To many Italians, Peroni is the first name that comes to mind when thinking of beer; years of clever advertising and strategic positioning on supermarket shelves have made the brand almost a byword for the stuff. If Dairy Milk bars spring to your mind every time you crave chocolate, you’ll know what I’m talking about; and much in the same way as people tend to either love or snub Cadbury chocolate, Peroni also attracts mixed opinions. Beer connoisseurs claim it’s less flavourful than other niche brands that don’t get quite the same resonance. To the average consumer it’s a rather enjoyable drink; a fresh, light lager, which even a loather of most beers like yours truly can stomach. And then there are Italian expats, nostalgic by default. Whether they actually like it or not, and no matter how much more it costs to sip it 1,200 miles away from home, they’ll never say no to a glass of Peroni when they’re abroad.
You won’t find Peroni on draught at your local pub (bottled, perhaps, but not everywhere). The best place to get a pint right now, and until 10 June, is La Piazza, House of Peroni’s summer residency for this year. It takes place at the Old Truman Brewery; usually the venue for Brick Lane’s Sunday food market, completely transformed for the occasion. Not as busy, for a start, but also brighter, more spacious, and more richly decorated. The crowd, too, couldn’t be more different; or maybe they’re the exact same people (the East London hipsters, not the selfie-stick-wielding tourists), dressed in their glad rags, and on the hunt for much more refined grub than £5 noodles. Unsurprisingly, you can expect to find flocks of Italians, rapturously nodding as they peruse the food menu, treating the Italian bartenders like long-time friends, and acting perfectly at ease as the early evening’s soft natural light and loungey background music morph into strobe lights and throbbing house tunes. They probably feel at home, and so did I.
La Piazza means “The Square” in English. In Italy, every single village, town or city has at least one: a hub, a meeting point, a place where you can always expect to bump into someone you know and spend the next hour making small talk (whether you like them or not). Any Italian my age will confirm that, in summer, there’s no greater pleasure than lazing in a sunlit square, sitting outside a bar with a drink in hand, and idly snacking on chips, bread and fried nibbles. As the sky darkens, the piazza crowd changes: families head home for dinner or bedtime; teenagers get louder as they hold on to the last few minutes before curfew. Cocktails replace spritz and beers, and much to the joy of residents, bars engage in a game of who plays the loudest music. If you ever wondered why we feel so confused when we learn that snack bars and clubs are completely different concepts in the UK, now you know.
With four bars, a dining area and an outside beer garden, La Piazza recreates this vibe with remarkable accuracy. Its beautifully designed decor errs a little on the cheesy side, more akin to a foreigner’s romanticised view of Italy than to Italy itself (you’d hardly find flower-clad counters or well-attended herb gardens in a real Italian piazza – try dried fountains and defaced newspaper kiosks instead). Even so, I found the concept of creating a space to meet, eat and relax commendable, and reminiscent of home enough to make my heart skip a beat: as I sat on the upper floor sipping my drink, and watched the other diners and drinkers from above, the atmosphere struck me as unmistakably familiar. The beer garden’s beautiful, although far too busy; a blessing in disguise, as finding a seat inside is incredibly easy. Who needs standing outside a packed pub, one inch too close to a stranger’s sweaty shirt and spilling pint glass, when you can grab a table and drink away for as long as you please?
La Piazza’s main attraction is their range of cocktails, with Peroni beer as the main ingredient; the one called Steal My Berries (a combination of beer, raspberry sorbet and rosewater) stole my occasional beer drinker’s heart. At first, I felt lost – what was I to do with a pink sorbet icicle stuck in a beer glass, and how was that a cocktail to begin with? Well, Steal My Berries might not be the most user-friendly cocktail in the world, but it comes with a straw, and if you do one wise thing with it, you should use it to stir. The sorbet will melt in no time, blending into a much prettier purple drink, gracefully combining light beer and sweet berry notes. It’s very delicate, so it won’t go straight to your head if you’re drinking on an empty stomach, and you’ll probably want to go for seconds. Or thirds, or fourths, depending on how much you’re planning to spend (cocktails cost £8 each), and how hammered you want to get.
If the idea of beer-based cocktails sounds too fancy, you can get a good old pint; it’ll look massive in its tall, sturdy glass. You don’t even need to like alcohol to have a good time: you can also find soft drinks and coffee at La Piazza. If an affogato doesn’t tempt you (that’s a scoop of ice cream soaked in a shot of espresso for you), I don’t know what will! I went for caffè shakerato: an iced coffee drink, usually hard to get right. Even I, who quite enjoy unsweetened coffee, can hardly bear its bitter taste when it’s ice cold. The addition of liquid syrup and a shot of Galliano make it much more palatable, a coffee cocktail rather than a pick-me-up. I ordered it before heading home, to finish off a nice dinner; having visited on a Friday, street food market day at La Piazza, I tried a plate of Pasta alla Norma from Pasta e Basta (“Just pasta”). This typical Sicilian pasta with fried aubergines, tomato passata and smoked ricotta sauce is one of my favourites, and didn’t disappoint. I’m sorry to say you won’t find it if you visit now, but you can still pick a few small plates from the aperitivo menu, and have an evening snack the Italian way: sit down, relax, don’t rush things, and enjoy every mouthful.
La Piazza by House of Peroni
Old Truman Brewery
152 Brick Lane
London, E1 6RU
(nearest tube and rail station: Liverpool Street)
Open until 10 June 2015
See website for opening times: https://thehouseofperoni.com/house/la-piazza-residency/
Note: I was invited to visit La Piazza. All opinions are my own.