Dialing In: A chef tries out the Rancilio Silvia Pro-X: Heartwood Edition
There is always a learning curve with new things- when I first started cooking professionally, I was thrown into a busy East Village restaurant and was forced to figure out how to stay afloat. I drank a lot of coffee then- mostly bad coffee from neighborhood bodegas, and some good coffee from bakeries, and then Zack showed me how to use the espresso machine.
I think it was an old Rancilio Classe, but only one of the sides worked, so during brunch service that little machine got a beating. But Zack showed me how to grind directly into the filter, sweep and level the ground coffee, tamp (my favorite part), turn the handle until it was in place, and press the button. Then the hum and growl of the machine, and espresso slowly emerging out of two little spouts: magic.
That was a long time ago, but now I’m diving back in, and it’s a little bit like riding a bike. Long forgotten muscle memory is kicking back in, and now there’s even more to learn about- bottomless portafilters! Dosing! Automatic shot timers!
I’ve been getting my footing back on a Rancilio Silvia that has been paired with the Baratza Sette 270wi, a burr grinder with integrated Acaia scale that is probably smarter than me.
The process of dialing in the grind took me a bit of time, as I experimented with a finer and finer grind and the amount of coffee in the basket. The Rancilio Silvia is just three buttons, not counting the power switch, and demands just enough attention for pulling a shot. I watched as my 19.5 grams of coffee would turn into 39 grams of espresso in about 10 seconds, (this meant nothing to me at first) and then started adjusting and scaling from there. Setting up the Silvia was fairly quick, and so was pulling- the boiler was able to handle me making about 2 or 3 shots in succession, but then the little indicator light came on and I would have to wait while the boiler caught up.
There is a single boiler on Miss Silvia, which I have found means that when you would like to steam milk for your espresso drink, there are a few decisions to make. The ideal temperature for making espresso is around 195/205F (90/96C), but to steam milk you have to get your boiler up to 212F (100C), so your steam wand can actually steam instead of shooting out hot water. Which to do first? I tend to pull the shot second, as the milk stays hot enough for the 25ish seconds it takes to pull an espresso shot.
The Silvia has been a great introduction- but now that I want to actually master the steam wand and learn how to make that fabled microfoam, the Pro-X and its two boilers would serve me better.
This solves the dilemma of steaming milk and pulling a shot- you just have to remember to hit the steam wand switch and allow it to heat up before you start making your drink.
The ability to manage the temperature of both boilers as well as having a gauge for the pressure while pulling a shot gives an additional amount of control and feedback that long-time users and relative newcomers would both welcome.
The Pro-X is also just a bit taller, which means there’s room under the portafilter to fit a scale and an average coffee mug (though I do love tiny cups).
Additionally, the Pro-X has a variable soft infusion system, which is a fancy way of saying you can hydrate the coffee grounds before brewing, another very fun thing to have in your espresso-brewing arsenal. Infusing the coffee without any water pressure allows for a slightly softer, rounder flavor to come out of the beans, giving another aspect of control over your shot.
Pantechnicon has been able to create a custom Pro-X, the Heartwood Edition, which has a few touches that are both lovely and an upgrade in functionality. The Heartwood maintains the minimalist Rancilio style, with three switches and a steam knob, and is housed in a rich dark walnut, with a matching steam knob accented in brass.
But what I appreciate even more in the Heartwood Edition is the all-in-one drip tray, which is easily removed with ONE HAND. It seems like a small thing, but it turns out to be a very welcome customization (I have spilled a somewhat embarrassing amount of water on the floor recently).
The Pro-X also has an automatic programmable wake up time- which means waking up to a machine that’s ready to go, rather than going into the kitchen, turning it on, and stumbling around until the water is ready. Once you are ready to pull a shot, the digital display actually tells you how hot the water is (or tells you that it needs water because you forgot to refill the reservoir last night). I also like that there is a pressure gauge for the group head, allowing you to see exactly where you are in the brewing process. Having that extra little bit of information helps both newcomers and well-practiced users in getting that perfect shot.
As someone with a lot of time spent in professional kitchens, using the Pro-X Heartwood Edition is like using a great knife- well balanced and functional; where the beauty can be seen and felt in the workmanship. It’s great for those with a lot of experience and also for someone eager to jump into the fray, as the added features make the ritual of brewing espresso at home gratifying and pleasurable. And cleaning the drip tray never felt so good.
About the author:
Jay Guerrero is a chef with 15 years of professional culinary experience. He got his start at Prune restaurant in New York, starting as a prep cook and then eventually as a sous chef under Gabrielle Hamilton for several years. After some time cooking in the Caribbean, Jay returned to his hometown of Seattle to work with Renee Erickson as the Chef de Cuisine at The Boat Street Cafe and Bar Melusine. Most recently he has been teaching and cooking at The Pantry, a community building space and culinary school in Seattle. Jay is always excited to learn about new aspects of food and drink, whether behind a stove or an espresso machine.