What is it?
This is the La Specialista from De’Longhi, a semi-automatic coffee maker that blends traditional pump expresso quality with the features and convenience of a bean-to-cup machine.
Wrapped in stainless steel, this two-cup machine has a built-in burr bean grinder, tamping station, pre-programmed recipes and a semi-automatic milk heater/frother. The hot water outlet is located next to the coffee spout which means Americanos can be made without the need to move the cup for hot water, too.
The key features, De’Longhi says, are within the machine’s range of customisable controls. For example, the bean grinder has six finesse settings, while the level of ground coffee being fed through to the filter can be increased/decreased via a rotary dial. As with many bean-to-cup machines, the La Specialista has one-touch controls for espresso, Americano or long coffee. There is also auto-rinse and clean functions and an automatic process for descaling when you add De’Longhi's purpose-made solution.
What’s it like?
Large and a little daunting, at first. The La Specialista sits 457mm high and nearly 400mm wide, which means it takes up a large amount of space in the kitchen - and that’s before you’ve factored in the extra height needed to refill the bean hopper and water container. The machine is supplied with a vague set of instructions, which provides a steep learning curve.
Thankfully De’Longhi has created a series of useful YouTube how-to instruction videos that outline the machine’s operation and any potential confusion or problems you might experience. Once you know the basic operation then things become surprisingly simple.
The coffee is automatically grounded as you attach the filter you can adjust the level via a rotary dial, although you have to be careful not to overfill the filter otherwise you will have to remove the excess ground coffee - a messy job.
Being a pump machine, you have to tamper (compact) the coffee grounds to ensure the water soaks up all of the flavours. Tamping is usually an area where novices struggle, but the La Specialista has its own smart tamping station. To operate, simply pull the lever (at the side of the machine) and the coffee grounds are automatically tamped without any mess or hassle.
The machine has two filter cases included - for single or double strength express - and a single pull of the lever is all that’s required to deliver the correct tamping pressure at a 90-degree angle for both versions.
The filter then slots beneath the boiler outlet, where the user selects the pre-programmed drink and hits the ‘ok’ button to start the brewing process. Using the milk system is easy too, with two settings for hot or frothy milk. To select the milk type, you simply chose flat or foam on the steam wand and then insert it into the supplied milk jug. After 10 seconds the steam will flow and then automatically shut off when the process is complete. A quick blast of steam removes any milk residue within the nozzle.
In addition to coffee, the machine has a hot water button for tea or rinsing the machine and/or filter. Cups at the top of the machine are automatically warmed up or you can rinse them with hot water prior to making coffee.
During our product test, it took 20 seconds to make expresso and around a minute for Americano. If you decide to use the milk system then you’ll spend a couple of minutes making a latte or cappuccino. The milk system has to be cleaned before the machine is switched off, but this is easy to do with by turning the metal nizzle clockwise. A second rubber nozzle also has to be removed and washed.
Cleaning the spent coffee grounds out of the filter is difficult if you do not have the optional metal ‘Knock Box’. This is because the individual filter tends to fall out of the housing if you hit it hard against the side of a bin. As a result, you will have to spend an extra £28 on the De’Longhi Knock box or £10 for an unbranded version.
Refilling the 2.0-litre water tank can be a little awkward, due to it being at the rear of the machine. To get access to it, you must drag the machine over your kitchen counter and unplug - this can be quite difficult as the machine is fairly heavy and bulky. If you live in a hard water area then you’ll also need to buy the optional filter (which fits within the tank). De’Longhi recommends using their branded descaler only, which costs roughly £10.
Should I buy one?
We really like the La Specialista. It looks great, produces high quilty drinks and is really easy to use. It has a huge level of customisation, which makes it easy to really explore the science behind brewing the perfect espresso. Obviously, finding that perfect cup requires a lot of trial and error, but coffee aficionados will enjoy tinkering away with the settings and making drinks that match their personal preferences when it comes to taste and strength.
The tamping system saves lots of time and eliminates one of the problem areas for people who are new to the hands-on process of brewing coffee, while the semi-automatic milk system makes silky smooth lattes and frothy cappuccinos. It could be argued that you can forgo some of the smart features and ease of use by opting for a cheaper machine, like the Breville Barista Express, but we think the La Specialista does more than enough to justify its premium price of £720.