Brews You Can Use
By Tom Sietsema
The Washington Post Magazine
Sunday, April 9, 2006
It's hot, and I'm parched. "I'll try a Hefeweizen, please."
Minutes later, with the kind of ceremony typically reserved for a wine order, my waiter plunges the head of a beer bottle deep into a tall glass, gracefully pulling up the bottle of fruity wheat ale as its golden contents fill the narrow space. When the bottle is nearly empty, the server tips it upright and gives the flask a quick shake, "to rouse the yeast," he cheerfully explains. The resulting foam is artfully swirled atop the surface of the beer in the glass, as if the cool brew were a cappuccino.
I've long enjoyed pie-eating at Pizzeria Paradiso, both the tiny original in Dupont Circle and the larger spinoff in Georgetown. These days, I like the latter more than ever. In February, owner Ruth Gresser took advantage of the younger Paradiso's additional space -- a basement dining room used mostly for parties -- to give her customers more of what she saw they were drinking: beer. She tapped Thor Cheston, one of her managers and a self-described "beer nerd," to draw up a list of great beers and see that the 100 or so brews, 17 of which are on tap, were properly presented in the nearly 50-seat Birreria Paradiso .
Frankly, I prefer drinking (and eating) upstairs, where sunlight pours through the windows by day and the massive, wood-burning pizza oven serves as a focal point. While the birreria counts some charms -- a fireplace, a stone-fronted bar, wood beams overhead -- it looks like a suburban rec room pretending to be a tavern. Yet the enthusiasm of the youthful staff and the moderate tabs make up for its deficiencies.
So do the voluminous suds. "I wanted to treat beer with the same respect wine gets," says Cheston. So he assembled a worldly collection of his favorite lagers, ales and stouts, and found the proper glassware to serve them in. Belgian brews are poured into tulip-shaped glasses, while hearty stouts land in snifters. Cheston also began offering flights of his liquid attractions -- in this case, a trio of 5 1/2-ounce samples of draft beer. My favorite tour brought together three American-crafted microbrews: Delaware's golden-hued Dogfish Head, tasting subtly of caramel; New York's spicy and spritzy Hennepin; and California's root beer-colored Old Rasputin Russian Imperial stout, which smacked of both chocolate and coffee. The $8 flight made for a cheap lesson: Beer is complex. Beer is a friend to food. Beer is more than something you should knock back at a ballpark or in front of a bowl of Doritos.
You'll want something to chase your brew, of course. The menu in the birreria is identical to the one offered on the ground floor: a handful of flossy salads and sturdy sandwiches, 10 or so pizzas and a sheet with several daily specials.
The pizzas start with chewy, yeasty and heat-singed crusts, bases improved by their quality toppings. "Bottarga" comes with sweet chunks of tomato, garlic and dried tuna roe, and a white center that appears to be melted mozzarella but turns out to be a soft-cooked egg; poke the little mound with your fork, and its yolk trickles out, tinting and enriching the crust. "Siciliana" finds a colorful garden of vegetables -- ringlets of red onion, red pepper, thinly shaved eggplant -- on its pillowy crust. A recent special of capers, herb sauce and mussels in their shells would have been improved by fresher seafood. You can also come up with your own combination. Or try a sandwich, the best of which pairs full-flavored lamb with a good roll and a garnish of pickled vegetables.