Pizza has become a moving target: toppings, sauces, cheeses and other adornments can go in a thousand flavor directions, all held together, more or less, by the world's most perfect comfort food: crust. That leaves the task of pairing wine with pizza a bit more fraught than it used to be but no less delightful. Just let comfort be your guide.
Italians know a bit about this: The universe of Italian wine has a kind of built-in hierarchy where modest, everyday wines are as cherished and embraced as the grand wines. It's why Montepulciano Rosso coexists alongside Vino Nobile, why Barbera and Pelaverga vines are within shouting distance of the Nebbiolo vineyards of Alba. The reason Italians invented everyday wines is because they love to drink wine every day. A second reason might be pizza.
Pizza purveyors in Los Angeles and their beverage directors have been taking this as a rule of thumb ever since. Certainly this is true of Jeremy Parzen, wine director at Sotto, chef Steve Samson's lauded southern Italian restaurant — which includes a 15,000-pound pizza oven. Parzen has been going to Italy since the late '80s and has frequented his share of pizza parlors in Naples and elsewhere. As he got into wine he started to pay more attention to what people were drinking with their pizze — and it wasn't wine. Often as not it was beer, or Coke, but invariably, it was fizzy. "It's become my No. 1 criterion for pizza wine," he says. "It has to sparkle." So with a white pizza, the go-to wine for Parzen and his staff are the sparkling wines of Franciacorta.
A pizza with red sauce, meanwhile, calls for a red sparkling wine; Lambrusco in its drier forms can fit the bill, but Parzen generally prefers the wines from Campania, grown on the hillsides surrounding Naples, principally Gragnano and its sister appellation Lettere. "Both are made primarily from a red grape called Piedirosso," he says, "and there's nothing like it: fresh, sparkling, light in alcohol, grapey, and with chewy red fruit."
In American restaurants, the wine most associated with pizza is Chianti, the Sangiovese heavy Tuscan blend served, historically, in the archaic, bottom heavy, straw-girdled bottles known as fiasci. The Chianti fiasco was a ubiquitous fixture of cheap dates and cheap chic home design (as wax-encrusted candle repositories), a preferred lubricant in overlong Billy Joel ballads, a vinous cliché par excellence, tinged with a tawdry sentimentality that was often far more potent than the wine — which was invariably sour, reedy and thin.
It turns out the easiest thing to change was the bottle's contents. In 2013, an Italian wine retailer living in San Francisco named Ceri Smith managed to reclaim fiasci in all their kitschy splendor. Smith had just been hired to write a new wine list for Tosca, a storied restaurant in North Beach, and wanted something emblematic to pour and display for the reopening. So she reached out to Michele Braganti, owner of Monteraponi, a venerable organic winery in Radda in Chianti, to see if he'd be willing to put new wine in old bottles.
Braganti signed on; the wines were delivered days before opening and were an immediate hit, simple and spectacular, with the fiasci enacting their Proustian magic upon every tabletop they graced. Braganti no longer produces this wine, but American Michael Schmelzer, who owns an organic Chianti winery called Monte Bernardi, agreed to take up the project. For about $25, you can get a liter of delicious, mouthwatering, organically grown Chianti en fiasco, smelling of roses and dried cherries, lightly tannined, rippling with fat-cutting acidity, conveyed in a vessel that would make Billy Joel proud.
Three pizza wines available at Sotto and elsewhere:
The Le Marchesine Franciacorta is available at the Wine Exchange, about $30.
The Poggio delle Baccanti Gragnano is available at Wine House and Domaine LA, about $16.
The Paolo Palumbo Lettere is available at K&L Wine Merchants, about $18.
New Wine in Old Bottles