Pub/Bar of the Month July 2015: The Italian Job, London, UK
The Italian Job, Chiswick, London, UK
Birra dell'Anno (Beer of the Year) is Italy's most prestigious beer competition. It's staged in Rimini every February and I've been part of the judging team a number of times.
It's always been a great occasion, not just for the company of judges from across the world who fly in to take part, but also for the joy of seeing Italy grow and flourish as a beer-loving nation.
Back in the mid-1990s there were no small breweries in the country. Today, according to the Micro Birrifici website, there are getting on for a thousand.
Like other parts of the world, Italy has grasped the idea of 'craft beer' or, as they call it locally, 'birra artigianale' ('artisan beer') with great enthusiasm, but the success of the emergent brewers is really quite remarkable in this firmly wine-centric country.
To compete with the vintners, the brewers have had to produce top-notch beers right from the outset and also package them in an attractive way that issues a serious challenge to the wine trade. Their bottles are more shapely than Sophia Loren in her prime but, more importantly, the content is equally alluring.
For too many British drinkers, Italian beer still means Peroni, as Italy's smaller brewers are only just breaking into our market. That's why I was excited to hear of the opening of a dedicated Italian beer bar in London earlier this year.
Former Wine Bar
The Italian Job has taken up residence in the former Pickwicks Wine Bar in a sidestreet just off Chiswick High Road, close to Turnham Green tube station. In a terrace filled with shops and other places of refreshment, it doesn't immediately stand out.
The paintwork is Azzurri blue, but its look is deliberately distressed and low-key, conveying an impression of down-played sophistication. A small terrace welcomes drinkers who like to watch the world go by.
The interior carries on the simple theme. There's just one small, boxy room, with roughly-hewn floorboards and walls of crumbling, exposed brick. Furnishings amount to no more than a dozen small tables, a row of bar stools and, for some reason, an old iron safe.
The bar is brighter – blue again – and, as you approach, you quickly realise that this is no simple café-bar with a loose Italian theme. The ten keg taps and two handpumps shout loud and clear that beer is the focus of attention in this venue.
The award-winning Birrificio del Ducato, based near Parma, is a partner in the enterprise, so understandably Ducato beers claim greatest prominence, but there are offerings from other highly-regarded Italian breweries, too, as indicated on the chalkboard that lists the current tap provision.
On a recent visit, for example, I found Morning Glory, an American pale ale from Retorto brewery; Genziana, a beer flavoured with gentian root from Birra del Borgo; and the deliberately oxidised, Madeira-like barley wine Xyauyù from Baladin.
From Ducato itself, there was the 3.5% ABV Victoria, a light, refreshing and rather dry IPA with wonderful hop aromatics; a tart, acetic, subtly salty gose called Kiss Me Lipsia; and the stunning Wedding Rauch, smoking like a barbecue but remaining beautifully quaffable thanks to the light, well-lagered body.
From the Pump
The beer served from the handpumps is not cask conditioned. It's merely an alternative way of delivering the keg beers shipped over from Italy. It means a less gassy complexion and a softer texture, which may be important to some customers. Ducato's Smoking Joe came out notably phenolic but well on the enjoyable side.
No Italian-based bar can be taken seriously without a decent food offering and separate blackboards outline the choices on offer each day.
These range from assorted burgers and a plate of cold Italian meats to saffron arancini (fried rice balls) with home-made ragù, and a honey puff pastry pie filled with ham, asparagus and Cheddar, served with onion jam.
The best pubs and bars, as we all know, stand and fall on the quality of the personnel, and from this perspective The Italian Job is well equipped.
The staff are all Italian and clearly beer aficionados who are keen to talk to you about the beers, offer you free tastings and advise on your next order.
If I'm looking for downsides, I could point to the fact that they don't seem to serve one-third of a pint measures, which would be handy for some of the strongest beers, and also that the standard glassware is the rather dull sleeve or nonic but, really, it's what's in the glass that matters most.
Of course, beer shipped from Italy is not going to be cheap, but the tariff here is no steeper than in other London beer hubs, and, for a rare insight into what is going on in one of the world's burgeoning beer countries, it's a small price to pay.
The Italian Job, 13 Devonshire Road, Chiswick, London W4 2EU.
Tel. (020) 8994 2852
Opening Hours: 5–11.30 Monday & Tuesday; 12–11.30 Wednesday & Thursday; 12–midnight Friday & Saturday; 11–11.30 Sunday