on 29 September 2012
We have owned this coffee maker now for nearly a year. I'm pleased to say that I am actually more pleased with it now than when it first emerged all shiny and new from its box. It certainly looked stylish then, as it still does, and we had our first cups of coffee before much time had passed - and very good it was too.
Now I have had time to experience using the Icona I can report that those who say making a good cup of coffee is an art-form certainly speak truly. What the Icona does is make it possible for anyone to produce delicious coffee, with a little practice.
The machine is simple to use, with just three buttons - on/off, pump and steam. The steam volume is controlled by a nicely-placed round knob on the top. The water goes in a clear plastic reservoir at the rear, which can be removed if necessary, but is filled in place via a hinged lid. The portafilter is a reassuringly well-made heavy duty item and comes with two removable coffee filters - for one or two cups. They are fitted out to take those coffee pods used by people who value convenience over quality.
Here I must digress to point out that coffee made from a pod is not real espresso and limits the range of coffee brands and types that can be used. The Icona is an expresso machine, which means that boiling water is forced under pressure through ground coffee that has been pressed (espresso = 'pressed out' coffee).
And this is where the first bit of the art-form comes in - and it took me a while to realise it as I was so pleased with the coffee that I was making in the first weeks of using the machine. The instructions tell you to tamp the coffee, and there is a handy plastic tamper built-in. However, this is not up to doing the job properly and has one major drawback. Any coffee that sticks onto the built-in tamper - and some always does - gets shaken off when the pump is run and falls into the nearest cup and the kitchen work surface.
So, whatever machine you use please invest in a good quality hand held tamper made out of heavy steel. I bought one made by the Italian firm of Motta - available on Amazon and elsewhere. It has a beautiful ergonomic wooden handle and a precision machine polished tamping face. Most important, it measures exactly 52mm so fits the Icona basket perfectly. Using a decent tamper ensures that the coffee is pressed evenly and firmly into a cake with a smooth even surface. This means the pressurised water flows evenly through the coffee. Improper tamping leaves weak spots so the water rushes through, failing to draw the full flavour out of the coffee, resulting in a weak or even a bitter brew with a less than full 'crema' or head.
The next bit of the art-form is to use only coffee that is specifically ground for espresso. It is finer than coffee intended for filter machines and will usually be a blend that contains a high proportion of Arabica beans, which is the variety of coffee that gives the best crema.
The Icona can produce strong black espresso very reliably, time after time, but only in the smaller cups that are traditionally used for espresso. The space below the portafilter is not tall enough to take anything bigger. As the machine can be used to make cappuccino or latte coffee too, a certain amount of careful choice is needed in selecting the best cups. If you like a large mug, as seen in Starbucks, then you will have to make black espresso in a small cup (or two) and transfer it into your mug.
More artistry - warm the cups (or mugs) and the empty portafilter first. The Icona boasts a space on top where two cups can be placed to warm, but you would have to wait for about twenty minutes to see that happen, and if you are anything like me, that is far too long to wait for one's coffee. The Icona boils in little over a minute, so if you switch it on whilst getting the milk, sugar, cups, biscotti, etc. it is ready before you are. Getting the steam going takes around the same length of time, or perhaps a bit less.
Making a cappuchio is the final bit of the art-form that I am trying to master. You need to have a 'proper' milk frothing jug made out of stainless steel. You need a clip on thermometer so you know when the milk has reached exactly the right temperature - 70C. Too hot and it tastes boiled, too cold and it kills the coffee flavour. the steam wand on the Icona is pretty good. It sends out a well-distibuted blast of steady steam, and is easily removable for cleaning. The trick is to get the milk swirling as it heats and forms small bubbles. You don't want big bubbles. There are plenty of barista types on YouTube who demonstrate this skill - but emulating them takes a lot of practice. How do they make those patterns and pictures in poured milk?
For the money, the Icona is a great machine, capable of producing excellent espresso, cappuccino or latte coffee. It looks good, comes in a choice of colours and although fairly lightly made, seems robust enough to stand up to daily use. It does vibrate when the pump is on, as would be expected, but being a small machine there is nothing to dampen the vibrations. As a result, the water container lid can rattle, but a strategically-placed bit of cardboard will solve the problem - if you could call it that. For me, it is not an issue.
After about seven months use the Icona suddenly started to drip water from the portafilter holder head - copiously. I feared the worst and contacted DeLonghi customer service via email. I got a helpful reply that advised me to descale the machine, see if that cured the dripping, and if not, to get back to them. We live in a hard water area and regularly have to descale the kettle, so the Icona had received similar attention a few times - but obviously not frequently enough, or perhaps thoroughly enough. We gave it a very careful descaling and that did the trick - lesson learned. We now use cheap supermarket bottled water and descale once a month to be on the safe side. The portafilter head should also be cleaned by wiping round daily after use so as to remove any loose grounds.
So, to summarise: the Icona is a good-looking value-for-money coffee machine that will make excellent coffee if you learn the art-form and treat the machine with a little attention and consideration for its wellbeing.
It's great that folk have taken the trouble to post comments on this review - thanks to you all. I thought it might be timely to write an update. I'm surprised how nearly three years have passed so quickly. Nearly every day which has dawned during that time has been celebrated with a welcome cup of coffee from this super little machine.
I'm pleased to say that the Icona has never faltered. It just keeps on working, day in, day out. The only maintenance it needs is a wipe over, empty the drip tray, and a de-scale every now and then.
We have had some adventures though. I forgot to fill the water reservoir once and the Icona soon let me know by rattling and shaking as it pumped air. Scary. I keep the reservoir fully topped up each morning now, and find it damps the slight normal vibration of the pump down from an acceptable level to what I call busily soothing and full of promise.
Then another time I had a batch of espresso coffee from a very well known retailer and it was a little too finely ground - at least that is the theory I came up with. The dry coffee was tamped as usual but must have compacted too much to allow the water to easily flow through. The result was that the filter holder started to slowly undo itself. I could see the handle moving to the left and hot water beginning to escape from around the filter. OK, there are only three buttons on the machine, but in a panic could I remember which one was the 'Off' button? Could I heck. The situation was rescued without mishap after the old brain kicked in and told the hand to push the right button. (And don't worry, my day job is not airline pilot.) Actually, it's better to have the filter holder move and release pressure than it would be for a water pipe to blow inside the machine.
Has anyone tried experimenting with alternatives to frothy milk? I'm thinking there are a lot of lactose intolerant people who nevertheless would like a cappuccino. Incidentally, why does cappuccino sound so much more inviting than frothy milk topped coffee? Also, incidentally, my good friend Wikipedia tells me that cappuccino was named after the colour of the white habits worn by Capuchin friars. I've tried frothing almond 'milk', soya 'milk' and rice 'milk' but have not tried hemp, cashew, coconut, goat, sheep or buffalo. Sorry to say, but cow's milk, semi-skimmed and cold from the fridge makes the best froth so far. What say you?
Talking of Italian words, would the beautiful Maserati Quattroporte sound quite so exotic in English as the Maserati Four-door? However, my car may be a more mundanely-named 'people's car' and conveys me happily round rural Herefordshire, but my coffee maker daily transports me to the shores of the Amalfi coast. One can but dream.
And on that note, I think it is time for a cup of coffee.