Vince Capano is a two time winner of the Quill and Tankard writing award from the North American Guild of Beer Writers.
Vince's column is now a regular feature of beernexus.com
Passion at Piccolo's
Imagine winning the lottery. Not just some depressingly small amount like $50 or $100 million. Think big, say $600 million, no, make that $1,000,000,000 (I’d add another zero but I’m not the greedy type). With a bankroll like that you could move to a palatial mansion in any of the grandest cities in the world. Paris, London, Rome, or New York would be nice. When I asked Joe Pampinella, the general manager of Piccolo’s restaurant in Kinnelon, NJ, where he would move if he won the big pot there wasn’t a split second of hesitation in giving his answer: “I’d move to Escondido, California. And I even know exactly where I’d move to - 1998 Citracado Parkway.”
That’s an answer only someone who is incredibly passionate about beer would choose. You see, 1999 Citracado Parkway in Escondido is the home of the great Stone Brewery. Yes, Joe is one serious beer guy. But of all the breweries in the world why Stone? “I was a single malt and vodka drinker until the first moment I tasted Stone Arrogant Bastard at The Office in Montclair (NJ)” he said. “From that moment on I became devoted to the beer .” And just how serious was his love affair with Arrogant Bastard? It was the only beer Joe drank for three straight years. That’s serious passion in anyone’s book.
Coming under the spell of the Stone Brewery’s gargoyles may have been one small step for a man but it’s proven to be one giant leap for beer lovers in New Jersey as Joe, a lifelong restaurant professional, has transformed several Bud/Miller/Coors locales into destination stops for craft aficionados. Most notably, as the bar and restaurant manager at Tap Room in Warren (NJ) he foresaw the craft beer revolution. With the able assistance of its current beer maven, Kevin Torpey, he began a crusade against the giant purveyors of yellow swill. “The big breweries sales were stagnant and the vodka craze was starting to fade. Kevin and I believed that craft beer was the next vodka but convincing ownership was another story.” Someone with less faith in the future of craft beer could have safely waited to see what would happen. Joe’s passion however demanded action.
“I’m proud of my work at the Tap Room especially when I see it on the lists of best beer bars in the state. That’s my mission here; to make Piccolo’s a destination stop for craft beer lovers. When I came to Piccolo’s it was known for outstanding food but not beer.” So one of the first things he did was to remove the macro beer taps including their best selling lines of Coors Light, Bud, and Yuengling. Ownership and Joe realized it was a risky move especially at a place where Michelob Ultra was seen as an exotic brew. Indeed, most of the bar patrons knew little about craft beer and if any beer hunting traveler stopped in they took one look at the taps and quickly asked for directions to the Ramstein craft brewery a few towns away.
Joe’s immediate task was to convince his regulars to try the strange elixirs now flowing from behind the bar. “For example, I’d bring in an imperial stout or a doppelbock and it was easy to see many were afraid of anything dark. To them dark beers were all strong, heavy and basically undrinkable.” So, in addition to managing the entire restaurant, including the creation of an outstanding wine list of 56 excellent bottles, (he’ an expert there too), Joe now had to add ‘beer teacher’ to his job duties.
He quickly put his gregarious and affable personality to good use by making it a point to engage Piccolo’s patrons in chats about the amazing flavors in craft beer and how they would enhance food. Joe was sure to always offer complementary samples to prove his point. In a short time beer sales increased over 60%! This Pied Piper of Beer’s siren call was proving irresistible.
According to Joe, “Piccolo’s, for nearly two decades, has been a successful, warm, and friendly place due to the efforts of our owner, Mark Piccolo. Thanks to him, there's a positive atmosphere here that I believed would help me nurture a culture of good beer." Because of that he wasn’t surprised to find that many of the regulars enjoyed tasting the new beers and appreciated their quality. They also appreciated Joe’s obvious passion for good beer. “When I see the look of enjoyment and amazement on a customers faces as they taste their first Trappist Tripel or bourbon barrel aged stout I’m thrilled. Good beer to me is like a great symphony in that you just want to share it with everyone.”
Ah, I love it when they play our song.
Currently there are 18 taps at Piccolo’s with 4 having been added just this week. Thanks to Joe’s savvy and industry reputation more and more of the most elusive beers are beginning to show up on Piccolo’s taps. In fact that’s what brought me there for the first time ever last week. The word on the local beer grapevine, or more accurately “hopvine”, was that they were serving the exquisitely delicious Goose Island Bourbon County Stout. The only other area watering hole featuring it that weekend was, well, there wasn’t one.
I was the first one at the bar that afternoon which is always a good thing. That makes it easy to pretend it’s the pub of my dreams - I’m the owner and no one else is allowed in, except for the bartender of course. My bartender that day was Jimmy, one of a rare breed - he actually knew about beer. The bar itself is welcoming and cozy with about 14 seats and three high top tables with chairs. The tap menu included several unique offerings from Stone. Can anyone say Stochasticity Project Grapefruit Slam IPA three times fast? How about after drinking three of them just as fast? Stone was joined by hard to find offerings from Goose Island, Kane, and Founders among others. The beer menu also helps set this place apart from the craft bar usual suspects. It explains each beer in detail along with listing the serving size, price, and ABV.
I ordered several beers and each was exceptionally fresh. Unlike the aforementioned usual suspects, Piccollo’s lines are clean (Joe uses the pros at Pure Pour). Oh, come on, I’m willing to bet each of you can name more than a few places that rarely clean their lines with anything stronger than the beer that’s in them.
Every beer I had was served in a glass with the proper logo. There’s nothing worse to me than having to drink a superbly crafted beer out of a Coors Light glass. Wait, I take that back. One thing worse is having to drink a Coors Light out of a Coors Light Glass. Piccolo’s understands and appreciates the totality of the beer drinking experience. Not only does the glass logo match the beer in it, the glass is appropriate for the beer style. I saw rows of goblets, tulips, and weizen glasses waiting to be filled with Quads, Belgium Pales, and Dunkelweizens. My Bourbon County Stout was served in a Goose Island stout glass - snifter like, short and squat befitting the brew’s 14.5% ABV, complex aroma, and taste. At Piccolo’s beer is respected for the quality drink it is.
To further introduce his customer base to world class brews Joe has, on occasion, had special tap takeover promo nights. When the wannabe craft bars do it they usually bring in 3 or 4 beers from a featured brewery. That won’t do at Piccolo’s. In an upcoming Dogfish Head Night the beers served will include their 60,61,75,90 and 120 minute IPAs among others. I’ve got my mind set on being the first to complete the full 406 IPA tour! Oh, did I forget to mention Joe will also have Dogfish Worldwide Stout? Here’s my helpful hint for who want to get in the Guinness (no not the one in Ireland) Record Books – mix the World Wide and 120 IPA. You’ll not only get two beautiful layers of separation, you’ll also be able to say you’ve had the world’s strongest Half and Half at 18%-20% ABV.
Beers turnover quickly at Piccolo’s. It’s not uncommon for Joe to put 5 or 6 different ones on each week making it seem like a mini-beer festival. To enhance the adventure of trying the constantly rotating offerings Joe has begun a Beer Appreciation Club. Essentially, you drink beer and he gives you perks. No denying the beauty of that logic. Joining up is clearly a no-brainer since any right thinking person would be drinking those great beers anyway.
One of the dilemmas faced by any bar and the brewing industry itself is how to get more women interested in beer. Piccolo’s seems to have found a few answers. “Many women tell me they don’t like beer because it’s too bitter. To counter that I ask them to sample things like wheat beers and certain Belgium brews. When someone tells me they want a Blue Moon, made by Coors, I recommend Allagash White instead. I’ve even put beer cocktails that I’ve personally devised on the menu.”
Beer cocktails as a bridge drink to serious craft beer is a really creative idea. Wait, let me rephrase that. It's a passionately creative idea. After all, when it comes to Joe Pampinella and beer passion is the operative word!