Suzy Creamcheese wrote:
However, we really don't need bells and whistles, and I worry that the more expensive models are more costly due to having more features, not necessarily due to better craftsmanship. So, any recommendations? We'd like to keep it around $100.
Unfortunately, quality=cost (though there certainly are low quality machines with a lot of bells and whistles that drive up the price).
The first reason that good espresso is expensive to make is that you need a very good burr grinder. You can't make really good espresso if you don't have an appropriately fine and even grind. To do this, you'll need a quality burr grinder and that will cost at least $100, but more likely several hundred. It is common for people who want to make good espresso to spend almost as much on the grinder as on the machine.
Then there's the actual espresso machine. High quality entry level ones will be several hundred dollar and they won't have any bells and whistles. Two popular ones are the Rancilo Silvia and the Gaggia Baby.
You might enjoy what you get from a $100 espresso machine and, if that's the case, I'm not telling you to go out and spend a thousand dollars on a good home grinder and machine. To see the difference in what you'd get from a $100 machine and a really good one, get an espresso from a cafe that takes espresso seriously, such as Intelligentsia. Again, I'm not saying that you *should* spend $1000. If you enjoy what you make at home, stay in the $100 range. I'm just saying that these machines produce a product that is quite different from true espresso.
Two good sites to check out are http://www.sweetmarias.com
and coffeegeek.com. The latter also has tons of user reviews of every coffee product imaginable (including reviews of inexpensive machines). A good site to purchase stuff, besides sweetmaria's, is wholelattelove.com.
There are some existing threads you may want to check out (or have this thread merged with one of them):viewtopic.php?f=32&t=28676&p=327000viewtopic.php?f=32&t=1546&p=220044