By Frank Cipparone
To say that Italians are passionate about many things – cars, opera, soccer, fashion – is an understatement. With food and wine that fierce pride borders on obsession.
Pairing food and wine is a topic for serious debate about the correct bottle for the meal at hand. Unlike the large restaurant chain that hypes itself as a place of “no wrongs, just rights,” Italians will accept only a few “right” choices and adamantly voice their opinion as to which is best. I’ve sat in many a trattoria and been amused by an animated discussion at a nearby table over which wine should be served.
Case in point, a friend from Naples was having lunch on the Amalfi coast, that sunny strip of paradise known for an abundance of seafood. One of his dining companions, a northern Italian, insisted on ordering a bottle of Amarone, a rich, full-bodied wine meant for the porchetta, mushroom polenta and game-based pasta of his region. With grilled fish and fresh frutti di mare in Campania? Infamnia!
There may be no hard and fast rules but there are guidelines that can make pairing easier and a meal more enjoyable. The objective is to balance whatever is on your plate and in your glass. Food can change wine and vice versa. The basic elements of both should be complementary to bring out the best of each. A dish or wine tasted on their own that brings a smile might cause you to gag when combined. There shouldn’t be a hostile takeover of your tastebuds.
The key to Italian food is simplicity, a confirmation that less is more. Recall family dinners where each plate contained three to four basic ingredients. Or the imposing timballo created from pasta, eggplant, mozzarella and tomatoes that was featured in the film “Big Night,” its masterful appearance disguising its simplicity. When food becomes complicated finding the wine to match is harder.
It’s said that “what grows there goes there,” meaning that the agriculture, animals and grapes of a region have a natural affinity based on geography and culinary tradition. Keeping that in mind, what follows are pairings based on weight, acidity and balance, with wines that should be pretty familiar and available.
Abruzzo – Pasta alla chitarra with lamb ragu, red chilis and Abruzzese goat cheese calls for the soft tannins and uncomplicated flavors of Montepulciano d’Abruzzo to tame the spice and stand up to the meat sauce.
Puglia – Orecchietti with meat-based sauce – those “little ears” will open wide for an earthy Negroamaro from Copertino or Salice Salentino. Spicy pasta and sausage – the medium acidity and smooth tannins of savory Primitivo tone down the heat.
Emilia-Romagna – Pasta with Prosciustto di Parma, or a plate of charcuterie and cheese – any dry, fizzy Lambrusco with crisp acidity will cut through the dairy and meat fat. Pappardelle Bolognese is a classic that needs the acidity, depth, tannin and fruitiness of Sangiovese di Romagna.
Piedmont – Tagliatelle with mushrooms or truffles – Dolcetto’s sharp acidity will counter the pasta’s weight and mushroom funkiness; Barolo is the perfect match for truffles. Agnoletti stuffed with meat and herbs is asking for fruit driven, food friendly Barbera from Asti or Alba. Polenta with mushrooms and gorgonzola – Barbaresco’s tannins can be tough, but the creamy weight of polenta will counter that. Braised pork with lentils and root vegetables – rustic Barbera di Monferrato, which is heavier, deeper, and more flavorful.
Umbria – Risotto with porcini mushrooms – the texture and heft of Sagrantino balance the density of risotto and the risotto takes the edge off the wine’s gruff tannins. Spaghetti with black truffles wants Sagrantino’s lighter, more acidic cousin Montefalco Rosso.
Tuscany – Pasta with spinach, kale, escarole – Chianti Classico of course! Pasta fagioli – Tuscans love their beans, so give the legumes Carmignano or Chianti Rufina Riserva to offset the starchiness. Pappardelle with wild boar ragu – the signature pasta of the region demands the dark fruit and lush body of Brunello to enhance the richness of the sauce.
Lazio – Cacio e Pepe – a Roman staple is at home with the local red Cesanese, light and refreshing with all that cheesy goodness. Fettucine Alfredo or Spaghetti Carbonara – heart attack on a plate mixtures of butter, cream, cheese and egg need light acidic whites like Frascati or a Marino DOC blend to handle the bulk of these pastas.
Veneto – Grilled seafood – the balancing
act of a Lugana white’s racy acidity and mild salinity or Soave’s full body will do the trick. Porchetta with figs and risotto – a big dish needs a big wine. Now we’re ready for Amarone…and probably a digestivo. Pasta with anchovies and tomatoes – salt and acidity of the ingredients do well with a medium weight red counterpart like Valpolicella.
Sicily – Bucatini with grilled sardines – either substantial whites like Catarratto and Grillo or a light red Frappato can make it work. Pasta with swordfish – it’s about balance, so a red from Faro DOC or Grillo works well. Gnocchi with pork ragu takes to the acidity of Nero d’Avola or an Etna Rosso. Linguine Francesco – my celebration of Sicily, a saute’ of sundried tomatoes, capers, pistachios and golden raisins waiting for an Etna Rosso or Carricante, my go- to white.
Matches made in heaven? No, just Italy … which may be as close as it gets.