"Do I have to put out?” my friend Aaron asks, that fearful look crinkling his eyes, the one so common in teenage girls following dinner and a movie. Food plus film equals third base?
“Not if you don’t want to,” I say, heeding my maxim: one need not squeeze the berry for the sweetest juice.
“No strings attached?”
“No strings attached—just three hours at dinner with me. I’ll let you gaze into my eyes. If you want.”
“The things I do for a meal…”
“A meal with beer, might I add.”
Our man date was set for Lusso (331 West Broadway at Grand St., 212-431-0131), a sunny Italian newbie in Soho. Though I shun red-sauce cuisine like a leper, tonight’s dinner is too attractive to avoid: a booze pairing starring Italian beer. I can easily name-check Belgian ales and West Coast hop bombs, but my Italian intelligence begins and ends with fizzy, forgettable Peroni. Hell, Italy’s beers are largely belly-bloating golden lagers.
In the last decade, though, wine-loving Italy has seen a groundswell of bang-up microbrew eries, such as Birra del Borgo and Le Baladin, helmed by flavor magician Teo Musso. He and fellow Italian brewers are applying wines’ nuances and barrel-aged complexties to beer. They’re crafting sprightly saisons and licorice-hinted stouts that, like a robust Tuscan red, demand to be sipped from spotless stemware, not slurped from a plastic funnel.
Tonight’s dinner features four beers and courses. That’s about three courses more than I normally share with guy friends. Normally, “meals” equal greasy slices, wolfed while swerving down the sidewalk and shotgunning brown-bagged Coors Light. Moreover, I’m terrified of white-napkin restaurant dinners’ forced intimacy. Eye contact and attention is focused on your dining companion. Forks are required, as is four-letter-word-less conversation and, more often than not, pants. And drinking myself comfortable, while not discouraged, is unfeasible: In this icy economic climate, who can pay restaurant mark-ups to get smashed? When dining with my girlfriend, I must sneak to the bathroom to slug
Old Overholt rye from my flask. But a beer-pairing feast, where inebriation is built into the $60 price tag, I can get behind— before falling on my face.
Aaron and I arrive at the anointed time, sliding into a cozy two-top. “Why thank you for pulling out my chair,” I tell him, testing this newfangled concept, manners.
“No, you’re welcome,” Aaron says, playing his role.We settle in, bromanticism lubricated by the first quaff, Birra del Borgo’s Genziana saison. It’s tart and funky with a honeyed backbone, and serious bitterness arising from gentian flowers. The food is crisp skate with lip-puckering lemon and capers. The saison and seafood are mates, supporting and complementing one another. “Just like friends are supposed to do,” I tell Aaron.
Course No. 2—dry pork chop, mushy pepper stew, butter-glazed green beans—falls short, as does Borgo’s ReAle Extra India pale ale. I favor floral, weed-like West Coast IPAs; by contrast, this is caramel-sweet, with a maltiness that weighs down my tongue, preventing me from saying anything nice. Our dining ship is righted with crunchy potato nibs topped by grilled hanger steak, its minerally tang contrasted by a dollop of Gorgonzola butter.The breath-killer’s companion is Birrifico Barley’s Sella del Diavolo, a tongue-tickling amber ale that tastes like fresh-baked biscuits. “I like biscuits,” I tell Aaron, making small talk. “I like…this beer,” he says, swigging.
“Would you like more?” the waiter asks. Our bobblehead-doll nods net us another dose of liquid joy.
Three courses down; two hours have passed. By now I’m typically twiddling fingers, antsy to be anywhere where folks don’t fold my napkin whenever I urinate. Instead of foot-tapping restlessness, I’m hot-tub relaxed.
Chalk it up to good food, copious beer and no stress. When finedining with a sweetheart, terrible food can ruin a romantic weekend. But when fine-dining with fellow dudes, even rubbery chicken and shoe-leather steak is a step up from inhaling Rudy’s free hot dogs and Croxley Ales’ dime chicken wings.
I loosen my belt.A waiter glides over. He’s beaming, bearing the evening’s final tipple: Birrifico del Ducato’s Verdi, an imperial stout brewed with chili.The stout decants the color of crisp bacon, and its flavor is equally moan-worthy: uncut cocoa and coffee, with a marvelous burn that slowly incinerates my tongue.The Verdi is coupled with a cloud-light tiramisu. It’s tasty, but Aaron and I prefer to drink our dessert.
“To us,” I kid, clinking glasses tenderly, as the evening disappears down our throats.