They're bubbly like fine Champagnes, cheaper than Cabs, and, best of all, designed to be consumed immediately. Say hello to the new beverage of choice at quality restaurants across the country: high-end Italian brews.
Jeff Benjamin and his business partner, James Beard Award-winning chef Marc Vetri, are so convinced that these artisan-driven Italian bottles deserve a prime place at the table that in February they opened Alla Spina, a restaurant in Philly devoted entirely to the trend. The menu lists at least 20 Italian beers—the selection changes seasonally—including Piccolo Birrificio Seson from Liguria (brewed with Chinotto oranges and juniper), Baladin Nora from Piedmont (Egyptian-inspired ale brewed with kamut wheat, ginger, orange peel and myrrh), and Bruton Lilith from Tuscany (inspired by English bitter and brewed with American Cascade hops).
Across the country at Nostrana in Portland, Oregon—where chef Cathy Whims was nominated for a 2012 James Beard Award for Best Chef Northwest—bar manager Douglas Derrick offers a drinks menu that lists a half-dozen high-end beers. "Italian brews are growing so fast and the quality is so high," he says, "it's not possible to keep up with everything that's new and terrific." Prices range from around $7 for 9- to 12-ounce bottles (or draft pours) to $40 for a 25-ounce wine-size bottle for two.
"Five years ago, if I'd said you'd be spending $40 on a wine-size bottle of beer for dinner, you'd have laughed," says Benjamin. "Not today."
Then there's Sam Calagione, owner/brewer at Dogfish Head Craft Brewery in Delaware, who's working with Italian masters Birra del Borgo and Baladin to craft house brews for Birrera Eataly, the rooftop brewery at Eataly New York—Mario Batali and Joe Bastianich's food emporium. The program's so popular they're taking the "brewery of brothers" concept to Rome, where they're on tap to open another Birrera Eataly in June.
"We want to bridge the entire culinary landscape," Calagione says. "We're proving beer is deserving of its place with white-tablecloth restaurant food."
5 ITALIAN CRAFT BREWS TO LOOK FOR*
Del Borgo Re Ale Extra from Lazio
A dry-hopped IPA with tons of piney, grapefruit notes, but without the intense bitterness of its American counterparts. On draft, $9.
Piccolo Birrificio Seson from Liguria
Saison brewed with the Italian soda Chinotto, perked by a pinch of juniper and aged in chardonnay barrels. On draft, $9; ; 25-ounce bottle, $33.
Baladin Nora from Piemonte
Exotic, tropical, spicy, herbal aromas and flavors wrap the ale's medium-body frame, all of which is capped by a suggestion of sour. 8.5-ounce bottle, $13.
Del Ducato Nuova Mattina from Emilia Romagna
Chamomile, ginger, coriander, and peppercorns infuse this invigorating, thirst-quenching saison. On draft, $9.
Bruton Lilith from Tuscany
Malty, bready and biscuity, with a soft mouth-feel balanced by a hint of citrus and resin on the finish. 25-ounce bottle $29.
(Prices shown reflect the menu at Alla Spina and are subject to change.)*