There is something about Italian wine that takes you immediately to the table. Images of fun gatherings with family and friends or romantic dinners for two come easily to mind. With that thought, Faith and I decided to put together some easy ideas for an Italian wine inspired dinner. Here's a whole menu, beginning to end, of Italian food and wine. You just add the table and the friends, and it's a celebration waiting to happen. Putting together a multi-course meal with wines for each course can be a lot of work (not to mention expensive, especially if you have a lot of people coming to dinner). But the delight of a big meal like this at home, paired with wines like in a fine restaurant, is something that people don't get to experience very often. I (Faith) try to do this once or twice a year with friends — it's such a fun and abundant sort of meal.
Here's how this will go: Mary will talk about the wine she recommends for each course, and then I'll show you the wine I found locally, and the food that I made to go along with it.
1st Course: Prosecco & Nibbles
Prosecco is the much-loved sparkling wine from the Veneto area of Italy. Because of its popularity, there was a lot of mediocre Prosecco made in the late 2000s. However, since 2009, things have vastly improved. Under the new, tighter regulations Prosecco wines can only come from the Veneto regions. The best wines carry the DOCG Conegliano and/or Valdobbiadene designation. A number of other designated communes within the Veneto can call their Prosecco wines DOC Prosecco. These are also very good, perhaps not as firmly structured as the former, but deliciously tasty.
It is lovely to start off a meal with a glass of Prosecco. It is fresh and fruity with gentle, creamy bubbles. If you prefer the drier style, look for Brut on the label. Prosecco labeled Extra Dry is sweeter, with up to 20g/l residual sugar compared to a max of 15g/l for Brut. While it is such an easy drink to sip joyously on its own I like to leave out nibbles for guests such as Marcona almonds, spicy shrimp, angels on horseback or even simple slices of chorizo or prosciutto.
Mary's Favorite Prosecco Wines
My favorite Prosecco producers include Zardetto, Mionetto, Bisol and Voveti.
Faith's Prosecco Pick
I picked up this Soligo Prosecco ($15) from a local wine shop. It's really delicious, a little creamier than cheaper Proseccos I've had, and it smells of apples. Simple and yummy.
When cooking a mult-course meal, it's best to keep things simple to start. As Mary says above, nuts and meats are a good way to start, and the oils and fats in these things are delicious with the more acidic Prosecco. Here I set out prosciutto rosettes and roasted pistachios.
2nd Course: Soave White Wine & Spaghetti with Ramps
Soave is a very versatile wine and also extremely food friendly. It is fairly medium-bodied, so I usually avoid pairing with overly rich, heavy dishes. It is an ideal spring or summer wine. The predominant grape in Soave is the local Garganega grape. The DOCG rules also allow for the inclusion of Trebbiano, Pinot Bianco and Chardonnay. Soave wines are not very aromatic. Acidity is crisp. Flavors are typically citrus, yellow plum/greengage and almond, which gives a lovely slightly nutty bitterness on the finish, which makes Soave a perfect foil for salads with bitter herbs, ramps and beets.
• Beet salad with arugula and other bitter salad leave
• Spaghetti and ramps
• Chargrilled zucchini, toasted hazelnut, arugula, basil leaf salad.
Mary's Favorite Soave Wines
My favorite Soave producers include Pieropan, Inama, Fattori and Gini.
Faith's Soave Pick
I actually had some trouble finding Soave; it's very popular at my local gourmet grocer, and the wine guy there said they haven't been able to keep it in stock. I bought their last bottle of this all-Garganega i Stefanini Monte de Toni Soave ($15) and fell in love with its full-bodied, ripe flavor. It's not sweet at all, and very clean, with tastes of apricots and peaches. Totally delicious, especially with the delicate pasta.
I went with Mary's suggestion and made a quick sauté of spaghetti with ramps and mint, which was delicious and aromatic together with the Soave. These two together would make a perfect small weekend meal.
• GET THE RECIPE: Spaghetti Pan-Fried with Ramps & Mint
3rd Course: Chianti & Veal Meatballs in Red Wine Sauce
Everybody loves Chianti. It conjures up images of rolling Tuscan hills, romance and all the beauty of Florence. It is a mark of origin that resonates with most people, especially Americans, given the strong Italian-American culture in the United States. The Chianti DOCG area covers almost all of Tuscany. Therefore there is great diversity within the wines. In general simple Chianti is best enjoyed when young (within 2 to 3 years of the vintage), so that its freshness and juicy cherry fruit flavors can be fully enjoyed.
The marked acidity and sandy tannins of Chianti make it a great food wine. Chianti needs food. The high acidity is perfect to cut through tomato / tomato sauce based dishes as well as fatty meats. While the classic pairing is steak, I also love a glass of young, unoaked or lightly oaked with game meats and all sorts of slow-cooked/braised stews.
• Rabbit with tomato and rosemary
• Veal lasagna
• Wild mushroom and tomato ragout
• Thyme-infused grilled skirt steak with creamy polenta
Mary's Favorite Chianti Wines
My favorite Chianti Producers include Ruffino, Badia A Coltibuono, Selvapiana and Frescobaldi.
Faith's Chianti Pick
I shopped for wine at a couple different places for this menu, and at one of my favorite local wine shops, the Barrel and Bottle, Jen immediately hopped over to this Chianti when I told her what I was looking for. She described it as an Old World meets New World wine. This Brancaia Chianti Classico was a little more than I wanted to spend ($30) but oh, it was worth. Big, fat, juicy, full of red fruits and cherry, a long finish and lots of oak and vanilla, this was scrumptious with tomato sauce and meatballs. Definitely open before drinking; it's good with an hour or two in a decanter.
Veal, tomato sauce, Chianti — check. When making a meal like this, it's nice to have something you can prep ahead and just leave simmering on the stove. For this secondo stage of the meal, I offer up veal meatballs in red wine and tomato sauce. Make them the day before, then simmer off in sauce while you prep and enjoy the first courses. I served with garlicky kale, since there was pasta as the primo, but you could also do more pasta or polenta.
• GET THE RECIPE: Veal Meatballs in Red Wine Sauce
4th Course: Vin Santo & Gorgonzola, Honey and Walnuts
Vin Santo is an Italian sweet wine made from dried grapes. It is typically made from the local white grapes Malvasia and Trebbiano, although sometimes a proportion of Sangiovese grapes is included. After harvesting the grapes are laid out to dry for several months. This drying process concentrates the sugars, acids and flavor compounds in the grapes before fermentation.
Though traditionally paired with biscotti, there are so many other possibilities for Vin Santo. It is delicious with cheese, especially strong blues as well as a lot of rich chocolate and dried fruit desserts.
• Blue cheese recommendations include Gorgonzola Dolce, Roquefort or St. Agur from France or Shropshire Blue form England.
• On the pudding or dessert front, tarts or pies with walnuts, hazelnuts or pecans are perfect, as is a rich chocolate pudding.
Mary's Favorite Vin Santo Wines
My favorite Vin Santo producers include Felsina, Badia A Coltibuono and Altesino.
Faith's Vin Santo Pick
Vin Santo is not an inexpensive wine; expect to pay between $30 and $40 for a 375ml bottle. I found this Redi Vin Santo di Montepulciano from 1995 for about $40. It tastes of honey, chestnuts, and herbs, with a touch more acidity on the finish than I expected. Sublime with blue cheese.
When serving an expensive dessert wine like Vin Santo, it's best to let it stand alone and take center place as the dessert itself. I served gorgonzola drizzled with honey, and sugared rosemary walnuts (get a similar recipe here. This may sound austere, as a dessert (no chocolate??) but believe me — it's rich, satisfying, and so luxurious.
After a long, rich meal like this we like to bring out small cups of coffee and perhaps a square or two of bitter chocolate. Finish at the very, very end with shots of an Italian digestivo like Fernet Branca.
Mary Gorman-McAdams, MW (Master of Wine), is a New York based wine educator, freelance writer and consultant.
(Images: Faith Durand)