte requires little maintenance. The drip trays slide out for cleaning and can go in the top rack of the dishwasher. All other parts, such as the filters, can simply be rinsed off in the sink after use or wiped down with a damp cloth (I love keeping one of these inexpensive microfiber cloths next to the machine for a quick wipe down of the wand after use).
The Arte looks attractive sitting on your kitchen counter. The stainless-steel exterior and quality buttons look and feel expensive. It also doesn't take up a lot of space at 11.22"(w) x 14.37"(d) x 15.87"(h) – something really important in my undersized NYC kitchen.
The integrated water tank holds 56oz and lasted me quite a while before needing to be refilled.
Should you buy it
There are a variety of espresso machine options that cater to a wide range of consumer desires for convenience, quality, and price. The pod-based models from Nespresso and others are at the convenience end of the spectrum. I've used a Nespresso Lattissima Pro for years (read my full review here), and you just can't beat its simplicity for dishing out quick espressos and cappuccinos. But that convenience comes at the price of…well…price, as those pods cost anywhere from $.50 - $1.00 a pop, and I go through two of them per drink. And while pod-based drinks deliver pretty good flavor (arguably as good or better than most chain coffee shops), they just don't compare to the richness of "real" espresso.
Superautomatic espresso machines, like the DeLonghi Eletta, will do all of the work for you – grinding the beans, tamping, and even foaming the milk for your cappuccino (the Eletta uses the same frothing system as the Nespresso Lattissima). But at a whopping $2,200, it's in a very different budget category. However, even there, it may pay for itself over time versus a pod machine just from the savings on beans.
The La Specialista Arte falls in the middle ground for $699.95. You get all the cost and quality benefits of grinding your own fresh beans without the crazy high prices of a full superautomatic. The trade-off is you have to manage some of the bean prep yourself (which is a good thing if you're into the hands-on part of the espresso process), and you're steaming your own milk for cappuccinos and lattes. Though in my testing of the different machine types, I've found that manual milk frothing done right gives a higher quality of microfoam than I get from the auto frothers, with the added bonus of customizing the milk temperature to your liking.
An alternative to the Arte in the DeLonghi line-up is the new DeLonghi Magnifica Evo (ECAM29043SB), which provides automatic bean handling and manual milk frothing. Retailing for $799.95, it's a bit more than the Arte but a better choice for those looking for simpler operation, especially if you occasionally have guests using your espresso machine and don't want to give them basic barista training before use.
[Image credit: Josh Kirschner/Techlicious]