DeLonghi La Specialista Hybrid Espresso Machine. Calling The Commited & Creatures Of Habit

As recently as last year, I predicted that hybrid machines — a portafilter and super-automatic espresso machine rolled into — one would be the next big thing. And now I can pat myself on the back for being right.

As recently as last year, I predicted that hybrid machines — a portafilter and super-automatic espresso machine rolled into — one would be the next big thing. And now I can pat myself on the back for being right.

Gastroback, a brand available exclusively in Europe, was the first to bring out a hybrid. But Breville soon got in on the act with the Oracle Touch and quickly became the new gold standard in crossover machines.

DeLonghi didn’t dragging its feet either and showcased its own hybrid dubbed La Specialista at the 2018 Berlin Consumer Electronics Show (IFA). Back then there were still a few kinks that needed working out and development work on demo model was clearly still short of the finish line. As a result, the poor promoter wasn’t able to show me how the coffee comes out of the machine.

Don't Expect Hand-Holding

DeLonghi La Specialista

Wakes you up to the art of good espresso — but makes you work for it.

High-quality, super-automatic and espresso-machine combo

Intuitive setting options and functions

Fuss-free, fantastic milk froth

Easy cleaning and operation

Very quiet

A lot of work to fine-tune settings

La Specialista hit the shelves in May 2019 and currently goes for about $800 on Amazon — waaay less than the Breville Oracle Touch’s asking price of $2,500.

DeLonghi asked us if we would like to review the La Specialista and provided us with a machine to do so. Nice, yes, but not a good enough reason for us to compromise our principles. It’s still no-holds-barred testing and absolute honesty about the results all the way. Basically, we are not for sale.

Bottom line? DeLonghi can breathe a sigh of relief. Here at Coffeeness, we think that La Specialista is a successful machine that produces bonafide espresso and outstanding milk froth.

As usual, there’s a “but.” You need to be a bit more clued up — or at least willing to learn — about the various factors that make or break espresso. On a sliding scale, La Specialista consequently sits a lot closer to a portafilter than a super-automatic espresso machine.

In other words, a total blast if you’re up for it or a bit of a pain in the butt if you’re always trying out new beans.

Which is why, I’m betting that La Specialista will win more fans among the creatures of habit, who prefer a specific espresso bean or roast than those who are always changing it up.

Espresso in a glass with a Coffeeness button

As for the prosumers, they’ll probably feel DeLonghi has skipped over some of the subtleties. Exactly what those are is coming right up.

The DeLonghi La Specialista Espresso Machine at a Glance: Functions, Pros and Cons

With its stainless steel bezel surrounding a black control panel that features retro-modern knobs and a traditional pressure gauge as the centerpiece, La Specialista is quite the looker.

The control panel on the DeLonghi La Specialista hybrid espresso machine

It oozes quality, especially as its sturdy 43.6 pounds weight and largeish footprint ensures it sits solidly on any surface.

As with all hybrids, the machine is divided into two work stations. The left is dedicated to grinding beans, compacting and dosing, while the right is where you’ll find the brew head, (automatic) milk wand and the hot water outlet.

With a click, the the 8.8-ounce bean hopper slots into and out of position above the stainless steel grinder. Which means  you can easily access the grinder and give it a thorough clean or ensure all residues are removed when changing beans.

The DeLonghi La Specialista espresso machine's bean hopper

When the hopper runs low, a symbol will light up on the black control panel indicating that there are insufficient beans for the next shot. On the hopper itself, you’ll find the six grind levels, which can be adjusted via a large slider during operation.

Grinder settings on the DeLonghi La Specialista espresso machine's bean hopper

Right from the outset, I was leery of the play on this slider and its less than convincing quality. Spoiler alert: It’s all good. There are no issues with setting grind levels. In fact, the grinder works a charm and when set to level 1 produces an awesome, espresso-quality grind.

Next stop for the fresh grounds is the “smart tamping station.” The portafilter docks securely into into place with a click. Unlike on the Breville, the grounds are not automatically compacted. You have pull a lever on the left side of the machine. This is something, I’ll get back to in a bit.

Compared to the Breville Oracle Touch’s colorful display with its clear functionality, the control panel on the DeLonghi La Specialista is a far more minimalist affair:

  • Rotary dials for setting coffee volumes and specialties
  • Buttons for a double dose of grounds, rinsing, initiating brewing, hot water and customized profiles

The profiles and coffee drinks are basically nothing more than different settings for the water volumes or for the brew-water-espresso ratios.

When crafting your espresso, you can choose the volume from a range starting with the traditional scant 1 ounce to 3. The machine is preset to 1.2 ounces. For coffee, more water (between 1.7 and 4 fluid ounces) are shot through the coffee puck. If you want an Americano, the machine first brews an espresso and then adds hot water. Since the hot water spout is located directly alongside the brew group, you don’t have to get involved in this process.

While this creates the impression that it doesn’t have the same range of functions as the Breville, the DeLonghi La Specialista simply doesn’t dance around the point of a hybrid machine: And that’s producing a specific type of coffee and then preparing milk froth automatically or with your help. Using the basic beverage options, you can then go on to create just about any coffee specialty anyway.

While Breville holds your hand through the process, DeLonghi simply expects you to roll up your sleeves and get on with it. With pride of place in the middle of the control panel, the pressure gauge, which is so typical of professional portafilter machines, is literally the centerpiece for this approach.

From what I can tell, the group of users most interested in hybrid machines is likely to regard this a stylish boondoggle. After all, La Specialista branding and marketing is all about trumpeting how the machine handles all the important stuff — pressure, consistent dosing, temperature, etc. — automatically.

The pressure gauge on the DeLonghi La Specialista espresso machine

Only the gauge isn’t just a decorative crest, it’s a valuable tool for new home baristas to get a feel for the interaction between grind consistency and coffee dosage. But more on that later.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m all in favor of DIY coffee making and therefore also of pared-down machines with no more than the essentials. But I suspect that at the end of the day, this is an absolute entry-level portafilter machine with a grinder bolted on so that DeLonghi could jump on the hybrid bandwagon.

All of which doesn’t exactly add up to a watertight sales argument like Breville has. The Oracle Touch is a patient teacher that gradually encourages users to make the transition away from automatic features to exploring and taking control.

Instead, DeLonghi throws you in the deep end from the beginning and expects you to swim — or in this case know how to dial in a coffee grinder and espresso machine, as well as what tricks and tweaks will produce the perfect cup.

A glass of espresso stands on a table covered with a coffee sack

Considering that you’re paying significantly less than for the Breville, many will of course be more willing to open their wallets. Unsurprisingly, there’s a lot less in the box. Here’s what you get:

  • Portafilter with single and double basket
  • Stainless steel milk pitcher (very, very handy!)
  • Descaling agent
  • Strips to test water hardness
  • Cleaning brush

No (stable) knock box for banging out the used coffee pucks feels like a real oversight to me. I would also have liked to see a blind portafilter basket because this makes deep cleaning the brew group a whole lot easier.

Since the user manual that came with my machine for review was still a preliminary/demo version, I can’t say for sure if the final retail version contains all the ins and outs you need. But once you know a few basics — and I’m guessing DeLonghi takes those for granted — you hardly need a manual at all.

CategoryEntry
ManufacturerDeLonghi
NameDeLonghi La Specialista
TypePortafilter machine with built-in burr grinder
(semi-automatic espresso machine)
GrinderStainless steel
Preset drinksCoffee, espresso, Americano
Personalized beverage profileOnly for water volume
Water tank capacity84.5 fl oz
Removable water tankYes
Bean hopper capacity8.8 oz
Control panelButtons, display
Programmable coffeesYes
Pre-infusion functionYes
Water filterNo
Automated milk frothingYes
Hot water functionYes
CasingStainless steel
Max. pump pressure
19 bar
Weight in kg29.7 lbs
Dimensions (l x w x h)14 x 15 x 17.5 in
Price$799.95 (December 2020)

Dialling In and Preparation

As soon as you plug in the machine and turn on the main switch, the symbols on La Specialista’s black panel come to life. These self-explanatory icons remind you, for instance, not to forget to tamp or that the bean hopper is almost empty.

The DeLonghi La Specialista with its milk jug, portafilter handle and cleaning equipment

The water tank is a very capacious 84.5 fluid ounces. Although it’s located at the back of the machine, lifting it out from the top is easy. After testing out the machine for this review as well as using it to try out various new espresso beans, the tank was not even half empty.

Before you start dialling in your machine, you should first use hot water to rinse all the main moving parts (the bean hopper, portafilter handle and baskets , etc.).

The bean hopper attached to the grinder on top of the DeLonghi La Specialista

To flush the outlets use the button with the water droplets icon to the left of the OK. Or you can just hit OK, as if pulling a shot. It’s also a good idea to rinse the hot water outlet by pressing the tea cup button.

And don’t forget to give the huge knob on the right side of the machine a quick turn to blast the milk wand with steam.

Advantages

  • High-quality, super-automatic and espresso-machine combo
  • Intuitive setting options and functions
  • Fuss-free, fantastic milk froth
  • Easy cleaning and operation
  • Very quiet

Disadvantages

  • A lot of work to fine-tune settings

Espresso from La Specialista

It was a serious scorcher on the day I did the testing. So that’s my excuse for taking so long to figure out how to set the grind dosage. Basically, the dial on the left is divided into two key areas. Grind dosage, starts on the right and takes up the lion’s share of the circumference, then comes an icon for tamping without grinding.

For starters, I set the dial to the finest consistency and was baffled when the grinder didn’t kick into action. Major facepalm. The portafilter isn’t a problem here. It’s easy to insert and locked cleanly into place on the first attempt.

After having my little aha-moment, I set the grind dosage very low. A peak in the portafilter basket revealed that it looked pretty empty. I could still see the ridges inside the basket. According to my draft instruction manual, that’s not enough, but I went ahead and brewed the espresso anyway.

Unsurprisingly, the pale, thin crema melted away faster than snow in the Bahamas. Bit by bit, I increased the dosage until I hit pay dirt about a third of the way along the scale.

I set the grinder to the finest level right from the outset. Since the result was a fine, even grind, there was no need to change it again. By the way, I used seriously dark, oily beans from a Swiss roaster that really aren’t good for anything aside from dialing in your machine.

To be honest, the weird system for setting dosages on the La Specialista was getting on my nerves. The scale doesn’t have enough graduations and the dial is too clunky to really let you get a feel for how much coffee lands up in your portafilter.

Eventually, I got fed up and hauled out my coffee scale. My aim was to get me closer to the optimal 7 grams (about a quarter of an ounce, but ounces like the DeLonghi aren’t exact enough here) of coffee grounds and try to get a handle on the thinking behind the machine. Why does the dosage scale go up so high? After all, there’s a separate button for double shots. Still beats me.

To give DeLonghi credit, the ideal dosage for my dark beans was actually 7 grams. So hooray for that!

Espresso pouring out of the DeLonghi La Specialista espresso machine and into a glass

Right from the begining, I was looking forward to the one-armed bandit tamper. Yes, I’m a child at heart and not ashamed of it. The way it works is that a bunch of springs and mechanisms ensure that the built-in tamper exerts just the right amount of pressure to compact the grounds into a clean, evenly formed puck.

Once again, I was initially a bit disappointed. I gamely gave the lever a short pull, only to find that the grounds were compressed but the surface wasn’t flat enough. Pulling the lever a second time made the puck too hard.

Finding the sweet spot in terms of lever action and holding time is going to take some practice. I’ll definitely suggest that DeLonghi includes some tips on this in the manual rather than claiming that the lever does EVERYTHING perfectly on its own. Which just isn’t true.

As far as it’s no-mess promises go, DeLonghi delivers. When used properly, the smart tamping station works spotlessly. I’ve got coffee particles here, there and everywhere (see the pic below) because I kept taking the portafilter out of dock before tamping to check the dosage.

One aspect of the DeLonghi La Specialista that’s worth making a noise about is its volume. Because it won’t drown you out. Both the grinder and brewing systems are unbelievably quiet. You’re still aware of them but even when running the thing all day long, I wasn’t even a tiny bit worried about the neighbors compaining.

Once you’re over grinding hurdle, all you have to do is select your beverage on the rotary dial on the right of ther control panel, dock the portafilter below the brew head and hit OK.

Out came the espresso. At the right temperature and in an appropriate volume. Check and check. Admittedly, I ultimately reduced the volume back down to the minimum of 0.8 fluid ounces. In fact, the espresso was even pretty good with the machine left on its factory settings. After a warm-up shots of course.

Which is not to say that it tasted good. Blame the beans for that. Talking about our stubborn preferences, it’s time I explained this article’s title.

The way I see it, La Specialista is a model for creatures of habit who have their favorite roast or beans and can’t imagine drinking anything else. Because the moment you switch from a dark to a light roast or vice versa, you have to staring finicking and finagling all over again.

Above all, moving from a dark to a roast light makes it painfully clear that the finest grind setting and dark bean dosage is just all wrong. There’s just too much coffee in the basket. How can you tell? The portafilter won’t fit under the brew head anymore.

A cup of espresso under the spout of the DeLonghi La Specialista espresso machine.

So it’s back to tweak, test and repeat – especially the dosage. Since getting a handle on the dial is so difficult both literally and figuratively, it’s a real pain the butt. By this time, I’d had enough. So I grabbed the Baratza Sette 270W grinder and set the dial to tamp only.

Sure, not everyone likes three different kinds of beans on any given day. But some do like a change. By the same token, users get into a groove with their machines over time so that they know exactly what to do to get the desired result. But if you’re the impatient type, La Specialista is definitely not for you.

To finish up, I also did the Ikea glass test. This involes trying to get the standard latte macchiato glass under the spout. In this case, it’s a total fail. You can’t even stand it on the draining rack. But since you have to assemble a latte macchiato from its constituent parts anyway, it doesn’t actually matter.

Milk Froth: A Perfect 10

No ifs or buts, I give the DeLonghi hybrid a perfect 10 for its milk froth. The automatic steam wand puts in a faultless performance. does everything right. I only partially filled the pitcher with soy milk because I forgot to buy moo juice for the review.

Luckily, I could save myself the trouble. Once you’ve put the wand into the milk and turned the big dial on the right side of the machine, you can sit back and relax. The machine works in a controlled way to quietly whip up microfoam with a lovely, even consistency.

A milky coffee next to the DeLonghi La Specialista espresso machine's steam wand and pitcher.

To alter the texture, simply cut the steam at any point in the process. For your and science’s sake, I did the “extreme test” — letting the thing just run until the froth reached the lip of the pitcher.

Despite the soy milk handicap and a totally excessive increase in volume, the froth was exactly the right temperature, delectably creamy and incredibly dense.

Thanks to the machine’s twin, independent thermoblocks, there’s no waiting around before the machine is ready to produce steam. In fact, you can theoretically even prepare your milk at the same time as the espresso is brewing. The only reason not to is that then there’s a shortage of space on the drip tray where the pitcher is best positioned.

Don’t forget to wipe the milk wand immediately after removing it from the pitcher and turn the dial to flush so any residues inside the wand are purged.

What more can I add? Well, there is the option to set the wand to just heat the milk. But here I came up against my old nemesis: Once again the ring slider around the wand doesm’t lock properly into the setting or just has too much play on it.

Cleaning — Child's Play

Like all hybrids, the DeLonghi is relatively easy to keep spick and span because the coffee grounds never mix with water in the machine’s innards. The upshot is that mold isn’t a concern.

Wet coffee only collects at the brew group shower screen, so that’s the only place where you want to stop the biology experiment before it starts. And that’s easy enough. Just rinse regularly by pressing the water droplet button.

The tube brush that comes in the box is long and flexible enough to scour the shower screen from below and can be inserted into the grinder channels to loosen coffee residues. Just remember to always work on the dry areas first and wet ones afterwards. Otherwise you could introduce moisture into the grinding station. And no good will come of that.

To finish up cleaning the grinder unit, I grabbed the vacuum cleaner. By applying suction from the top, you can get rid of the debris without the fiddly job of removing the burr. Although it has a grip, I wasn’t keen to risk my fingers on trying to maneuver it out without the appropriate instructions. So I left it alone.

The clean-up after reviewing the DeLonghi La Specialista espresso machine

Where there’s grip, there’s a removable part. Once the manual is finalized, it should provide more details.

All moving parts — from the portafilter, through the water tank, to the bean hopper and drip tray — can be easily removed and cleaned by hand. Yes, by hand. Symbols on all of the plastic parts make it abundantly clear that the dishwasher is a no-go zone.

I don’t think the dishwasher is necessary anyway. With a little bit of old-fashioned elbow grease, you’ll get the machine sparkling from top to bottom.

Verdict: A Solid Hybrid Machine

When compared directly with the Breville Oracle Touch, the DeLonghi La Specialista is much less in your face. While the Breville plays the grade school teacher, watching over your shoulder every step of the way, La Specialista is just there to oversee your final thesis. It’ll check in on you now and then but basically you’re on your own.

Don't Expect Hand-Holding

DeLonghi La Specialista

Wakes you up to the art of good espresso — but makes you work for it.

High-quality, super-automatic and espresso-machine combo

Intuitive setting options and functions

Fuss-free, fantastic milk froth

Easy cleaning and operation

Very quiet

A lot of work to fine-tune settings

La Specialista is a much more hands-on machine. Which is another of way of saying it requires espresso savvy and patience. Despite that fact that (in theory), hybrids are directed at more inexperienced home baristas. Pros, on the other hand, would not only be tearing out their hair over how imprecise various settings but also feel cheated out certain subtleties.

If you’re patient and happy to get involved, you’ll get a solid hybrid that practically insists you get to grips with the nitty-gritty of coffee. All for a very reasonable price tag.

This no-frills espresso machine does what it’s supposed to — make coffee — and does it well. You can’t complain about the drinks themselves. What’s more, the milk froth is truly excellent, cleaning is a breeze and it more than looks the part.

Doing the Ikea latte macchiato glass test on the DeLonghi La Specialista espresso machine.

Just brace yourself for a whole lot more trial and error than with the Breville. Which can be a real blast, as long as you’re not expecting to get the best results with the least amount of effort from the word go.

And because it’s whisper-quiet and basically does everything right, I’ve rated it highly. Do you agree? Are you eyeing La Specialista or perhaps have some burning questions? Fire away in the comments!

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