Italians take their pizza seriously, even going so far as to name one after one of their first Queens, Margherita. The sovereign had her first nibble of the simple folk’s repast in 1889. Soon upper crust Italians were dining on such favourites as lard pizza and the ever popular Margherita (made with tomatoes, mozzarella and basil). Not long after, the passion for pizza spread to America. The first pizzeria opened in New York City in 1895, and included among its illustrious clients the King of Tenors, Enrico Caruso, who claimed eating pizza gave his voice its inimitable timbre.
Pizzerias are now found in every part of the world – including tiny villages in Nepal and the Yucatan, and superstar chefs are using the humble bread-dough base as a canvas for their unlimited imagination. Truffles, goat’s cheese, foie gras and caviar – all the international sophisticate’s favourite ingredients – have taken their turn on a pizza crust. Yet, until very recently, the most common partner for pizza – even in Italy – was beer. However, a dedicated band of pizza fanciers has begun to realize that pizza offers the wine lover the opportunity to create the perfect foil for his or her personal favourites.
The strongly-flavoured, fatty cheese such as fontina, tuma piedmontese, ermental and pecorino softens the tannins and rounds out the flavour of full-bodied, moderately alcoholic reds (Barbera, Nebbiolo, Syrah). When stringy, milky cheese such as mozzarella and scamorza are the dominant component, it is best to go with flavourful dry whites (Sauvignon Blanc, un-oaked Chardonnays, Alsace Pinot Blanc, Verdicchio, or Soave Classico Superiore) or supple, zesty reds (Bardolino, Beaujolais, Bourgueil). Aged cheeses with intense and persistent aromas go well with well-structured, tannic and alcoholic reds (Barbaresco, Vino Nobile di Montepulciano, Taurasi, Californian Cabernet Sauvignon). The soft buttery texture and tangy flavour of aged Gorgonzola can be paired with aged reds (Barolo, Montepulciano, Australian Syrah).
When choosing the ideal pizza for your fine wines, do not underestimate the breadth of textures and flavours offered by mushrooms. Truffles, for example, cry out for mature wines with evolved bouquets (Barolo, barrique-aged Cabernet or Barbera). Aromatic and meaty porcini mushrooms require full-bodied, freshly acidic wines, with decent alcohol and tannin levels (such as Montepulciano d’Abruzzo or Sangiovese di Romagna) or barrique-aged whites (Chardonnay, Semillon).. Chewy, woodsy-scented shiitakes are well suited to mature, firmly structured and zesty reds (mature Cabernet, Chianti Classico or Burgundian Pinot Noirs). With the broad, earthy tones of Champignons choose a sprightly, aromatic white (Sauvignon Blanc) or a young, vibrantly fruity Cabernet Franc (such as a Chinon).
The soft, farinaceous qualities of potatoes bring out the personality of a wine with powerful, evolved fruit, spicy flavours and highish acidity (like Amarone della Valpolicella or Barolo), while fruity, young red (Dolcettos Cabernet Franc, Beaujolais Villages) is a fine match for the sweetish, slightly smoky flavours of grilled peppers, zucchini and aubergines. Asparagus and red and yellow peppers on a cheesy pizza base go well with full-bodied whites (lightly-oaked Chardonnay, Greco di Tufo). The broader tones of aubergine and zucchine can go with either medium-bodied reds (Chianti, Cabernets) or flavourful whites (New World Chardonnays or White Rhones).
Velvety-textured, richly flavoured wines, with persistent fragrances (such as Vino Nobile di Montepulciano or Barolo) can stand up to a good dollop of herbs: oregano, basil, rosemary even sage. These seasonings can also enhance the spicy elements of an oak-aged wine.
The smoky notes of bacon and proscuitto nicely underscore the broad fruit of Barbera d’Alba, a Rosso Conero or a Chilean Cabernet, while the piquant character of sausages suit hearty Primitivo- or Nero d’Avola-based reds, substantial Rhone reds and California Zinfandels.
Pizzas topped with shrimp or lobster may be served with medium to full bodied whites or light reds with crisp acidity (Californian or Chilean Sauvignon Blanc, White Zinfandel, Bardolino, Grignolino). Mussels and clams, too, can be paired with flavourful and zippy whites (unoaked Chardonnay) or firmly-structured rosés (Ciró Rosato, Castel del Monte Rosato, rosés from Provence). For those who simply have to have bubbles, pinot-noir based sparkling wines from Spain, Italy or the New World could also hold their own with seafood pizza.
The slightly salty flavours of anchovies or sardines call for a young, fruity wines, with zesty acidity and a savoury flavour (Côte du Rhone, Provence rosé with good body).
A scattering of fresh rocket, basil or parsley lifts the heavy flavours of fatty cheese and rich meats, and thus widens the range of potential wine partners to include younger, fresher reds and whites (Valpolicella; Cabernet Franc; lightly oaked, cool-climate Chardonnay)
A sprinkling of pine nuts or grated cheeses add a touch of sophistication to a pizza and makes it a better partner for a more complex wine.
For the imaginative connoisseur, pizza offers the personal canvas on which to design the perfect accompaniment for his or her favourite Great Red Wine. So why not unlock the cellar door, blow the dust off some of those cobwebby bottles and invite your wine-loving friends over for the ultimate Pizza Party! After all the best accompaniment for a Great Wine is good company.
Pizza, a Launching Pad for the Stars
L’Oro di Napoli (1954) Vittorio De Sica directed the lush and lovely young Sofia Loren, who plays the ultimate in sexy pizza sellers.
Fast Times at Ridgemont High (1982/88?). The story of pizza-eating California teens, with a cast of future stars: Sean Penn, Jennifer Jason Leigh and Judge Reinhold. Note the film debuts of Forest Whitaker, Eric Stoltz, Anthony Edwards and Nicolas Cage (under his real name Nicolas Coppola).
Mystic Pizza (1988) The film that launched Julia Roberts (who play a pizza waitress). Matt Damon also has a small part.
The Return of the Killer Tomatoes (1988) A pizza delivery man is the only one who can save the world from a mad scientist who is turning people into tomatoes and vice versa. A young George Clooney has a supporting role.
A Perfect Pizza Match
I asked some of Italy’s top wine winemakers and producers – Filippo Mazzei, Aldo Conterno, Piero Mastroberardino Anna Bologna and Franco Giacosa – what type of pizza they would serve with their most important red.
Castello di Fonterutoli’s Chianti Classico Il Castello: A base of four cheeses (buffalo mozzarella, pecorino, parmigianno and scamorza) topped with rocket..
Aldo Conterno’s Barolo Vigna Colonello: Prosciutto, porcini mushrooms and grilled seasonal vegetables seasoned with sage and rosemary
Mastroberardino’s Radici Taurasi: A classic pizza Margherita made with buffalo mozzarella.
Braida’s Bricco Dell’Uccellone Barbera D’Asti: Shavings of white truffle on a cheese base of melted tuma piedmontese, fontina and buffalo mozzarella.
Feudo Principi di Butera’s Deliella: Grilled aubergines, and herbed potatoes, dusted with grated parmesan and pecorino cheese and sprinkled with pine nuts.