Classic Italian pasta dishes like spaghetti carbonara or penne putanesca continue to rest comfortably on many menus in the States. After all, these filling dishes are synonymous with comfort food. But the best new restaurants in the country are reinterpreting these classic dishes and introducing pastas that play off of the themes of their traditional Italian brethren. Not only have the classic Italian pasta dishes been embellished, reinterpreted, and deconstructed, but new pasta dishes are appearing all the time that don’t recall any of the traditional recipes - to the diner’s eye, at least.
Matching wines with pastas used to be a relatively simple matter in the age of traditional sauces. But with the introduction of pastas that diverge, sometimes quite dramatically, from the classic recipes, rules like “Chianti with red sauces” have become just as flimsy as the clichéd “white with fish, red with meat” maxim.
Given the amazing diversity that characterizes both sides of the pasta-wine equation, the new rule for matching them is that there is no rule, but there are some guiding principles. As many sommeliers remind us - even when we're not talking about pasta - think about the sauce. Buttery sauces often call for buttery wines - California chardonnays and the like. Acidity needs to line up between the dish and the wine; this is the real truth behind the Chianti and red sauce cliché. After this kind of basic chemical agreement, it’s largely a matter of experimentation, subtleties, and open-mindedness.
What follows are a sampling of delightful pasta dishes and suitable wine pairings. Each wine and pasta duo works together to create a whole that is greater than the sum of its two parts. And that’s what wine and food pairing is all about.
Barbara Lynch’s »Orechiette with Anchovies, Cauliflower, and Pistachio Nuts
Cat Silirie, Wine Director of No 9 Park, recommends Villa Bucci’s 1999 Verdicchio Riserva with this pasta. Verdicchio is a grape native to the Adriatic Coast of Italy and, in the hands of a conscientious producer like Bucci, creates an intensely aromatic wine with layers of spice, smoke, and apricot. On the palate, the wine exhibits both citrus and nutty qualities that complement the pistachios in the dish. The crisp acidity works well alongside the butter and anchovies as well.
Wines of this appellation, Verdicchio dei Castelli di Jesi Classico, were traditionally bottled in amphora-shaped bottles after World War II, but as producers like Bucci improved the quality of the wine, they adopted more conventional shapes to avoid association with the older bulk wines. The “Jesi” refers not to Jesus Christ, but to one of the ancient, fortified hilltop towns near the region called Aesis.
Joseph Scarpone’s »Roasted Lamb and Potato Gnocchi with English Peas and Saffron Broth
The wine director of Tra Vigne, Jeff Porter, enthusiastically put forward two wines to accompany this dish. The first was a 2001 Barbera d’Alba from Germano Ettore. This is a contrast pairing; the lush and bright fruitiness of the wine along with Barbera’s typical high acidity offset the smoky richness of the lamb and lighten the dish. This is the warm weather combination.
In winter, when you want to make the most of the depth and intensity of the lamb and gnocchi, Porter suggests the 2001 Tofanelli Charbono from the Napa Valley. This little-known varietal packs a punch, with a smoky character, dark fruits, and sweet tobacco that take on the dish on its own terms. Aging in American oak adds a spiciness that completes the animal magnetism of this pairing. Charbono is taking a place in California alongside Petit Syrah as Zinfandel’s tough little brother; like Zin it seems to be an Italian immigrant, and winemakers like Tofanelli have finally learned to tame its tannins and acid to make some dynamic wines.
For Chef Dante de Magistris' “grandmother’s spaghetti,” blu restaurant’s wine director Mark Goldberger has a wine that also goes into the chef’s past, Mastroberardino’s 2002 Greco di Tufo. It seems the chef’s family used to grow their own Greco di Tufo down the road from the Mastroberardino estate, so this wine and recipe grew up together. History aside, the pairing also makes culinary sense; the citrus and nutty notes that characterize the wine bring out the matching pine nuts and lemon juice on the plate. During the hot Italian summers, Dante’s family brought this combo with them to the beach. It sure beats hot dogs and beer.
Antonio Mastroberardino is definitely a winemaker who appreciates the value of history. The winery uses native grapes exclusively, and because of their attention to ancient Roman winemaking, the Soprintendenza Archaeologica of Pompei has entrusted them with managing the vineyard sites inside the city’s remains. Greco di Tufo is believed to be one of the grapes that the ancient Romans grew for winemaking. It grows well in Campania on tufaceous soils (volcanically-boiled chalk), which lend it the tag “di tufo.”
Jonathan Sundstrom’s »Wild Boar Ravioli with Chanterelle Mushrooms and Wild Huckleberries
Chef Sundstrom himself favors a big, full-bodied Syrah with this dish, and the one that came to mind for me was the 1999 Neyers Hudson Vineyard Syrah from Napa Valley. The intensity of the boar and lift from the huckleberries are matched by smoked bacon, cassis, and blueberries in the wine, all smoothed by a note of white chocolate. The golden raisins and currants in the dish will also bring some lift to the wine and highlight its fruity aspects.
Neyers is a completely organic property where they have carefully studied and adapted French techniques for their wine production. This shows in all their wines but especially in the Syrah, which definitely leans more toward the Northern Rhone than toward Australia. For the Syrah, Neyers sources their grapes from Lee Hudson’s Vineyards in Carneros. Neyers’ handling of the grapes in the winery is as painstaking as the care and attention to detail for which Hudson is known.
Serve this together with Elk Cove’s 2001 Pinot Noir Roosevelt, just as we had it at Barking Frog in Seattle. This soft wine has a smooth earthiness that, together with a note of clove, brings out the mushrooms superbly. Meanwhile cherry and blueberry aromas complement the lemon-thyme foam. And since this Pinot Noir has been grown and made as a Pinot Noir, you’ll still be able to taste the halibut alongside everything else.
Elk Cove is among the leaders of Oregon’s two wine specialties, Pinot Noir and Pinot Gris. The Roosevelt Vineyard is densely planted and occupies four acres of their 150- acre estate. Its steep hillside location and the Willakenzie soils that Oregon is noted for insure good drainage, and winemaker Adam Godlee has given this wine the attention that grapes from such a well-chosen site deserve. Elk Cove has two other single vineyard Pinot Noir bottlings as well – Windhill and La Boheme- along with an estate bottling of the varietal, a Syrah, a Pinot Gris, and a handful of Rieslings.