Orzo Bruno, Pisa

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Via delle Case Dipinte, 6/8, 56127 Pisa PI, Italy
  • Quality and/or choice of drinks – 8/10
  • Style and Decor – 8/10
  • Character, Atmosphere and/or Local Life – 9/10
  • Amenities, Events & Community – 7/10
  • Value for Money – 7/10
  • The Pub-Going Factor – 8/10

Opinions of Pisa tend to be mixed, which is a shame as the airport provides an excellent conduit for people to explore Tuscany, but often people venture no further than the Piazza Dei Miracoli before moving on. It’s certainly true the Tuscan idyll of cypress trees, rolling hills and gently worn villas is perhaps not best demonstrated in Pisa, but that’s not to say the town is without charm, far from it.

The city centre is certainly one of those places that feels like it gets taken over by young people at night. Yes, you can sigh at the peeling plaster and graffiti in some of the classical piazzas that have become a bit grungy but there is a certain verve and energy Pisa offers in compensation for that. It’s a good night out.

Beer isn’t Italy’s strong suit, however it has belatedly begun a concerted effort to catch up. When you have a little think about why it’s suddenly taking off, it makes sense. The young seek good beer out in Italy for a few different reasons. Wine is seen as the preserve of the middle-aged and middle class, increasingly more of a drink to enjoy with food or a particular occasion or season, whereas beer is more casual.

Of course there are those looking to be a bit hip and different for which beer offers an opportunity to pose and stand out/completely conform among peers. Boiling all that down, the main appeal as I see it, is that quite honestly beer and aperitifs are a better option in a hot country over the course of a long evening. It is still the case that in Italy good beer is a bit of a novelty, but craft beer has been riding the crest of a rising wave for a few years now.

Pisa’s very best exponent of this is Orzo Bruno (a play on words with Orso meaning Bear and Orzo meaning Barley) not just a place with good beer on tap, but a really, really good pub.  In order to find Orzo Bruno you naturally find yourself wandering into the epicentre of the city’s nightlife. It’s a nice walk in, as you can feel the volume and excitement level gradually rise. You’ll find the pub and its unassuming exterior perched down a side-street, yet in the thick of the action.

Inside, it’s an informal affair with pinewood type seating falling somewhere inbetween modern and ramshackle. In the summer heat the windows and thrown open and there are tables and chairs outside. As with all great pubs, everyone looks like they’re having a good time. The best of all, it looks and feels predominantly like somewhere Pisans go themselves, with a ring of authenticity you just can’t fake.

On tap you’ll find local Italian brews for a decent price – their predilections for strong beers and German styles ensures you can purchase some strong, tasty stuff for quite a lot less than you’d expect. Wit beer, red beer, doppio malto, it’s nice to go to the heart of interesting Italian brewing styles and have a genuine isolated and authentic ‘Italian beer experience’ in what is a nice pub.

These are brewed at a co-operative brewery Il Birrificio Artigiano, an excellent idea still common in Germany where provincial beer enthusiasts have occasional use of shared premises of a scale capable of delivering decent volume. These beers are usually unpasteurised and unfiltered, which is fine because they aren’t designed to last, but to be drunk straight away! You may even find oddities such as attempts at cask conditioned bitter served by Angram hand-pumps.

There’s a little something extra on offer too, that a lot of English people won’t be used to. It’s difficult to find complimentary anything with a drink in England these days, yet in Orzo Bruno dig into a veritable platter of snacks laid out on plates in front of the bar to enjoy with you beer from 7pm onwards.

Spain and Italy are insistent that food must in nearly all cases accompany drink, which is not my view, but offers a change of speed. You may want to consider leaving some room after your evening meal to enjoy the range of snacky bites on offer. It’s a quick way of adding on further poundage on top of the calories in your beer, so don’t go over the top!

Orzo Bruno works well whether at day or night, which is typical of places of its kind that stay low key and informal. You could pop in mid-afternoon and read a book with a pint of head here at 11 in the evening with a group. It’s just an all-round good place, reinforced by the enthusiastic patronage of locals. They also do discounts between 7-8.30pm, which is much later (and therefore better) than most happy hours in England.

Pivnica Mali Medo, Zagreb

 

Tkalčićeva 36 Street, 10000, Zagreb, Croatia

*BRONZE AWARD* *Good all-rounder*

  • Quality and/or choice of drinks –7/10
  • Style and Decor – 8/10
  • Character, Atmosphere and/or Local Life – 9/10 
  • Amenities, Events & Community – 7/10
  • Value for Money – 7/10
  • The Pub-Going Factor –  8/10

The ‘Little Bear’ is located in the centre of Zagreb’s old town and offers by far the best example of a pub around these environs. Otherwise, your options are identikit café terraces or the odd raucous rakija bar. To be honest, a night out spent solely Zagreb’s old town would be pretty bland unless you dedicated yourself to drinking shots, or visited this place.

Mali Medo acts as brewery tap for Pivovara Medvedgrad (translates as Beartown), named after an old fortress in the hills North of the city which has undergone a rather appalling renovation, but is worth seeking out for the view over the city.

The brewery, operating since 1994 precedes the craft beer craze and concocts a range of different beers – including their own attempt at Kriek – highly peculiar by Croatian standards where anything outside Euro Lager seems to be regarded as otherworldly. Their beers aren’t unpleasant but they’re some way short of the wider standard these days and a bit ‘last generation’. Nevertheless, a couple of the more traditional styles are competent enough to put away a few of, and the extra flavour and freshness will come as a relief after drinking the likes of Karlovacko everywhere else.

They operate a number of pubs, but the best of the lot is, in my opinion Mali Medo in the centre of town.

The pub itself has a typical pivnica look, dropping down off the main cobbled street to a large half-basement area with a curved ceiling, and some partitioned niches with bench seating (one of my favourite pub features) along with the typical long tables you’d expect of a central European cellar pub.  Mostly, the décor is in-keeping with inn-keeping, wooden framed artwork on the wall, and traditional furniture, a step above bland. It’s suitably cavernous in order to cram in the many hundreds of people who flock to it daily – worth a reminder at this stage that it is the number one venue slap bang in the centre of town.

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As there is a beer terrace out front with much coming and going the atmosphere is very noisy and lively, sometimes pierced by live music performances. The upstairs area serves as a stage, with performers opening the windows to serenade people on the street. Very unusual and atmospheric. You  get the picture that this is one of the cultural hubs of the city. Be warned, if you’re after peace and quiet, this isn’t the place for you.

As with most pivnicas there is food available. Sometimes this can turn a place too much like a restaurant, but here it blends in with people turning up for a drink of beer better than some others, and as the evening progresses you can tell this is chiefly a drinking spot – good.

Considering the hustle and bustle, service is actually not too bad until it comes to the point of paying, where you almost have to grab the staff by the lapels and shove the money into their pockets. As per usual, table service slows up the whole arrangement. This is a very inefficient method when you compare it to those mega-brauhauses in Germany and Austria where a tapster and a token system means hundreds can be catered for by just a few people, or simply an English pub with a big bar where you can walk up to the bar staff and order – sort yourself out rather than relying on others to carry a glass for you. Unfortunately in Eastern Europe there appears to be an unwritten rule that one must never ever approach the person pouring the beer, or expect them to be able to operate a till.

Any place, city, town or village automatically feels enhanced by a centrally located brewery and/or its taproom, and this is certainly the effect Mali Medo has had on Zagreb old town. There is some work to do on the beers themselves, and it would be nice to see a few more pub touches, just slightly, to add character. It wouldn’t be an 8/10 unless there was some constructive criticism to encourage improvements. Aside of this, it still remains an essential, indeed desperately vital place to go for a beer in Zagreb.

Jazz Kocsma, Szeged

jazzkocsma

Kálmány Lajos u. 14, 6721 Hungary

One of the pleasures of travelling is the sense of inevitability of unearthing a gem, something even more rewarding when it has involved some level of adventure. That was certainly the case when discovering Jazz Kocsma in Szeged, a fascinating and typically Hungarian university town bordering Serbia, which I wrote about recently in my sister blog Undiscovered Europe. Being in Szeged was alone, rather off the touristic beaten path, and even for a well-seasoned traveller there was a certain sense of the mystic about it with its enormous twin spires brick cathedral with volleys of bats swooping around it, a similarly enormous synagogue and the whole Vojvodina region being largely unknown to me.

There are bars in Szeged city centre, as you’d well expect, although we found fairly few for a city of its size. Unfortunately due to being out of term time, it was also sheepishly quiet at times. The central pub scene seems to divide itself between student drinking and old man drinking, without too many crossover places (which were tacky and/or corporate in any event). It was quite difficult to find any drinking holes that looked like they’d made any efforts to be homely, characterful or different. After a couple of hours of mediocre boozing we decided to call it a night, with the option of a venue called Jazz Kocsma, which we would drop by on the off-chance it was still open in the early hours.

On an unlit back street 20 minutes out of the centre, in a spookily quiet backstreet (to the point of feeling abandoned), Jazz Kocsma hoved into view. When we approached the bar, its old wooden doors were shut, the ancient lettering above the door frame several decades old at least – from there it seemed impossible to think the place had opened to anyone for years. Remarkably its inception was in 1992, so one can only assume they were going for a 1930s speakeasy vibe from the word go.

However, desperate to find somewhere before heading back to our awful hotel (the Tisza Sport, if you’re interested, though please don’t stay there) we tried the doors and to our surprise and relief found light downstairs, the place alive and accepting guests. There was a short break of silence as we walked in (the entrance of four Englishmen at a late hour most likely unexpected), and while surveying the scene we discovered this very ramshackle ancient jazz club, with a corner bar area on the right and small stage on the left, with resident piano and giant old rug lending the place a somewhat homely feel – that is, if the home had been left vacant and squat in periodically for a decade – however that isn’t intended to be a criticism in this case.

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The beer options are perfunctory Hungarian stuff, unspectacular, with the risible Borsodi at least being cheap, and a dark lager option that will almost certainly prove a better bet. The bar staff were neutral and as impassive as ever for Hungary (it remains to be seen what actually surprises Hungarian middle aged men) and the bar area was a very typical example with lots of pinewood giving it an almost cabin type quality versus the look of the place as a whole.

However, while we were in search of a good beer in a good pub the primary quality of Jazz Kocsma is not beer but atmosphere. Being very late at night, events were slowing in pace, with groups huddling quietly around ramshackle tables and vintage furniture and paintings in the candlelight. The mood lighting and gentle murmur of the groups in each area of the room set the tone nicely, as does the homely, yet dilapidated décor.

Yes, the Jazz part of their title does actually mean something, and although there was no music playing at our late time of arrival, their events calendar shows their live music performances remain in full swing with 5/6 official events a month, and more if you count the open mic stuff. It was easy to see from the interior how a Jazz band would elevate the experience. Make sure to check before you go as you may find that your woozy late evening pint is interrupted by some energetic live music performances (or alternatively visit in search of those performances to find one man and his dog at the bar trying to dissolve into the scenery).

This venue is a historical slice of local life that seems determined never to redecorate or change. Impossible to tell whether it was always this ad hoc, old and crusty or it has been happy to become so worn down. Regardless, the end effect is a powerful and distinct experience that will elevate your evening out in Szeged and prove that sometimes the best pub experiences aren’t always going on in the centre of town. It’s telling that the place is still going strong despite the lack of marketing and obscure location, largely from word of mouth. Such institutions are rarely bad places to visit. This is one of those encounters that rewards curiosity and comes highly recommended.

  • Quality and/or choice of drinks – 4/10
  • Style and Decor – 7/10
  • Character, Atmosphere and/or Local Life – 10/10
  • Amenities, Events & Community – 7/10
  • Value for Money – 8/10
  • F: The Pub-Going Factor –  9/10