BrewDogging #31: Rome
[Previously: Bristol, Camden, Newcastle, Birmingham, Shoreditch, Aberdeen, Manchester, Edinburgh, Glasgow, Stockholm, Leeds, Shepherd's Bush, Nottingham, Sheffield, Dog Tap, Tate Modern†, Clapham Junction, Roppongi, Liverpool, Dundee, Bologna, Florence, Brighton, DED Angel†, Brussels, Soho, Cardiff, Barcelona, Clerkenwell, DogHouse Glasgow]
Last time I did one of these, I was being a bit grumpy about the DogHouse in Glasgow. It's a venue that comes off particularly badly when you compare it against its older relative on the other side of the city. There are lots of nice things to be said about the Kelvingrove venue, not least that it's in Kelvingrove, with the museum directly across the road from it. It's been generally accepted that the Glasgow bar has the nicest view from its window of any BrewDog establishment.
This all changed late in 2015, when they opened BrewDog Rome. If you look out of the window of that one, you can see the Colosseum. You lose, Glasgow. Sorry.
We’re in town for five nights, and have calculated that the best thing to do in terms of local transport is to each pick up a seven-day CIS travel pass: the machines at Rome Termini make that awkward by refusing to take credit cards, but we eventually stuff enough euros in the slot to buy them. A short hop on the grungey Rome Metro takes us to Barberini, and our hotel for the stay, Casa Howard. Except, as the website keeps telling us, "Casa Howard is not a hotel." So what is it, then? Actually, it's a set of apartments on the second floor of an anonymous looking building, which we walk past twice before realising it's where we need to be. The aim is to make you feel like a friend’s lent you their pied-a-terre in the city for a few days, but the sort of friend who'll still pop back to deliver you breakfast in the morning and tidy up the bed. It works brilliantly – it’s lovely to come home to each night like we’re locals. The particular room we’re in (the Flower Room in the Via Sistina building) is a little overheated thanks to dodgy air conditioning, but otherwise it’s a fine place to stay.
We hop back onto the subway to find BrewDog Rome, and promptly get lost again: we spend so much time gawping at the obvious splendour directly outside Colosseo station that we can’t find the bar. The trick is, once you’re in the station hall, take the stairs on the right to go up one level from the street the Colosseum is on, and the bar is just a minute or two’s walk from there. The sheer scale of the Actual Wonder Of The World (Okay, New Wonder, But Still) that’s visible from the bar window contrasts nicely with the modest scale of the bar itself: a smallish room, with an L-bend at the back which means it can cram in more people than you initially think. It’s a little off the beaten track, but there's an interesting amount of punter churn, with some tables occupied by people there for the long haul while others pop in and out for a swifty. We decide we’re going to be the former, and grab some food from their menu – a couple of boards of nibbles (one salami, one cheese) and a serving of potato salad on the side. They work very nicely with the beers.
About those beers: the taps are split equally between BrewDog classics and guest beers, with quite a few of the latter being local brews. Part of our mission on this trip is to check out the work of Italian craft brewers, so after our opening round of Dead Pony Club and Arcade Nation we enjoy a couple of the guests - Opperbacco’s 6son IPA (see what they did there?) and Birrificio Italiano’s Amber Shock. What isn’t entirely apparent until a later visit for a nightcap is this: the bar is almost exclusively built around draught beer. They don’t have a fridge for bottles or cans, and if you ask for one the staff try to persuade you to have a draught instead because “it’s fresher”. If you keep insisting, because you’d like a Black Eyed King Imp before bed for example, then eventually they’ll go over to a shelf, pull a can off there and give you a pair of plastic glasses to drink it out of. The BBG is horrified by this attitude, given that we’ve just paid ten quid or so for this can of ludicrously strong beer to split between us, and she never quite gets over the perceived snub after that. Myself, I suspect that the staff are assuming that the only reason you’d want to buy a bottle or can is to take it out onto the street, and provided temporary glassware accordingly. But it’s a slightly odd attitude compared with all the other BrewDog bars we’ve been to.
Aside from this being a writeup of the 31st BrewDog bar we’ve visited, it’s also (as suggested earlier) a companion to my earlier piece on Munich, which in turn is a companion to the two MostlyFilm articles comparing Munich and Rome in terms of their film studios and their actual films. The food and drink bit for Rome is, inevitably, going to be even more indulgent than the equivalent for Munich. We spend less time in cafés, though: the closest we come to one is a coffee and torte in the caff inside Cinema Nuovo Sacher, the cinema owned by Nanni Moretti. We also get some fancy organic ice cream at Stefino near Circo Massimo, and buy our Easter chocolates at Quetzalcoatl.
Our craft beer explorations don't just stop at the BrewDog bar. Open Baladin, in particular, is a revelation. A huge beer palace run by the makers of one of the beers we discovered in Bologna, we end up hitting their guest selections quite hard: Wot Hop? and Bitter Spiced Symphony from Hilltop, ESB from the dirty sellouts at Birra del Borgo, and Casa di Cura’s Flebo. L'Oasi della Birra is a more traditional wine bar with one hell of a beer list, and we have a nice time with a large bottle of Casa Veccia: Molo from Ivan Borsato Birraio. Ma Che Siete Venuti a Fa lays its cards on the table with the website URL football-pub.com, and it delights me to discover from the Brazil-Uruguay match that TV football coverage in Italian bars has a martini glass icon in the corner of the screen, rather than the pint glass we get back home. We go for pint glasses anyway, of Rurale’s Seta and Birrificio del Doge’s Rauch Me Baby. Finally, and more corporately, L'antica Birreria Peroni is a restaurant owned by the Peroni people, and does a decent pair of pasta dishes along with the large bottle of Peroni Rosso that we split between us.
That leads us nicely into the grey area of more traditional restaurants that just happen to have a thoroughly decent collection of beers. Ketumbar gives us a couple of favourites from breweries mentioned in the previous paragraph – Baladin’s Isaac and Birra del Borgo’s Prunus – along with a decent value three course meal of pasta and fish. Alle Carette is a traditional pizzeria close to the Forum, with a few artisanal ales from La Petrognola like Le Magnifiche and La Bionda. As for Ai Tre Scalini, it’s an old-style bar/restaurant now run by hipsters with tats: it has a few artisan beers on the menu, but also plenty of scope for a full meal with decent wines, which is more what we're in the mood for on Easter Sunday night.
And to wrap this up, we move onto restaurants that are just perfectly nice places with no beer agenda to speak of. Il Chianti is just a few steps away from the Trevi fountain without being massively full of tourists, and turns out to be a delightful spot for a quick pasta lunch. Nonna Betta is in the middle of the ghetto area, serving mainly Jewish cuisine, whose deep fried artichokes come highly (and deservedly) recommended. If you want a traditional trattoria, go to Otello alla Concordia, most famous for being the place where Fellini went when he wanted spaghetti done just right. But somehow topping all of these is a place that's basically selling street food. Dar Filettaro a Santa Barbara only really does one thing – lumps of deep-fried cod – but it does it magnificently, and it’s worth waiting the inevitable few minutes in a queue to get your gob around them.
Let’s stop eating and drinking and get onto the other stuff to be done. One of the key destinations on any Rome tourist’s schedule is the Spanish Steps, but we get there to find they’re largely closed off for refurbishment and cleaning. But there’s plenty more you can do with a budget of absolutely zero, providing you don’t mind a bit of walking. One fun thing we do a couple of times is pick out a fountain described in our guidebook and try to find it. (Trevi is easy, but the tortoise-enhanced Fontana delle Tartarughe is an absolute sod.) You can stroll up Aventine Hill to a pair of churches (Sant’ Alessio and Santa Sabina) purely for the views of the city they offer from their gardens, only to stumble across the huge queue of people waiting in line to squint at that same view through the keyhole of the Priory of the Knights of Malta. And as always, market gawping is a fun thing to do, with Campo de'Fiori offering plenty of good stuff, including olive oil conveniently packed in bottles that can be included in your hand luggage on planes.
In terms of art objects that you have to pay to see, the highest density of them per square metre of floorspace can be found at the Vatican Museum. You really need to plan this to make it work – book online for as early a slot as you can manage, print out a map of the complex so you know roughly what each room covers, and be prepared for the inevitable bottleneck at the Sistine Chapel. But you can use the Chapel to your advantage – as the tour groups are all aiming for it, there are some lovely quiet areas nearby that those groups have to either bypass completely or hustle through at high speed. This applies especially to the terrific collection of contemporary art, where I hear a tour guide say as he walks past “and this is a Matisse KEEP MOVING.” It sometimes feels like the Vatican has hogged every bit of art on the planet for itself, but there are other places worth checking out too: from the obvious tourist traps (such as a touring exhibit of machines constructed from Leonardo’s blueprints), to proper galleries like Scuderie del Quirinale (whose current exhibition, Correggio e Parmigiano, focusses on two artists from Parma who seemed to specialise in what the comics world used to call Good Girl Art).
Not everything we visit is a success. The double whammy of the Easter weekend and the clocks going forward on the Saturday night makes getting into some things virtually impossible. St Peter’s Basilica appears impenetrable on Good Friday, with a hundred or so people queuing up but none of them knowing what’s going on. We find out later by chance that there’s no admission that day, which makes sense, but nobody seems to want to tell the queue that. (In the end, the closest we get to the Pope is watching him on TV, in a live relay of his Good Friday gig at the Colosseum.) On other occasions, the reluctance of some venues to provide an exact closing time - preferring instead to give a number of hours relative to sunset that day - makes it impossible to work out whether you’ll be able to get in or not. In particular, we witness a long parade of tourists going up the hill to the Baths of Caracalla, only to be met by security staff laughing at them from behind closed gates.
The worst experience comes at the Colosseum. We’re not daft: we’ve bought a ticket online to avoid the queues, just like we did for the Vatican Museum. There’s a crucial difference, though - the museum ticket is for a timed slot, and the Colosseum’s isn’t. When we get there just before 9am on Easter Sunday morning to find a queue a couple of thousand people long, it takes us several minutes to realise that there’s one single queue for both ticket holders and non-ticket holders, which only splits into two a few yards from the entrance. We end up spending 90 minutes waiting to get in, thus blowing out our plans to see how close we can get to St Peter’s Square for the Pope’s big speech at noon. To be honest, the Colosseum is too crowded to be in the least bit enjoyable: but your ticket also allows you entry to the Forum and Palatine Hill, and those are tremendous. The queues are much smaller (at 2pm on Sunday, we literally walk straight in), and the ruins are spread over a huge area, with wild contrasts between the urban giganticism of the Forum and the lower-key buildings up the hill. Visit the Colosseum because it’s there, but leave plenty more time to enjoy the other two.
A final note for those wondering what film we watch in Rome as part of our long-standing Easter tradition: it's Roberto Rossellini's 1945 classic Rome, Open City. It's surprising how modern it feels for its time, even when you put aside its revolutionary semi-documentary feel – the torture, the implied lesbianism, the sudden bursts of violence are all way beyond what you’d expect for the forties. Aside from the obvious shots of the skyline, we don’t get the usual thrill of seeing locations in the movie that we've recently visited for ourselves. But it’s an unarguable classic, with warmth and humour balancing the horrors that it doesn't shy away from depicting, and an astonishing thing to be watching in a cosy hotel room some seventy years after the fact. Not the most cheerful film we've watched in this slot, I grant you, but possibly one of the greatest. Sure, Roman Holiday was the other obvious choice, but to be honest we'd had a rather nice one of those for ourselves already.