ʽʽHi, I’m Benjamin Nunn – critic, gourmand and author of Ben Viveur. I like to eat and drink. And cook. And write.

You might have read me in an in-flight magazine, or a beer publication, but here on my own blog I'm liberated from the editorial shackles of others so anything goes.

I deal with real food and drink in the real world, aiming to create recipes that taste awesome, but which can be created by mere mortals without the need for tons of specialist equipment and a doctorate in food science. Likewise, I tend to review relaxed establishments that you might visit on a whim without having to sell your first-born, rather than hugely expensive restaurants and style bars in the middle of nowhere with a velvet rope barrier, a stringent dress code and a six-month waiting list!

There's plenty of robust opinion, commentary on the world of food and drink, and lots of swearing, so look away now if you're easily offended.

Otherwise, tuck your bib in, fill your glass and turbo-charge your tastebuds. We're going for a ride... Ben Appetit!

Tuesday, July 8, 2014

Birra alla pompa a Roma

So, Italy turned out to be no better than England at the World Cup. Worse, in fact, if your criteria for judging which team is better is 'results against Costa Rica'.

As I said the other day, nobody hates Italy, though I'm starting to refine that theory slightly on the basis of new information. Specifically:

  1. Rome is fucking brilliant for beer. 
  2. Rome is fucking shit in a lot of other ways.
  3. There is probably nowhere in Italy where the food is bad. 
  4. Not even Rome.
Regular readers will have picked up on the fact that I've never much liked lazy beach holidays - not for me the indignity of sprawling, sunburned, for a fortnight on a beach like some sort of floppity-haired manatee - and as such I've always thought of myself as more of a short city break-type person.

But, having just returned from the Italian capital, I've realised that I don't much like them either.

Allow me to explain.

Grumpy old man ranting

See, I fucking hate huge crowds of tourists. I don't like standing in queues, walking up steps, sweating in 90 degree temperatures and paying over the odds for bottles of water just to stay alive.

Papal Pizza - first and only meal in the smallest country?
And I don't really appreciate 'the sights either'. Colosseum? Bleh. Seen one ruin and you've seen them all. Sistene Chapel? Meh. Just some famous painting. Loads of other people coming to see it, so why should I trudge along with the cuntformity of it all? I only wanted to go in the Vatican to tick off a new country. I didn't think it would take long, what with it being the world's smallest'n'shit.

Actually, getting around the Vatican takes fucking ages and you can't move for tourists. Is this really where the pope lives?

Rome is horrendous to get around too, with an unhelpful public transport system, of which large parts stop working at stupidly early times. (Though it's a picnic compared to following the thousands of signs in the Vatican to try to get to the Sistene Chapel!)

I might even have been pickpocketed. Twice. On the first night I managed to lose my travel pass, and on the second 35 Euros.

So, as you can see, I've found a lot of reasons to dislike Rome.


Redeeming features

The Trastevere district - nowhere near the metro, and to which the trams from your hotel stop running at about teatime, obviously - has recently started trending as one of the places in the world to go and drink beer.

No rest as I write me beer notes...
West of the river and some miles south of the Holy See, the area can boast several bars that are making a name for themselves on the craft beer scene, but unlike other beer capitals outside of the UK there is also a growing focus on real ale, known here as 'alla pompa'. Get the fuck in.

On the first of our two nights in Rome I managed to tick six (count 'em, six!) new cask beers, which is completely unheard of overseas, even in the USA where there's normally one token handpump in a corner if you're lucky.

What's more, there's a real variety of styles on offer, both on keg and cask, and while American and British beers are rightly popular here, Italian microbreweries take up the majority of the bar space.

The place where it all started going right might well have been Ma che siete venuti a fà, otherwise known as 'the football pub'. This tiny bar specialises in beer, beer and nothing else. And I was thirsty.

Hot and sweaty from walking miles to find the place and waiting for trams that never came, I started off with a (keg) wheat beer, flavoured with pomegranate, which was a joyous thirst quencher before moving onto the cask section.

There were two from the Lambrate brewery in Milan, the first, 'Ortiga' is a 5% golden ale, so balanced and 'normal' that it could easily have come from any number of British breweries. Not so easy-drinking was the their 'Imperial Ghisa', an 8.5% smoked porter which commanded respect. Interspersal with sips of some more pomegranate wheat proved to be the way to go, as I was still extremely thirsty.

The final cask beer on at the football pub was a stout from the Moor brewery in Somerset - but it was one that I actually needed. Unexpected.

Pigs cheeks rock!

Just the other side of the cobbled street from the football pub is Bir e Fud, which serves a huge range of beers until 2 AM and does pizzas until midnight.

Don't mind if I do
There must've been more than 20 keg taps in there, in a long, long line, plus a massive five different cask beers, two of which were old favourites from Dark Star. Like most beer afficionados, I like Dark Star a lot, but I didn't go to Rome to drink their stuff, given the Italian selection on offer.

We tried Menaresta 'Pan-Negar', a delightful little 3.8 milk stout with chocolate and coffee flavours, before moving up to the 6.5% Maltovivo 'Black Lizard', a strong porter in the US vein. But perhaps the best of all was the Montegioco 'Carsent' (5%), a Flemish-style sour beer with some serious tartness going on. (Yes, I wondered why all these Italian brewers have to begin with an 'M' too.)

Every single one of the beers was in top condition - again, something you don't often find in cask beer overseas - and while it's not a cheap area to drink in, with a slightly-less-than-a-pint measure generally costing 6 Euros a throw, you can pay similar prices in London's 'craftier' establishments too.

Getting hungry, it was a no-brainer to check out the menu and we started with the home-cooked potato chips. Obviously, having a few crisps with a beer is almost always a good thing, but these take it to the next level, still warm, ultra crispy and served with home-made ketchup.

An exceptional pizza to go with the beer
Occasionally a cluster of them stick together, and you get a soft potatoey centre, like the inside of a chunky chip. Tasty.

Bir e Fud has a reputation for it's pizza as well as the beer selection, and it's clearly a deserved one. We opted for the endive and anchovy Scarolone and the Carminuccio pizza with cured pigs cheek, known as 'guanicale'.

It turns out that this is something of a speciality in the middle regions of Italy, and as an ingredient, it's bloody fucking amazing. Each little strip includes a meaty, a gelatinous and a fatty part, and it's just packed with salty, piggy flavours.

Next time I go for a pizza over here, I'll definitely look out for guanicale on the menu, and I may even find a way to work it into a recipe sometime. I suggest you do too, unless you happen to be a Jewish vegetarian with a cheek allergy.

As if the salty succulence of the guanicale wasn't enough wallop in the flavour departmet, the pizza also gives off huge aromas of fresh basil, and the base is simply superb; definitely one of the greatest pizzas I've ever had.

The gorgeous endive and anchovy calzone at Bir e Fud
The Sacrolone was very good too: Inside the rustic, olive-studded calzone is a glorious green mesh of cheesy endives, flecked with little slivers of anchovy, plus capers and more olives.

If anything it could've been a bit more anchovy-y, but them I'm a total fiend when it comes to the little salty fishies, and appreciate that not everybody likes as many as I do. Make no mistake. For a 12 Euro pizza, this is great. Although I don't do Euros, obviously.

We'd already eaten and drunk the night away well past midnight so were unable to avail ourselves of the tempting dessert menu, but I'd imagine it would've been awesome. (Not one of those things that you imagine to be awesome but probably wouldn't be, like sex with a celebrity, but something you know with some confidence would be properly, genuinely awesome.)

I love beer. I love food. And I have to admit, I loved Bir e Fud.

Another day, another bar

Just over the river, in an obscure backstreet, you'll find Open Baldin, and it was a colleague of mine visiting this place a few weeks ago and bringing me back the highly arousing beer menu which led to me booking this trip in the first place.

They have three cask beers on (including another Dark Star effort) and it was here we found something actually brewed in Rome - Birreria Eataly 'Momo', a 5.1% coconut stout that's definitely more stout than coconut - plus the decidedly odd Birra del Borgo 'Keto Reporter', 5.8% and brewed with tobacco.

I've no idea why Open Baladin leave their handpumps like that!
It's the strangest thing, because there's no obvious smokiness that you might expect, but five seconds after taking a sip, your mouth feels like you've just taken a drag on a big cigar.

On the keg side, we sample a 6.7% IPA that's a collaboration between several Italian breweries, though it's not as hoppy as I'd have liked, plus 'Rubens', a sour red ale from Denmark which is very refreshing.

Baladin is a chain of sorts, with outlets in other Italian cities, and while I've previously tried beer from their own brewery, which is mostly bottled, I regret missing the opportunity to try it draught here.

They do home-cooked potato chips too, and though they're possibly not quite as good as the ones at Bir e Fud (the ketchup is a bit too much like plain tomato puree), it's still a fine accompaniment to a long evening's drinking.

Especially if you've wasted loads of time fannying around the Colosseum and Vatican with a bunch of touristic sheepcunts...


We could've spent our final few lunchtime hours before flying home checking out another tourist trap, like the Trevi fountain or Spanish steps, but I had other plans. Plans involving food. And we'd already climbed more than enough fucking Italian steps.

All too aware that the beer had been a major distraction, we still hadn't enjoyed a full-on, multi-course Italian meal during our stay. This changed as we visited L'antica Locanda, a tiny traditionally-styled trattoria on via Marsala, close to the main Termini station, with a view to a bit of a binge.

I'm very pro-antipasti
Things kicked off rather well, with a big basket of rustic bread, lightly toasted, and a perfect foil to the very good quality Balsamic and EVOO on the table.

Before we'd had a chance to oil up a second slice of bread, a vast plate of antipasti arrived, with soft, yeielding balls of Mozzarella draped by various cuts of cold meats.

I love this sort of stuff - sweet, spicy Bresaola, salty Prosciutto, Salami and Pepperoni, and loads of it. Again it went well with the bread, something the waiter noticed immediately, bringing us a second complimentary basket.

The Salami seemed to be more in the German style, densely formed, without the caverns of fat you normally find in the Italian product, and this was a contrast to the Pepperoni which melted in the mouth and belatedly delivered a strong payload of chilli.

If there was a weak link on the plate it was the olives, which were a bit plain and didn't seem to have been marinated in anything. Not going to stand up to some really good cured meats any time soon.

This is not even the main course!
The antipasti was swiftly followed by a pasta course, and I got to try an authentic Lasagne in the country of origin for the first time. Quite different from what you find in an Italian restaurant (or microwave meal) over here, it lacked both bechamel and bolognese sauces, and instead was quite tightly packed together with lots of cheese and layers of ground chicken, peppered with little chunks of tomato.

(I guess the only real criteria to qualify as 'lasagne' is that it consists of sheets of lasagna and the rest is up to the chef, but it's interesting to note how narrow we can be in our expectations.)

Tasty and different though it was, it was rather overshadowed by Mrs B-V's Spaghetti Carbonara, which was a thing of absolute joy. The pasta was nicely al dente, the sauce rich and buttery and creamy, but the real star was the abundance of the guanicale - a triumphant return to the table for those flavoursome pigs cheeks.

Now rapidly becoming, it has to be said, not a little full, we still had main courses to come. My plan for Osso Bucco was foiled by it not being available that day, so I took the waiter's recommendation and plumped for a beef and mushroom salad thing, very similar to something we ate not along ago in that Italian restaurant in Reykjavik.

I was glad of a lighter option here, but it didn't blow me away. Bit of rocket, thin slices of stewed beef like you get in Chinese dishes. Uneven distribution of garlic (basically it was all stuck together in one big clump).

Beefy salad and seafood platter
The most interesting thing was the mushrooms - I couldn't for the life of me tell you what they were,  but if any mycologists want to enlighten me, they were pale, smooth, soft and tender, with the texture of kidney and a buttery, meaty flavour. Almost certainly a variety I'd never tried before.

I'd persuaded Mrs B-V to choose the seafood platter, and it didn't disappoint. Perfectly fried, lightly battered squid rings, whole baby squids, king prawns and langoustines. The seasoning was lip-lickingly good and it was appropriately light, given how much we'd already eaten.

The only thing is, I'd have preferred to have the seafoody/salady course before the plate of pasta, but then I'm an Englishman. Abroad. I'll stop short of twatting on about 'when in Rome' though.

One could eat well here relatively cheaply, just having a pasta and a salad, but even our blow-out came it at about £30 a head, which isn't bad for the middle of town. I've no idea what that would be in Lira, probably 100 million or something, and I don't do Euros.

We finished up by sampling the Tiramisu, gelato and coffee, which saw a return to more intense flavours. The strong cocoa atop the Tiramisu and in the chocolate gelato clearly meant business, whilst the Espresso was really more of a Ristretto - seriously powerful.

You may like your sights and your touristy business, but my overwhelming advice to anybody thinking of heading Rome-ward would be to forget about all that stuff and just eat and drink.

All day long.

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