This is my way to coffee nirvana. I'm not quite there yet, but I'm approaching it bit by bit.
So what do you need to get there? First of all the most important bit for a decent espresso is: freshly roasted coffee beans! This is not as easy to achieve as it sounds, since roasted beans you buy in your store is probably already old and stale! Once coffee beans are roasted, be sure to drink them within 10 days! Therefore the only solution for me is: roast your beans yourself! I went for the Hearthware Precision Roaster.
The second most important point is: use freshly ground coffee! Therefore a good, decent grinder is more important than the espresso machine. On the picture you see even 2 grinders: my good old M-Electronics conical burr grinder (a rebranded Solis 166 conical burr grinder, on the left). After I got into this hobby, I decided to go for the real thing: the device in the middle is an ECM Casa Inox grinder (it's a rebranded Anfim, Italian grinder), it uses a heavy duty 250W direct drive motor and has large burrs. Yes, it's a doserless model - it grinds directly into the portafilter.
At 3rd place in this little importance list: the espresso machine. This one is the ECM Casa II (also known as ECM Botticelli II T). Doesn't it look great? It makes also great coffee! It has a large 0.5 Liter boiler, which guarantees for great temperature stability during a shot and LOTs of steam power. It's a single-boiler machine, comparable to the well known Rancilio's Ms. Silvia. It's just newer, has a larger boiler and it looks much better!
But once you come to the point where all this is not enough. Because on the way to coffee nirvana, consistency is key. Now these kind of machines have one little drawback: the temperature of the boiler is controlled by a thermostat, which keeps the hot water between 94C and 112C. This can not be called consistency! The only solution for this: use a PID controller (that's the device between the 2 grinders)! A PID can exactly control the temperature, if you set it to 107.9C, it keeps the boiler at exactly that temperature! This one is from Jumo (iTron 08) and has a lot of nice features: now my espresso machine is computer controlled - sweeeeeeeet :)
Let's have a look inside that lovely coffee machine:
Got interested? Here are some more resources:
The site that I started with: Espresso! My Espresso! by Randy Glass
CoffeeGeek - lots of reviews, tips and tricks, interviews (check out the milk frothing guide with the latte art section)
SweetMarias - infos and a huge selection of green coffee beans
WholeLatteLove - shop
Newsgroup: alt.coffee (google link)