Learning how to pair distinctive Italian wine and food with a chef and wine director at Vivere, Chicago
I’ve moderated numerous seminars and taught many classes on Italian wines over the past decade and one question that always comes to the forefront is “what foods should I pair with this wine?.” It’s a great question, not only given the relationship of food and wine in general, but especially given the nature of Italian wine and its link to a specific sense of place and the local foods that pair effortlessly with these wines.
It’s a subject that has many right answers (and very few wrong ones) and it’s one that I never tire of studying. Given that there are hundreds of indigenous varieties used throughout Italy, which are used to produce thousands of wines, well you can just imagine the endless array of flavors – as well as textures and acidity levels – in these wines. A medium-bodied red such as Dolcetto with its fruit forward nature is going to need an entirely different food than a Barolo with its firm tannins. And these are two wines that are often produced from vineyards only a few miles apart in Piemonte! Now think about the red wines from southern Italy, such as Puglia or Campania and you have a whole new set of variables. As I said, this is an endless journey; but it’s also one that brings a great deal of pleasure into one’s life.
Ian Louisignau, Wine Director, The Italian Village, Chicago (Photo ©Tom Hyland)
So to learn more about the subject of pairing Italian wines and food, I went to see my friend Ian Louisignau, wine director at The Italian Village Restaurants in the heart of the Loop in downtown Chicago. Ian took over this job last year and has continued the stellar tradition of an exceptional wine program at this long-time family owned restaurant.
So I brought four Italian wines – two whites and two reds – that were not sold at the restaurant and asked him to pair them with something off the menu at Vivere, the upscale dining room at The Italian Village (there are also two less formal dining rooms at The Italian Village: La Cantina and The Village.) I thought that by bringing in wines Ian had not tasted, he would have to come up with an original pairing – this wouldn’t be a wine and food match that he makes all the time. I loved doing this and I believe Ian did as well, so here are his thoughts on what to match with each wine.
2011 Le Caniette Passerina “Lucrezia” (the label of this wine is pictured at the beginning of this post) – I thought this would be a great, slightly offbeat way to begin, by tasting out this relatively rare white indigenous variety from southern Marche. This is an excellent example of this wine; medium-full with aromas of dried pear, orange blossom and biscuit, this has lovely texture and a rich finish with a note of honey. Aged only in steel tanks, this has very good acidity and offers a great deal of character for its moderate pricing (about $12 retail, a steal!).
Ian (and his chef Robert Reynaud, who was with us for a few minutes), suggested the Spiedino di Capesante, rosemary skewered scallops with lime braised fennel, crisp romaine and yellow tomato purée (my mouth waters even as I write about this!). As the Passerina is not a big wine, scallops are ideal for a dry white such as this and certainly the aromatics of the wine are nicely complemented by the lime braised fennel. A nice start and an intriguing match!
2010 Villa Raiano Fiano di Avellino “Alimata” – Here is one of two cru offerings of Fiano di Avellino from this excellent Irpinian producer; this wine was awarded the coveted Tre Bicchieri ranking from Gambero Rosso in their 2012 guide. This is a very impressive Fiano with flavors of lemon and Bosc pear and a very, very long, satisfying finish with notes of honey and minerality; it is drinking beautifully now and will be enjoyable for another 3-5 years. To pair with this wine, Ian selected Granchio e Astice Freddo – jumbo lump crabmeat and Maine lobster with a tarragon emulsion, toasted brioche and micro arugula. I think this is a great pairing, as not only are the flavors of the crab and lobster ideally suited for Fiano, but you also have the slight earthiness of the wine’s finish that is picked up by the bitterness of the arugula.
2005 Falalone Primitivo Riserva – This wine from the Gioia del Colle zone, one of the great growing areas for the Primitivo grape in Puglia is a robust (15% alcohol) red with plenty of character as well as a slight rustic edge. It’s a big, gutsy wine, but it’s elegant with subtle wood and balanced tannins. For this wine, Ian suggested two different options. The first was Pappardelle with wild boar ragu; the second, Cannelloni di Vitello, crepes filled with braised veal breast, fava beans and pickled red onions. Two excellent choices here, given the power of this wine as well as its hearty character; the wild boar is a natural for the assertive flavors of Primitivo.
2006 Batasiolo Barolo “Vigneto Boscareto” – The final wine was a cru Barolo from the commune of Serralunga d’Alba from Batasiolo, a consistent producer with an impressive track record for single vineyard Barolo. This is from the classic 2006 vintage, a year that resulted in very rich Barolos that are tightly wrapped and need several years to reveal greater complexity. This Boscareto from Batasiolo is not as intense as some 2006s, but it is a big wine with plum, cherry, myrtle and tar flavors with medium-weight tannins; while it will be at its best in another 12-15 years, it is balanced enough to pair now with the proper foods.
For this wine, Ian opted for Maiale con Speck, pork tenderloin wrapped in speck, potato carrot purée, brussel spout leaves and a balsamic glaze. This is a lovely match, a dish that has the richness of the pork tenderloin to stand up to the fullness of this wine along with the earthiness of the carrots and brussel sprouts that pick up on the tannins and render them more elegant (carrots and turnips are great to serve with a young, tannic red as they make the wine seem less tannic- this, a tip I picked up from a winery chef years ago).
So there you go, class dismissed. I hope you learned a few things about pairing particular Italian wines with Italian foods. If you’re ever in Chicago, dine at The Italian Village and you’ll have a wonderful experience learning about this subject. Hopefully Ian will be there to answer your questions – you’ll learn a lot!