How to Pair Wines with Italian Food
Two Chicago sommeliers share their thoughts on pairing Italian wines with dishes.
Americans might have grown up on red-sauce joints, but the broad flavors of Chicken Parmesan and spaghetti with meat sauce don’t convey all of the flavor nuances that Italy has offer—on the plate or in the glass.
When it comes to wine, there are 3,500 indigenous grape varietals in Italy and 50,000 winemakers, says Bret Heiar, sommelier at Nico Osteria in Chicago. From the Amalfi coast to the top of Mt. Etna, the biodiversity makes for an array of wine options with flavors that pair with a wide variety of foods.
“One thing about Italian wine and food in general is that people don’t realize how diverse it is,” Heiar says.
Indeed, Mt. Etna, the volcano located off the eastern coast of Sicily, is one of Heiar’s favorite (ahem) hot spots right now. There, winemakers are producing red wine similar in body to a pinot noir; Heiar recommends the 2012 Nerello Mascalese Valenti Norma—“a spicy, earthier pinot noir”—with a classic Margherita pizza. Then there’s Liguria, a coastal inlet between Piedmont and Tuscany that is home to “crisp, refreshing, great seafood wines” like Bianchetta Genovese Bisson Liguria and Pigato Bisson Liguria. Not coincidentally, of course, Liguria also has great seafood.
“Just look where something’s from,” Heiar says of pairing wines with foods. In other words: If your menu is heavy on Sicilian flavors, your wine list probably should be, too. That might be a more reliable rule of thumb than the old “red with meat, white with seafood” convention.
“I love smashing the norms of what people think they have to drink,” Heiar says. “The old rules of white with seafood and red with meat are antiquated. There are so many fish, sauces, and preparations. Yes, red meat does go with red wine, but in Barolo, they drink Barolo (a red wine) with branzino (a fish).”
Heiar makes his food and wine pairing choices more on the basis of body, coupling sweeter whites—like one from the northeastern Friuli-Venezia Giulia region—with dishes that pack a little heat, or partnering refreshing reds like Nebbiolo with hearty fish like salmon. (Incidentally, for Nico Osteria’s branzino, which is salt-crusted and prepared with fingerling potatoes, leeks, and pancetta breadcrumbs, Heiar likes a “light, fresh” red like frappato, often found in Sicily.) There are many lighter Italian reds to choose from, he says, adding that, when in doubt, “always go rose.” Heiar likes Italian rose made with Sangiovese grapes.
Aldo Zaninotto, beverage director of Osteria Langhe, also in Chicago, echoes Heiar when he champions the diversity of Italian wines. “There’s so much more wine out there than people know,” Zaninotto says. “Every region has its own climate, soil, varietal, cuisine. Wine should adapt to that cuisine.”
Zaninotto focuses on bringing his customers the best of the Piedmont region, a northwestern area of Italy bordering France and Switzerland. One of his favorites from that region is Nebbiolo.
“It’s so intriguing and beautiful,” he said. “It can really express every character in that region.” And because there’s so much diversity within the varietal, Zaninotto can pour a Nebbiolo for a wide variety of dishes.
He is also a fan of Dolcetto as a springtime red wine, which he compared with France’s beaujolais: a soft, fruit-forward option that pairs beautifully with spring produce like fiddlehead ferns. For a recent Osteria Langhe dish of octopus with salsa verde, he liked an “elegant, plummy” Dolcetto D’Alba from Ca’Viola in Dogliani. For food with a spicier, creamier flavor profile, Zaninotto would choose a grignolino—“the grey one,” a nod to the grape’s color. It’s a neutral red that will boost a spring vegetable. “It’s not so well known, but it’s so beautiful,” Zaninotto says.
For fans of the crowd-pleasing pinot grigio—a popular varietal to grow in Friuli-Venezia Giulia and Trentino Alto Adige—Zaninotto suggests arneis, a dry, light white wine that pairs nicely with everything from asparagus to oysters (thanks to its minerality). “It’s a patio wine,” Zaninotto says. “Spring and summer, it’s perfect. So refreshing.”
Another refreshing sipper—bubbles—is ideal for summertime oysters and crudos. Heiar says more bubbly is consumed per capita in Piedmont than anywhere else. “Our seafood [at Nico Osteria] is so fresh; its purity is great, and bubbles complement it without overwhelming,” he says. “It’s like a splash of lemon.”
We asked Heiar to play matchmaker with a few archetypal dishes from Nico Osteria’s menu:
For a hearty tomato-sauce dish like Rigatoni Bolognese:
Barbera San Fereolo Austri Piemonte 2004
“A serious barbera meant to age, it’s a rich, complex wine with a low tannic structure—a great partner with a classic bolognese instead of being a competitor.”
For seafood pasta like Squid Ink Chitarra with octopus sugo, pancetta, and uni:
Prié Blanc Ermes Pavese Blanc de Morgex et de La Salle Valle d’Aosta 2013
“Pre-phylloxera vines from very high-elevation vineyards. The wonderful acidity plays well with the complex flavors.”
For a rich and meaty dish like Stuffed Pappardelle with milk-braised pork, carrot, and black truffle:
Nebbiolo Vallana Gattinara Piemonte 2006
“Alto-Piemonte makes wonderful Burgundian-style Nebbiolo. The pure, clean fruit plays well with the pork, and the acid and tannins are balanced well with the dish.”
For a vegetable-driven dish like Potato & Ramp Cappelletti with Pecorino and toasted rice:
Pecorino Marramiero Superiore Abruzzo 2014
“Named after the sheep, not the cheese, Pecorino pairs wonderfully with… Pecorino. It has enough natural body-weight to hold up against the potatoes and ramps without oak or high alcohol getting in the way, keeping it fresh and lively.”