What with airplanes and social media, the world is one big cultural exchange program. Ideas, like people, ebb and flow like the tides, but even faster now that we don’t actually rely on ocean travel that much. A recent visit to Italy got me thinking about such things and how, blessedly, Italians gave America pizza in all its regional, gustatory quintessences. And how in return America helped trigger Italy’s burgeoning “artisanal” beer movement. It stands to reason that in the fashion capital of Milan, beer is becoming alta moda, high fashion. Similarly, the influence of Southern Italy on New Haven, CT, has made this Northeastern town a pizza point of distinction for nearly a century, and the Constitution State’s beer scene is rapidly catching up.
My tour guide was beer journalist Maurizio Maestrelli, creator of Milano Beer Week (early August), which he says was directly inspired by Philly Beer Week. He explained that 1996 is considered Year Zero for Italian craft beer. That’s due in part to Birrificio Lambrate (Via Adelchi 5 in the Lambrate district) launching that year (along with Birrificio Italiano, Birrificio.it, also in the north). Milan’s oldest and largest brewery operates two pubs (the other is located at Via Golgi 60 and two reasons that one are that it offers more elbow room and it’s open Mondays). Like all of Milan’s best beer spots, they’re not terribly close to the impressive Duomo di Milano (Milan Cathedral) or central tourist area. But at least the city has a bona fide brewpub; good luck finding a brewery in Italy’s other major travel destinations from north to south.
Visits are sure to offer at least 10 styles including Montestella, the pilsner that was the first beer Lambrate brewed. It’s dry and a bit grainy, making it quite distinct from Drago Verde, the hoppy American lager named for the historic drinking fountains around the city in the shape of green dragons spitting water. Big, American hops are very much the fashion for Italian brewers, in response to young Italian consumers. As such, patrons can choose from Gaina IPA and Quarantot (“forty-eight”), a doppio IPA. I like the story Maestrelli told me about the name, how 1848 marked the year of revolution and to this day, the expression “Let’s make a ‘48’ ” means let’s get all sorts of crazy up in here. Having said that, a favorite of mine is the Su De Doss Blanche, which is mostly a French white ale with coriander, but the addition of salt spins it in the Leipziger gose direction. The result is a soft, wheaten ale with hints of lavender and basil, an ideal accompaniment to Italian cuisine.
For dyed-in-the-worsted-wool beer geeks, LambicZoon (Via Friuli 46) is a top-tier beer destination. The name isn’t Italian; it’s Wallonian, meaning son of lambic. The Cantillon logo tattoo that owner Nino Maiorano sports is a clear tipoff of his seriousness. Here the chiller full of Belgian lambics and gueuzes next to Italian and other takes on wild ales will put a sour smile on your face. Look for Birrificio del Ducato’s Beersel Morning, a blend of Drie Fonteinen Lambic and Birrificio del Ducato’s New Morning spiced saison that’s abundantly citric and crave-worthy. The dozen handles pour mostly Italian beer. I enjoyed a range from a palate-whetting Kölsch to Frambozschella, a sour raspberry beer by Birrificio del Ducato.
La Ratera (Via Luigi Ratti 22) is a restaurant first and beer hub second. Maestrelli described it as a “pioneering beer restaurant” for the way it matches with Italian food such as salumis and fresh pastas, noting that Salvatore Garofalo is quite a talented chef. A few of the half-dozen taps will be Italian-brewed, and a good chunk of the bottled offerings also hail from within the border. Another of his suggestions, La Belle Alliance (Via Evangelista Torricelli, 1), boosts its beer presence with nearly 30 taps and a global selection of delights.
One exception to beer spots being beyond walking distance is the new Sloan Square (Via San Gregorio 6) from British writer/comedian John Peter Sloan. That explains why many of the 38 taps are UK-heavy, including 18 hand pumps for real ale and the England-meets-Italy food menu with many light and/or vegetarian options.
For a nightcap, Maestrelli took me to the Milano outpost of Baladin (Via Solferino, 56), the godfather of the class of ’96 with pub outcroppings across Italy and beyond. The large, hip pub (that’s even hipper in the basement level) serves all house brands on draft and/or in bottles, meaning you can get the amazing natural, red cola, but last call called for Xyauyù, a 14% sipper that’s noncarbonated and luscious, and the oak treatment means it can be cognac’s proxy any time.
Lastly, what’s a trip to Italy without some frozen gluttony? There’s great gelato around every corner, but the one that stuck with me the most was the menta e mandorle (mint and almond) from Van Bol & Feste (Foro Buonaparte 71) near Sforza Castle. With real leaves and nuts, menta e mandorle has texture and flavor that were initially unusual and ultimately unforgettable.
New Haven, CT
A lot of cool stuff came from the land of Yalies, from Frisbees to the American Pez candy factory. New Haven-style pizza is very much the American spin on Neapolitan-style pizza from Naples (Italy, not Florida). The pie is a hot, quick and not too filling meal that finds ways to be innovative despite its deep-seated roots. To guide us through the sea of ’zas and suds, I called on Emily Sauter, the marketing coordinator from Connecticut’s largest brewery, Two Roads Brewing (1700 Stratford Ave., down I-95 in Stratford), with assistance from her beau, Matthew Kolosky, the beer manager at Ordinary, (990 Chapel St.) which offers up some extraordinary eats and sips.
Sauter begins with the iconic Frank Pepe’s (163 Wooster St.), founded by the eponym in 1925 who, not surprisingly, emigrated from the Amalfi Coast near Naples. Its two famous offerings are the bare-bones margherita and the white clam pie—garlicky clams and not a drop of marinara—which Sauter suggests pairing with another white, a witbier called Blanc de Blanche from Overshores, an all-Belgian-style brewery in East Haven. But for her personal preference, she goes for Pepe’s sausage pie and, pressed for a Two Roads pairing, offered up its Worker’s Comp Saison with a touch of oat, wheat and rye. Sauter was careful to note, “Make sure you ask for cheese on it; New Haven pizza can just come without cheese … but I heart cheese.”
This style of pizza has developed its own appellation: apizza (think pizza spoken with a Neapolitan accent). That’s why just down the street in Wooster Square, Sally’s Apizza (237 Wooster St.) dates back to 1938, when Frank’s nephew, Salvatore, opened his own apizza joint named after himself. “You’re either Sally’s or Pepe’s,” mentions Sauter of impartial locals. You’ll find similar coal-fired pizza ovens and a classic white tomato pie (tomato, mozzarella, basil) but not great beer, though Emily would opt to pair her Sally’s with the pale ale or the cream ale from Duvig Brewing (Duvig.com) in nearby Branford. Duvig also operates Thimble Island Brewing and makes some powerful beers such as Ghost Island DIPA for those who’d like their beers to pack on flavor instead of apizza toppings.
Modern Apizza (874 State St.) is another joint Sauter declares legendary, but what we’re learning is that these iconic establishments pair well with a number of great, local beers but don’t actually offer many. So for a fine selection of drafts, hit the Brü Rm. at BAR (254 Crown St.). Its house pizzas are pretty good, and yes, you can get a clam pie or something un-New Havenish like Buffalo chicken pizza, but New Haven’s first brew pub’s Damn Good Stout lives up to its name.
A block down the street, “cavernous” Cask Republic (179 Crown St.) has a great beer selection of over 50 taps and more than 80 bottles, including from Stony Creek, another brewery over in Branford. You’ll also find funky, Belgian-style saisons from Ordinem Ecentrici Coctores (OEC), a new, progressive brewery 17 miles away in Oxford that does worldly styles with otherworldly results.
Among other area breweries with great tasting rooms, one of the few packaging breweries in state is New England Brewing (7 Seldon St. in Woodbridge). Its Sea Hag IPA is frequently found on draft, but another good thing about visiting the brewery is it’s where you’ll find the freshest cans of Gandhi-Bot Double IPA, both extremely hoppy and extremely popular. Sauter notes that this “most sought-after beer in Connecticut” is a perfect pizza pairing, and cans can be ordered at Da Legna (858 State St.) in East Rock, purveyors of, in her words, “a fig, gorgonzola and prosciutto pizza that’s amazing.”
One final beer rec is the seven-mile drive due north to Hamden to reach Mikro (3000 Whitney Ave.), boasting 18 rotating taps stocking national, regional and local beer. This includes Cavalry Brewing over in Oxford, where most of the brewing occurs. “I would say Mikro is the best beer bar in the area,” asserts Sauter. “Super tiny but amazing food, and they have a wonderful selection of hard-to-get local beers.” As for her final non-beer rec, she smartly suggests the Cushing Center, also known as the brain museum. “Go into the medical library at Yale Med School—a 10-minute walk from downtown. It’s a basement full of brains collected by the famous turn-of-the-century neurosurgeon Harvey Cushing.”
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Brian Yaeger is the author of Oregon Breweries and Red, White, and Brew: An American Beer Odyssey.