Top Pair: It’s Not Too Much on Your Plate, If It’s All Good Stuff

top pairing
by Jeff Harding with photos by Shannon Sturgis
Vol. 34
March 2013   

Catching up with Sommelier and Wine Director Jen Sgobbo is no easy task, but certainly easier than her job of managing multiple wine lists in the rapidly expanding Lil ‘Wisco Group. Training staff and maintaining small, focused wine programs are just the beginning of her duties. Throw in multiple styles of cuisine, different chefs, and varied concepts, and the fun really begins.

Of her list at Chez Sardine, Sgobbo explains: “The white wines get a little more attention, as the cuisine is more fish-focused, and the reds lean more toward the lighter side of the spectrum.” French, German, and Austrian wines are joined by a small sake selection to accompany Sardine's non-traditional take on Japanese izakaya cuisine.

Italian food—with a heavy dose of offal—is the focus at Chef Michael Toscano’s Perla, but Sgobbo and Owner Gabe Stulman agreed to build a half Italian and half French wine list. Customers love the mash-up, and sales are evenly split. “Why can't one drink Cru Beaujolais with Pappardelle Bolognese?” argues Sgobbo. (Or Alsatian Riesling with Scallops Alla Piastra, which we found delightful.) The pairings below are Italy on Italy, but the insight and creativity which Sgobbo brings to the table makes us want to drink whatever she’s pouring.

Restaurant
Who
Sommelier Jen Sgobbo A native of New York City, Jen Sgobbo began her career at the highly regarded Gramercy Tavern. After ten years at the Tavern, Sgobbo now manages multiple wine lists for Lil' Wisco Restaurants, which includes Perla and Chez Sardine in New York City. Her lists focus on esoteric and funky wines, yet still offer traditional and classic selections. Sgobbo is devoted to constantly training and educating her staff and specializes in reading guests, whether it’s opening their eyes to something new, or giving them exactly what they ask for.
Wine
Lambrusco, Fiorini, “Becco Rosso,” Emilia-Romagna, 2011
Dish
Crispy Testa, Pig's Ear, Grilled Onions, and Aceto Balsamico
Pairing Note
What does Chef Michael Toscano pair with pig's head? More pig's head, of course. With his unctuous, crispy, fried testa, Toscano adds a flourish of crunchy pig ear strips. And for non-porcine balance, he anchors the dish on a pool of creamy cannellini bean purée. The intense crackle of the pig’s ear contrasts with soft black strands of sweet caramelized onions. A nice breading on the testa makes it accessible for those new to the funkier pig parts. And sweet acidity from aged balsamic keeps the richness in check, and knits the dish together.

To accompany Toscano's pork celebration, Sgobbo gets it just right with a crisp, red bubbly. The effervescent fruit of the Fiorini Lambrusco sings with the balsamic, and the combination of bubbles and refreshing acidity cuts through the lush earthy notes in the dish. Comprised of two Lambrusco clones, Sgobbo explains that the Grasparossa di Castelveltro is brooding and tannic, while the Lancellotta clone is delicate and perfumed. “The blend results in a lightly extracted and floral Lambrusco that still has some grip,” she says. She further explains that the “bubbles cleanse the richness of the crispy testa, while the sweet raspberry fruit in the wine becomes one with the sweet aceto balsamico and caramelized onions.” And rounding out the pairing is the “undeniable minerality,” which melds with the earthy cannellini beans.

Wine
Nero d’Avola, Calabretta, Sicily, 2004
Dish
Garganelli, Tripe, Prosciutto, and Chile
Pairing Note
The star of this dish is the garganelli, made fresh everyday. The toothsome texture and shape allows the sauce (reminiscent of a Bolognese but reinvented with finely ground tripe) to creep inside just like it should. Again making offal approachable, Toscano softens the texture and flavor of the tripe (which can be off-putting to beginners) by grinding and combining it with garlic, tomato, onion, and chile.

Sgobbo’s pairing challenge here is to complement without overwhelming, and the Sicilian Nero d’Avola matches the spices while rounding the sweet earthy tripe. Volcanic ash soil lends a beautiful minerality and high acidity to the wine, which is balanced with ripe fruit for a rustic yet elegant pairing. “Nero D'avola is arguably the most important grape in Sicily, and it can range from being super extracted and fleshy to more mineral driven and dusty depending on where it is grown,” she says.

The tripe is braised with a little vanilla, which lights up with a sip of wine, and the moderate acidity in the Nero d’Avola keeps the tomatoes in check. “This wine has dried herbs, plums, and light vanilla notes mixed with approachable acid and zesty minerality,” says Sgobbo. “I love the pairing because the earthiness in the wine becomes one with the offal, while the sweet, dried quality of the fruit melts into the sweetness of the prosciutto.”

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