The magic door

The magic door

Just down the Via Sant’Agata, at no. 20, is a short flight of steps and a worn iron railing. Attached to the railing are three planters containing herbs. One is stuffed with cigarette butts, because you can no longer smoke inside bars in Italy (thank goodness). At the top of the steps is a dark oaken door with cast-iron fittings. Behind that door is another, with stained-glass cut in red and gold. The heavy limestone doorframe features garlands and ribbons centered on a broken shield. Above the lintel is a light. The light is bright green. The green light shows the way to Elfo’s.

This post is dedicated to Chris, Mac, and Shmed. Wish you were here.


Elfo’s is a superior local that has just turned nine years old under its current ownership, though its history goes much deeper. It is warm, friendly, and funny. Two ancient vaulted rooms house well-worn wooden tables and chairs, and bottles, caps, signs and props dot the walls.

The list

The list

The proprietors, Natale and Rosaria, are deeply knowledgeable in the gift of Ceres (cerevisia/cervisia in Latin; see here for a linguistic map of words for beer across Europe). They spend their vacations (each summer after Umbria Jazz) searching out new brews across Europe. About a month ago, Natale said he had acquired two kegs of Saison Dupont Cuvée Hopping 2013 from Brasserie Dupont in Belgium, which produced only 500 casks this year. It was a lovely crisp, citrusy, dry-hopped brew that was perfect for a light meal at the start of a match.

Simon at Elfo's

Simon at Elfo’s for the match of the day

Elfo’s has all the channels for soccer games; on big nights Natale has to take reservations to fit everyone in. Unlike Indiana, there are no restrictions against having kids in bars, so Simon and Jakob often accompany me to watch Italy, Juventus, or any other games that look good. Our friend Tim also often joins us. The drinking age in Italy is 16, and a local Perugian ordinance raises that to 18, but the onus is not on the establishment, but on the parent. The boys have never seen anyone drunk — they see how customers appreciate social drinking in moderation, an example which would probably do American youth a world of good. I’ll nurse a glass (OK, sometimes two) for a game while the boys get coca-cola alla spina (“on tap”). There are at least ten beers on tap which rotate regularly, and hundreds of bottled varieties. Europe, the birthplace of the brewpub, has caught on to the American micro-brew revolution, and the array of offerings is growing in complexity and creativity.

Natale delivers "Maltamente"

Natale delivers “Maltamente” (see below)

I recently asked Natale some questions about the establishment, and here’s how he replied (in translation).

1. How did the Elfo’s adventure begin for you?

“On 13 October 2004, two youths decided to take over the ‘old’ Elfo’s, driven by the desire to work with people and create a welcoming and fun place. Beer as the ‘protagonist’ came later. We might say that for the past three years it has been at the center of the project, born from a passion for this ancient beverage (at first) insufficiently appreciated in Italy — I mean craft beer — which is the fruit of the brewer’s imagination and above all, the quality of ingredients.”

2. What’s your favorite beer, and which brewery would you most like to visit?

“I love every beer now; there a beautiful phrase from an expert who says: ‘beer does not exist; beers do!’ I think there is a beer for every moment. Lately, I have become greatly attracted to spontaneously fermented beers — Belgian lambics — but one day I would like to visit California for its breweries and its amazing hops!”

3. Where did the ‘Elfo’s’ name come from? What’s the history of the building?

“Elfo’s is the longest-lived ‘public house’ in the historic center of Perugia (since 1989). I believe its name stems from its Irish origins as a pub; before that, it was called ‘Caliph’ (in the 70s-80s) as is inscribed in marble on the entrance. It was a kind of hippie hangout, a magical place; from that period some beautiful Indian trays still remain, as well as the fresco of Buddha in the Himalayas in the front room. Always over the front door — still — there is part of the papal coat of arms; in fact, the two rooms currently belonging to Elfo’s were originally owned by the church — maybe they were storerooms –; the ceilings and the walls of the back room are made of stone and are original (1500s?).”

4. What are some interesting facts we ought to know about Elfo’s?

The lucky bike

The lucky bike

“The history of Elfo’s is full of legends and stories like any place frequented by many people over many years. There is a bike attached to the ceiling, for example (no one knows who did it or why), but touching it will bring you luck!”

5. What is Elfo’s current mission?

“Today, Elfo’s is a dedicated ‘birreria‘. We have over 200 beers; we want to share all that we we love about beer with our customers. We do tasting sessions, we meet with brewers and breweries, we constantly have new arrivals, and we are giving a lot of attention to the brand new Italian craft breweries and of course Umbrian brews. Finally, we never forget that a pub ought to be, first of all, a nice place to stay and relax after a day of work or study!”

Speaking of tastings, a few Mondays back, Elfo’s had an event called “Maltamente,” which was a tasting ‘up the ladder’ of malt flavors, accompanied by crostini (appetizers). Rebecca and I sat down to sample the five flights.

The bitter

The bitter

1. Hardknott Continuum English Bitter, 4%; accompanied by toast with butter and anchovies
– This mild bitter offered a simple start, a way to whet the appetite with a silky but satisfying standby that nicely countered the salty fish.

The brown ale

2. #Mashtag democratic American brown ale from BrewDog in Scotland, 7.4%; accompanied by slightly melted Pecorino and pear on crisp bread discs.
– This beer had a heady malt aroma; it was rich but sharp, and did not ‘die’ after a several minutes out in the air. The fruitiness of the pear and cheese combo, which would also have been nice with wine, helped to cut through the maltiness of the beer. The recipe was put together by worldwide Internet input, and turned out remarkably well.

The dark lager

3. Nood & Deugd, Dutch dark lager, 6.2%; accompanied by liverwurst and salt-encrusted Sicilian capers on crisp bread discs.
– This beer was very clean — no disguised aftertastes, and a nice roasted flavor. Its underlying sweetness paired well with the liverwurst, and helped balance the saltiness of the capers. It is not very robust for a dark beer, but it would be harsh to call it ‘thin’. This was Rebecca’s favorite beer. ‘Nood‘ means ‘Necessity’, and ‘Deugd‘ means ‘Virtue’. This beer has both.
The smoked beer

The smoked beer

4. Aecht Gehlenferla Rauchbier from Bamberg, Germany, 5.1%; accompanied by salsa di pepperoni with smoked ricotta on toast.
– I tried this beer in February when I first came to Perugia, and it convinced me we were going to the right place for sabbatical! It has a lingering smoked flavor — uncannily like smoked salmon, but absent any fishy flavor. Its ingredients are simple but strong: smoked malt + water. The tangy sweet appetizer of the pepperoni (which here means marinated sweet red/yellow bell peppers, not slices of cured meat), leavened with the shredded cheese, leveled the palette for another sip!
The smoking gun

The smoking gun

5.  Texas Ranger, from Mikkeller, brewed in Belgium, 6.6%; accompanied by chopped Calabrian ‘Nduja on toast.
– Natale told us we would have a ‘sorpresa’ at the end and boy, was it. He asked us to take a drink, and a pleasant chocolate-coffee taste presented itself. Then he counted, “uno, due, tre…;”  by the third count we were hit by a wave of heat from this Belgian porter spiced with Mexican chipotle chiles. There was no relief from the appetizer either, as the pepper-spiced chopped-meat ‘Nduja of Natale’s native Calabria served an uppercut to the hard hook of the beer. Water was useless, but we soldiered on, even as I broke out into a sweat trying to finish both (because, despite the heat, they were good). Mikkeller is a ‘gypsy’ operation, the result of an itinerant Danish brewer who goes from brewery to brewery implementing his recipes and trying experiments. As we drank our sample, Natale played the Killers on the stereo. The label has a large revolver drawn on the front. Indeed, if you drank an entire bottle of the stuff you might just want to use it.
The flight of five

The flight of five

So if you happen to find yourself in Perugia, or wish to take a pilgrimage, make sure to step out into the stony streets after 21:00, wander over to Via dei Priori, and then turn at the church of Santa Agatha, which is undergoing a half-hearted restoration. You’ll see a bright green light above the ancient papal coat of arms. Walk on in and Elf Yourself.
Read the last line

The last line reads: “La birra piccola è immorale!