Thoroughly cleaning a pump espresso machine
August 28, 2010 12:02 PM   Subscribe

I am borrowing a La Pavoni Europiccola (an Italian pump espresso machine) from someone who is not using it. In fact, it had been sitting in storage for about 5 years with water in the boiler. How can I really thoroughly clean it?

I have flushed the system with diluted vinegar several times (as suggested by the internet), and while I'm sure this is doing something, I'm just not feeling a lot of confidence that it is going to make up for the amount of time this has been sitting. It doesn't appear that I can really take apart the boiler to clean it directly (though I do have permission from the owner to do so if this is possible). Additionally the steam wand produces a pretty odd-smelling steam (at wonderfully high pressure), so I'd like to find some way of cleaning this too (the vinegar didn't seem to make a dent here). There's lots of internet resources on this machine but I haven't found much help with this particular problem.

Any suggestions before I give up and return it to the owner?
posted by advil to Food & Drink (13 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
I recommend Cafiza for the actual cleaning of the machine, it goes into the portafilter and backflushes the entire system. You'll also need to get what's called a "blank" or "blind" portafilter basket; this is used so the water can back up into the system rather than streaming through as it would when normally making espresso.

For the steam wand, I'd put a little of the Cafiza in a cup of water, put the water under the steamwand and "steam" it.

You can probably get all the supplies you need for $20-$25.
posted by allseeingabstract at 12:42 PM on August 28, 2010

If you're interested, I found a guided tear-down and rebuild of what appears to be your machine on YouTube.
posted by biggity at 12:44 PM on August 28, 2010

Do some thorough research before backflushing - I own a Europiccola (in my loft for the last 5 years), and I have a niggling memory that backflushing it might be a very bad idea, although I can't remember exactly why (although I'm sure it's the reason you don't get a blank for the portafilter included in the retail box).
posted by bifter at 1:42 PM on August 28, 2010

For the steam wand, I'd put a little of the Cafiza in a cup of water, put the water under the steamwand and "steam" it.

yep. If there's any milk/whatever residue (you might try unscrewing the tip, there's probably some nastiness in the grooves there) after you've heated/steamed it, gently chisel away at it with a spoon.
posted by mannequito at 3:09 PM on August 28, 2010

Sitting isn't what crusts it up, it's using it with water with a high mineral content that does that. Vinegar is OK but if you go to an espresso machine shop, they should be able to sell you a sachet of chemicals which are more recommended for descaling.

Such a shop would also probably be able to look over the machine for you, but not for free.

I use a Europiccola myself and can only add that the grind of your coffee is probably the most important factor in pulling a good shot. If you don't have a tamper, you should get one.
posted by zadcat at 4:39 PM on August 28, 2010

You should take the steam wand off and soak it in weak vinegar for a few hours, if it's just held on by one bolt like mine is.

You really want to take the group head apart entirely, and clean the piston and other innards individually. There is probably goo behind the screen, but DO NOT back flush it. That technique is for commercial machines only. It's not difficult and it gives you a chance to inspect the gaskets. Unless they are still soft and springy like new, they probably need replacement, which you can do for about $15-30 at They are a fantastic company and they were a big help with my 70s Pavoni.
posted by slow graffiti at 4:48 PM on August 28, 2010

YOU CANNOT BACKFLUSH A MANUAL LEVER MACHINE. There is no three-way solenoid and literally nowhere for a backflush to go. All that will happen is, when you try to press the water through the blank filter, you won't be able to get more than a few drops through, and then the thing will be stuck with dangerous backpressure that you will have to (1) bleed out of the steamwand and (2) wait for the machine to COMPLETELY cool off before you can take the PF off the grouphead. Then you're left with trying to get the Cafiza out manually- by turning the machine upside down since there is no way to drain a manual lever boiler otherwise.

If the machine has been sitting unused for 5 years, it hasn't been collecting scale, so the vinegar thing was pointless (and is the reason why your steam smells funky, I think). The piston needs some food-grade lube (silicon, you can get it any hardware store- use a TINY bit)- otherwise you should try to make espresso/cappo with it and see how it's working.
posted by ethnomethodologist at 8:30 PM on August 28, 2010

Thanks everyone. To be clear, while the machine does need descaling, I was more concerned about whatever might have been growing in the machine for those five years given that it wasn't stored dry, and any residual odors/tastes that might have resulted. The odd-smelling steam was present before flushing it with vinegar; I also tasted a tiny amount of water that went through the system without any coffee in the portafilter (which ideally should just taste like boiled water, right?) and it was...very strange. I'm pretty sure I did this also before ever using any vinegar.

Unfortunately I have so far been unable to remove the group head. It looks like there is some additional non-standard substance (glue of some kind?) holding the group head on to the body of the boiler, and I haven't been able to get it to budge. I'll report back with more details when I make more progress...
posted by advil at 2:59 PM on August 30, 2010

That substance is probably a very old gasket; removal of the group head shouldn't be necessary to clean the water passages, and taking it off will probably require you then replace that gasket. Vinegar will not properly clean the boiler (the internet is very wrong about this) plus it's bad for gaskets; you need a citric acid-based descaling agent like Dezcal or Durgol if you want to remove mineral deposits. I'd give it a proper descaling, then inspect the inside of the boiler with a flashlight to check for remaining calcium, and if it's fairly clean fire it up and flush it out real good (letting it come to temp each time). The steam should kill anything that the descaler doesn't get. If you still have a funky taste then I'd check for metal flakes in the water; sitting for so long could have done some irreversible damage to the boiler walls or heating element.

Ethnomethodologist is correct about the backflushing, but incorrect about scale buildup. Scale buildup occurs when water comes into contact with certain types of metal and the minerals in the water react with them to form (usually) calcium deposits. The machine doesn't have to be on, or hot, or in use, or even within 100 miles of a coffee bean for this reaction to happen, and it will continue to happen as long as the water is present (or equilibrium is reached). That (and freezing) is why it's recommended espresso machines going into long-term storage first have the boiler emptied, and then a descale performed before it's first use.
posted by bizwank at 11:57 PM on August 30, 2010

I was assuming that the machine was empty. Of course I'm not so stupid as to think that a machine WITH WATER IN THE BOILER won't be accumulating scale.
posted by ethnomethodologist at 1:42 PM on August 31, 2010

Well, I'm slowly chipping away at this problem, but I thought I'd post an update since the 1-month auto-mefi-mail prompted me.

I didn't try to remove the group head from the body with force, but I did manage to take it mostly apart despite this (the teardown video was extremely useful for this). slow graffiti was right that there was a fair amount of goo that had accrued behind the screen, and I got most of that out. The gaskets/seals are quite old, but barely holding on, so I haven't gone to the step yet of replacing them, since I'm still not sure how viable this machine is at all. I used some durgol to descale it, and as people suggested, this was indeed much, much more effective than vinegar (future internet searchers take note).

If I do end up replacing the gaskets/seals, I found rebuild kits (for instance, though this one is backordered) that provide everything you would need to replace (since everything probably does need to be replaced). This is slightly complicated by the fact that, though the actual owner tells me they bought it well pre-millenium (in the early-mid 90s), the size of the portafilter appears more consistent with the post-millenium size (51mm), so I'm not sure exactly which parts (if any currently available) would fit. La Pavoni is known for having weird interim models from time to time, so I'm concerned this particular model might be one of those. (I still haven't figured out whether it is an old seal holding the group head to the body, or if it is actually welded, but I did find reference to some unusual older models where the group head was supposedly welded to the boiler.)
posted by advil at 1:47 PM on September 27, 2010

Advil- another reason I recommended OrphanEspresso is that they are well aware of the quirks of Pavoni part sizing/model matching, and they will work with you to get it right. They will generally be able to make a good guess if you give them enough info over email, and if it's wrong, most of the time they'll exchange for the right one with no extra shipping charge (at least they did for me, for something small and light that was inexpensive to begin with)
posted by slow graffiti at 3:13 PM on September 27, 2010

There's a pre-millenium gasket kit available here, but it doesn't include the group screen (which can usually be cleaned). You could also check with for the parts and more information about your machine; they're the master importer/distributer for La Pavoni in the US.
posted by bizwank at 10:18 PM on September 27, 2010

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