EAT-aly! It is one of the most prodigious food destinations in the world. And, you may have noticed, its wines are pretty good, too. Viticulture has thrived in the region for thousands of years, and the culinary heritage of Italy is the spellbinding synthesis of food and wine. At the table, wine is not an option, it is a presumption. I like this country already.
While Italy is not a geographical behemoth (its length is comparable to that of California), the culinary traditions from north to south vary tremendously. In every corner of Italy, enthusiasts can experience flavors, aromas and techniques that make each region unique, vibrant and special.
With an expansive Italian diaspora, today we are extraordinarily spoiled with the opportunity to experience and taste a more complete portfolio of Italy’s marvelous regional culinary mosaic. I would humbly suggest that we do so, immediately. In a three-part series, I embark on a culinary expedition through the mountains, valleys and shores of this food haven, showcasing the flavors and wines that make each region uniquely delicious.
I commence in Willy Wonka fashion:
Come with me
and you’ll be
in a world of
Take a look
and you’ll see
There is no
life I know
to compare with
wine and pizza pairings
you’ll be free
The Regional Pairing Paradigm
Italy may be the quintessential exemplar of the longstanding principle that pairing food and wine from the same region can be the best, and easiest, strategy. It may sound simple, but regions produce certain styles and varietals of wine for a reason. The particular climate, terroir, and growing conditions unique to a region’s wines are oftentimes the same characteristics imparting flavor to the local cuisine. There is a natural, symbiotic relationship between the food and wine traditions of a particular region. They are not cultivated without the other in mind.
From north to south, each Italian region fashions its own contributions to classic Italian food and wine with distinct and compelling flavors. Sometimes the safest bet is to eat local, drink local.
Brick Fire Tavern, located in Honolulu’s Chinatown District, deliciously conforms to this regional pairing paradigm.
With an emphasis on fresh ingredients and a classic Neapolitan pizza-making style, Brick Fire Tavern has established itself as the preeminent pizzaria in Honolulu. It’s masterminds, Matthew Resich and Inthira Marks, rigorously studied under Enzo Coccia, a famed pizza chef (or "pizzaiolo") in Naples, the ancient birthplace of pizza. Their knowledge and experiences under the pizzaiolo’s tutelage in Italy are poured into the recipes, technique and style of the restaurant. Among many fascinating aspects of the restaurant, Brick Fire Tavern’s menu is structured to optimize the regional harmony found in Italian wine and cuisine. What a coincidence; Brick Fire Tavern’s menu philosophy is aligned with our expedition.
In this Trilogy, I utilize Brick Fire Tavern’s expertise and menu in exploring Italy’s regional profiles.
The Northern Limits
Our journey coldly commences in the Italian Alps of northern Italy. Bordered by France, Austria and Switzerland, this region has adopted many similar cooking styles and flavors of its northern neighbors. Chief among them is the region’s use of butter-based sauces rich with cream, which lend a silky texture and hearty aroma. In a cool and mountainous region, the culinary focus is on nutty, earthy ingredients from the neighboring forests, such as sage, rosemary, juniper berry, hazelnut, wild mushroom and truffle. The gamey local meats and root vegetables are generally slow-cooked on low heat, providing time for the flavors to develop and affording a deliciously rich character. Grains share space in the cupboard, with a steady rotation of dishes such as polenta, gnocchi and risotto.
Although the land and forest dominate the cuisine characteristics of the north, the bounty of the sea makes its contributions to the region. The cool coastal waters of Veneto, home to Venice in northeastern Italy, provide octopus, mussels and clams, while lakes in the region yield a tremendous variety of freshwater fish.
For earth-driven dishes, the vinous selections of northern Italy balance the meal perfectly with rustic flavor profiles and sufficient acidity to cut through the rich flavors. Be on the lookout for Nebbiolo, arguably Italy’s greatest red wine, and its Piedmont brethren, Barbera and Dolcetto. Enjoying some of the coastal seafood of Venice? Garganega, famously produced in the gentle rolling hills of Veneto’s Soave appellation, is one of Italy’s most extraordinary white wines.
Funghi Fanatics Enjoy the People's Wine
Brick Fire Tavern’s nod to the north is wonderfully expressed in its Funghi pizza with besciamella (an adaptation from the region’s northern neighbor, France), a medley of forest mushrooms, fresh mozzarella, fontina and flat leaf parsley. The pizza is beautifully balanced with earth tones from the mushrooms, a delightfully rich, creamy besciamella and the right amount of salt and herbs to harmonize the palate. Disclaimer: I am a funghi fanatic. That said, this is one of my all-time favorite pizzas.
We wanted a rustic wine with crisp acidity and a mixture of fruit and earthy flavors to match our mushroom medley. Barbera answered the call.
Barbera is versatile, structured for food, abundant and cheap, earning it the nickname “the people’s wine” as the preferred proletarian vinous beverage. Enjoy Pinot Noir? You’ll probably be a fan of Barbera.
Renato Ratti Battaglione Barbera d’Asti is a perfect example of Barbera’s quality and approachability. This wine was medium-bodied with medium-to-high acidity and low tannins. On the nose, bright aromas of dark cherry, strawberry, blackberry and herbal tones, with cedar and vanilla that evidenced the wine’s oak aging. While the tannins were present, they were smooth and mellow, allowing the vibrant fruit and earthy characteristics to take the deserved spotlight. A great selection for the mushroom flavors and rich besciamella sauce of the pizza.
While the rustic, earthy, creamy dishes of the north make farewells difficult, onward we must push. In Part II of the Trilogy, we continue our sojourn south with a layover in central Italy, the heart of Ancient Rome, to discover the flavors and wines of this iconic region.