The Great Pizza and Wine Pairing Expedition, Part III: Southern Italy

Our Italian tropological trudging in the Great Pizza and Wine Pairing Expedition has come upon its final chapter. Brick Fire Tavern and its regional menu has faithfully led us from the slopes of the Italian Alps in northern Italy and its creamy rustic flavors of the forest (in Part I) down to the ancient city of Rome (in Part II), tasting a few of the most iconic combinations in Italy's illustrious culinary history. In this final installment, our expedition reaches the southern shores and azure blue waters of the Mediterranean. A utopia that begs for fellowship, relaxation and perhaps a modicum of frivolity. Sounds as though things might get a little spicy...

The Pizza Prolegomena

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With a pizzaria as our guide, it is a fitting conclusion for our journey to arrive at the birthplace of modern-day pizza. The dish traces its ancient beginnings as far back as 600 B.C.E. to the city of Naples as an inexpensive meal for the city’s many poor laborers. A simple dish utilizing common household ingredients, pizza was the perfect solution for a hungry working class. It wasn't just the working class, however, that indulged on the doughy delight. A peasant dish with royal intrigue. Over the centuries, Neapolitan pizza has developed its own distinct technique, style and flavors. Growing in popularity, it is now cultishly sought after in countries around the globe.

To preserve and cultivate the culinary art of Neapolitan pizza, an association (Associazione Verace Pizza Napoletana) was established in Naples to certify restaurants around the globe in the Neopolitan pizza-making style. To qualify as VPN-certified, a pizzeria must use only certain ingredients and equipment and adhere to strict cooking methods. The certification is similar in concept to the famed wine appellation designations that contain rigorous viticultural standards (the most significant difference is the fact that the VPN certification is not restricted to a particular geographic location). Does certification guarantee good pizza? Of course not. [Is there sub-par wine in Bordeaux?] It does, however, evidence a passionate dedication to the Neapolitan pizza-making craft and tradition. 

Brick Fire Tavern is the only restaurant in Honolulu with this distinction (there are less than one hundred in the entire United States). During Matthew Resich and Inthira Mark's studies and apprenticeships in Campania, they not only learned the craft of making and baking Neapolitan pizza dough, but also garnered a deep appreciation for all of the ingredients that together contribute to this iconic style. For Brick Fire, the VPN Certification is no marketing gimmick. It is a recognition that the restaurant and its owners respect and promote the proud Neapolitan tradition of pizza-making. Brick Fire Tavern painstakingly adheres to the VPN guidelines (which are numerous), and fosters southern Italy's philosophy of using the highest-quality, fresh, local and seasonal products available. Eat local, drink local, source local.

Flavors of Southern Italy

Southern Italian cooking features a bright, lively, Mediterranean-style cuisine. Many dishes in this region utilize simple cooking techniques and fresh, healthy ingredients. While northern Italy runs on butter, southern Italy makes the most of its abundance of olives that thrive in the region. Olive oil and local vegetables (such as tomato, eggplant and bell peppers) take center-stage with fresh coastal seafood and various cured meats. The dishes are flavored with garlic and brightened with fresh herbs, such as basil, oregano, thyme, rosemary and parsley.

The south also prefers to always look on the spicy side of life. Salami, sausages, peperoncino and Calabrian chili peppers liven dishes and make the hot weather appear a little more bearable. Don't be fooled, however. Spice doesn't only mean heat. The chili peppers of southern Italy are extraordinarily flavorful and bring tremendous complexity to a dish. Pasta dishes are often simply dressed with olive oil, toasted garlic and red pepper flakes. The family table sans fresh chili's is an incomplete one.

With such a diversity in flavor, wine pairings must be equally diverse. Many of these regional dishes are light and feature fresh vegetable and seafood. For these, try crisp white wines with bright acidity and harmonizing salinity typical of the coastal terroir, such as Vermentino and Falanghina. Want to spice it up? Balance rustic herbs, red meats, and spicy salami with a wine that has some body and plenty of complexity, such as Aglianico, Primitivo and Negroamaro. These wines, grown in the rich, well-drained volcanic soils of the south, are robust, opulent and age-worthy.

Mediterranean Meets Pacific

Brick Fire’s only seafood pizza, Da Shrimp Truck, brings together the sandy beaches and blue waters of its two inspiring homes: southern Italy and Hawaii. The pizza boasts a creamy besciamella white sauce and showcases the white shrimp famous to Hawaii's North Shore. Cheese is in abundance with fresh mozzarella, while roasted chopped garlic adds an occasional burst of flavor on the palate. A squeeze of lemon overtop brightens the dish and adds a touch of acidity to balance the flavors and cut the rich sauce. As with all of Brick Fire's pizzas, the crust is the perfect combination of a crunchy exterior and soft, chewy interior.

This pizza exemplifies a simple pizza pairing tip: don’t always reach for red wine. For pizzas favoring fresh seafood and white sauces, consider a white wine with sufficient body and acidity. Here, we chose Falanghina - a crisp white wine native to the southern shores of Italy. Noted for its minerality and brilliant aromatics, Falanghina is a shining example of the variety of white wines to discover in Italy, and their pairing potential with fresh flavors from the sea.

This Falanghina, produced by Villa Raiano in the region of Campania, was fruit-forward with flavors and aromas of ripe peach, tart apple, and apricot. Fruit, however, wasn't the only party patron. Floral and herbaceous elements, minerality and honeysuckle contributed to a medium body with subtle sweetness and plenty of complexity. The finish was long, crisp and pleasant.

Oh, Mamma Mia!

For those that prefer to spice it up whenever possible, Mamma Mia! is the ideal selection. The Mamma Mia! showcases the spice of Southern Italy with San Marzano tomato, Soppressata Salami, pancetta, mozzarella, Italian sausage, red onion and a hot pepper medley. To pair, perhaps the best red wine that you have never heard of.

Aglianico is noted amongst the best red wine varietals in Italy, along with Sangiovese and Nebbiolo. That is certainly fine company, but Aglianico's global diaspora has been surprisingly limited. Only recently has the grape [finally] been moving into mainstream wine-enthusiast circles.

Aglianico is also known to be one of Italy’s oldest varietals, migrating to Italy from Greece in the eighth century B.C.E. and accompanying (causing?) intoxicated debauchery during the rise and fall of the Roman Empire. Even in the days of Caesar, there were ample vinous options for the ancient oenophile.

The varietal is most often derived from volcanic soils that yield complex, highly structured wines. It’s floral aromatics, high tannins and balancing acidity have earned it the nickname, the Nebbiolo of the South. While you have likely surmised my affinity for Nebbiolo, I must say without hesitation that Aglianico is definitely worth some diligent and inebriating exploration.

This wine from Gioviano Irpinia was beautifully aromatic with scents of blackberry, cherry, plum and oaked characteristics of cedar and tobacco. The palate was firm with strong mineral elements and subtle smoky and spice notes and astringent tannin. The Mamma Mia! is rich with three types of fatty meats and spiced with the hot pepper medley. In essence, there is a lot thrown at your poor, unsuspecting palate. The Agianico handles it all, brilliantly. Possessing great structure and depth of flavor, this youthful wine would benefit from some time to decant, smoothing out the firm tannin and allowing the fruit to shine. If you are ordering at Brick Fire, I would recommend doing so early and allowing the wine to decant in the glass while you partake in an aperitif and some appetizers.

With that our trilogy comes to its conclusion. A special tip of the cap to our metaphorical travel guide, Brick Fire Tavern, and all of the passion and knowledge it brings to pizza-making in the Pacific! Now that you are are armed with some pizza and wine pairing tips, get out into the wonderful, tasty world and explore!!