Why authenticity is for tourists
I took my son to Rome last week: it was half-term, he loves ancient Romans and pizza, and, to be honest, so do I.* One of the places on our itinerary was Da Baffetto, a classic pizzeria close to The Pantheon. On my last visit to the Italian capital, many, many years ago, my girlfriend and I squeezed up next to a retired American couple here and merrily chatted about this and that for an hour.
It’s a good memory, and not just because of the company. Despite the preponderance of tourists (including us and our new friends, of course), Da Baffetto felt authentic. The interior was memorable despite its mundanity: a plain tiled floor, old photos on the walls, paper tablecloths. The pizza was also very good. (Not good enough to queue, which apparently people do. Very odd given the huge number of good pizzerias in Rome).
When we walked past last week the place was shut for the evening, but a sign in the window directed us to Da Baffetto 2, just around the corner. Although the pizzas, as it turned out, are much the same as the old place, the decor is different. Most significantly, there’s a huge TV screen that you couldn’t avoid. It was quite distracting.
How distracting? Well, I can tell you exactly what was shown during our meal, as it was just over my son’s shoulder: a film showing how the restaurant’s dishes were made and, after that, a cooking show in which couples compete, but one half of the couple is sealed behind glass and can’t advise their (presumably less culinarily gifted) partner. (The sound was off, but it was visually engaging stuff: lots of huffing, arms flung upwards and eyes-raised-to-the-sky exasperation from behind the glass, red-cheeked panic from those doing the cooking.)
It was a different experience, and possibly a worse one too. While the original pizzeria had a careworn timelessness, the new place was colder, physically and aesthetically, and dominated by that huge TV. I enjoyed the pizza (four cheeses, for those taking notes) but not as much as I had all those years ago.
I don’t think my reaction was that odd. There is a human desire for authenticity (particularly when it comes to Italian food). Beer is no exception. You see it most obviously on the other side of the Atlantic, where so much of beer culture is still, relatively-speaking, new. Serving a German-style Pils? Better get that 17-minute pour right. Making a Lambic-style wild ale? You’re going to need a beautiful coolship, the shinier the better. Get a picture of it on instagram, too. (I think the passion to divide beers up into dozens of styles is related to this, too: In the absence of an English pub or Bavarian beer hall to drink in, at least the recipe can be 100 per cent authentic).
It’s one of modern beer’s two key ideas, alongside the thirst for novelty. These ideas sometimes intersect - as in the recent fashion for lager - but for the most part they are antagonistic. Authenticity appears to be in the ascendancy at the moment because, in my view, there’s only so much worthwhile innovation around before you end up with marshmallows in your beer.
That’s not to say they (or I) are always right, though. It’s sometimes said that craft-beer bars tend towards saminess, and I think that’s true: taps on the back wall, exposed piping, a deliberately clinical feel that distances them from the homeliness of a pub. But traditional pubs are very samey, too. People moan when they’re not - and not just in England, either. If you’ve drunk in one Franconian taproom (and I love them), you’ve drunk in them all.
Bamberg, of course, is authenticity’s capital city (Innovation has a constantly shifting centre). Three years’ ago, I was in town just after Erlkönig, a new brewery, opened (the name has since changed to Kronprinz). It was early days but this ‘craft-beer’ brewpub was full, and not just with young people - there were plenty of old-timers there to see what the fuss was. I don’t know how it’s doing now, but it appears to be still open (the familial links to Kaiserdom, Bamberg’s biggest brewery, presumably don’t hurt).
Even in Bamberg, then, there’s a desire for something new. The old is not as popular as it might seem, either. Dozens of Franconian breweries have closed in recent decades, while others have seen their business contract, as at Lowenbrau in Buttenheim, where head brewer Stefan Hornung told me in 2016 that they were brewing half as much as they had 20 years earlier. (There’s more from me about Lowenbrau in the current edition of Original Gravity). Authenticity doesn’t always pay the bills.
And anyway, who decides what is authentic and what isn’t? On our last night in Rome, my son and I went to Pizzería Galilei, just off the Via Merulana not far from our hotel. For an authenticist, it was perfect. The pizza was good, there was decent beer from Forst, the staff all appeared to be the other side of 70 and the interior was a riot of brown, with beer trays and mats on the wall. The diners were mostly Italian and, most authentically Italian of all, there was a huge TV on one wall. It was showing a soap opera based in a brewery in northern Italy.
*I’m writing an article about it, too.