A tip off pointed us in the direction of a bar called Birrificio Lambrate in , surprise-surprise, the Lambrate area of the city. On the way, the metro stopped briefly at Piazzale Loreto, infamous as the place where Mussolini and his mistress Clara Petacci's bodies were hung upside-down from a petrol station gantry in 1945 after being shot trying to flee towards Italy's northern border. The previous year, 15 imprisoned partisans had been shot on that spot in reprisal for Allied bombing and raids by the Resistance. Their bodies had been left as a warning to others by the German command, so I guess this was payback of sorts. We resisted the ghoulish urge to go up and have a look around and instead continued on our journey to the northeast of Milan. Pliny the Elder first mentioned the Lambrate area of Milan in the 1st century BC with reference to a river, which flowed here with clear and limpid waters. The name of the area was taken from the river and we certainly hoped that liquid would flow here tonight, but not necessarily clear and limpid!
A short walk from the station, past Piazza Gobetii and on an ugly, forgettable side street sat our destination. From the outside it looked closed with low lighting and simple signage. The only clue as to its state of being was the collection of somewhat rough looking individuals smoking outside the door. We crossed the road and made our way to the front door, squeezing past the smokers who seemed less rough and quite friendly this close up.
The place was packed. Every shape and make of person was in there from young professionals to families and crusty looking hippies. The reason for the crowd, or at least one of the reasons, was the bowls and on the plates at the bar. During Happy Hour in certain bars in the city they place free food on the bar for the clientele to gorge themselves on, as well as reducing the beer prices. There was an amazing spread of food. Pesto pasta, risotto, garlic focaccias (focacce?), crostini, salads, olives and other items too numerous to mention. Perhaps forty dishes in total, were being picked at and devoured by all. Everyone seemed to be a local and they all appeared to know each other as they shouted and gestured to each other across the room. We forced our way politely to the bar and looked at the list of what was on offer, scratched on a chalkboard overhead.
Birrificio Lambrate was opened in 1996 and was the first craft brewer in Milan. The idea was to open a bar, with beer brewed on site, for people who were a bit sick and tired of the ‘normal’ beers and bars of the city. They began with three different styles and added more every few years. Today they usually have around eight available at any one time, some being seasonal and only available during winter or at other times of the years.
The friendly affable barman, resplendent with tidy goatee and a selection of tasteful tattoos, gave us the nod and we placed our order for three Ligera. He politely, and rightly, corrected our pronunciation and pulled our pints as the locals at the bar had a laugh at our poor attempts at Italian. We got the feeling that it was only die-hard beer tourists who took the trek out to here.
As we waited for our beer we took in our surroundings. There was something familiar and comfortable about the place. All the walls were clad in dark timber, which matched the tables, chairs, barstools and the bar itself. The place had a lived in feel with graffiti covered table tops and low level lighting.
We found a half free table and sat down briefly before returning, one by one, to the bar to pick up some of the tasty morsels on offer. The food was incredibly good, perhaps enhanced by the fact it was free, and we made frequent return journeys until we were full or getting funny looks from the barman. We sat back and relaxed, comfortable in our surrounds and taking in the atmosphere. The beer, Ligera, was a beautiful, bitter hoppy number, which had us smacking our lips and grinning from ear to ear.
The music playing on the excellent sound system was our kind of music. Led Zeppelin was blasting out but even though it was loud it didn't get in the way of our conversation. The bass wasn't overpowering and they seemed to have installed ample speakers. This meant that it wasn't too loud, just loud enough. It was musical engineering perfection.
We quickly drained our glasses and started working through a few more of the house-brewed offerings. Ghisa, a creamy, smoky wonderful stout with a fudgy aftertaste, was worth the trip out here alone, perhaps even the trip to Milan itself. Porpora was a malty ale with a sweet, liquorice taste. San Ambrosiana was a dunkleweizen style wheat beer with a blast of cloves to make your eyes water. All were superb. Fresh and tasty from their short trip from the attached brewery and served with a combination of professionalism and friendliness that would put the staff in many bars back home to shame.
We were in heaven and the joint was rocking, The Doors and Gorillaz followed Jimi Hendrix’s guitar solos. Many customers had left when the free food stopped and the place was filling up with a younger Saturday night crowd and a few older customers here for a meal. We had gorged ourselves on food and beer at this stage so we had no room to try the food offered from the kitchen, which was attached to the bar. Anything we saw heading for the dining tables looked wholesome and tasty, with empty plates always heading back in the opposite direction.
By now we were half standing, lounging in a corner of the pub because we had to vacate our seats, which were reserved for proper eaters only and not freeloaders like us. The only table that was free was beside the toilets, which was handy in one way but obviously has its disadvantages. Male and female toilets were side by side with a communal wash hand basin and I had just finished a visit to the facilities when the ladies' door open and a large woman came out, pulling up her trousers as she did. She was intensely ugly, the only women I had seen with sideburns and a unibrow. She grunted at me and exited without washing her hands. The whole experience gave me shivers and I recounted the encounter to BeerMat and BeerGoogles as we drank our beers. BeerMat took to watching her as she wandered through the room, hitting on anyone she could. 'Yikes.' He said, as we watched her squeeze her ample frame between two guys having a conversation at the bar and then trying to hit on every other male in the bar. Except for us strangely enough… She left soon after; no doubt before the full moon rose and her look changed again. She was the only negative thing we had come across all night.
Ozzie was shouting out 'Finished with my woman' to a pounding bass line as BeerMat made his way to the bar for the next round of drinks and came back beaming.
'These are on the house!' he said, 'I think yer man behind the bar appreciates us making the trip out here, and how much we like the place and the beer. He says this is a new brew but I didn't catch its name.'
We looked to the bar and raised our glasses to him. He smiled back before returning his attention to the beer and his other customers.
'Jesus, that's great.' I said, 'Free food and free drink! I think we're on a roll. You should go up and see if he has a couple of sisters for you and BeerGoggles.'
BeerMat just grinned his famous grin and took a big drink of his pint. I quickly followed suit. This was a little like Ligera but more bitter and with a citrus-like taste, like a shot of grapefruit juice had been added. I was another winner certainly.
The place is really rocking now with a wonderful buzz and 'Rock the Casbah' is playing. This surely must be one of the best bars in Milan. No Italy. No Europe, we decide. It shows up the inadequacies of other places really, and the importance of finding the right balance or food, drink and atmosphere. This lively, almost visceral, bar on an nondescript side street in an ordinary part of the city had got everything right tonight. And as The Beastie Boys belted out 'Sabotage', we drank our last beer, Monstella, a pilsner style beer that would have the Americans, Germans and Czechs ringing their hands with worry if it was ever unleashed on the world market. Then we headed towards the door to catch the last metro back into town, stopping at the bar to say our goodbyes and getting a cool, thumb grip handshake from the barman. With the appropriate strains of 'I just can't get enough' resonating from the bar and following us up the street, we cursed the fact that the place was so far from our base and that the Metro didn't run later. Maybe it was a blessing really as we probably would never have left the place, we'd still be there today.