If you make a mistake when learning to speak Italian, I’ve found the locals are generally very encouraging in their correction. Only once have I find it awkward, the time I stopped in front of a salumeria in Orvieto and asked my older male friend, my boss’s husband what palle di nonno were.
But if you make a mistake when eating in Italy, you will be corrected (and not always so gently). It’s best not to drink cappuccino outside of breakfast time, sprinkle Parmesan on spaghetti allo scoglio or squeeze lemon onto fried seafood. There are firm rules about food and drink, which each make perfect sense.
But there is one rule that I cannot figure out and that’s No Wine With Pizza. For Italians, beer is best. While I understand how beer proves a good match for pizza, surely wine works too. Bread and wine, cheese and wine, tomatoes and wine, these are all happy combinations.
In the UK we are content with a box of pizza and a bottle of wine. Red, white, rosé, orange, sparkling: head to a pizzeria in London (and there are some great pizzerie) and you will see wines of every colour gleaming from glasses, like precious gems refracting pecorino. In our humble non-Italian opinion, wine and pizza works. In search of confirmation to quash the No Wine With Pizza myth, I turned to leading food and wine matchers Joe Wadsack from BBC2’s Food & Drink programme; Victoria Moore, wine writer for the Telegraph and Fiona Beckett of Matching Food and Wine for their prime pizza pairing choices and their responses were all wine, red and Italian—a Piedmontese Barbera for Joe and a young, unoaked Sangiovese for Victoria and Fiona.
But why those particular wines? Barbera and young, unoaked Sangiovese are generally light bodied, just like your pizza, and their high acidity works perfectly with the tanginess of the tomato sauce. They draw out the sweetness of the tomatoes and refresh your mouth from the creamy fatty coating of the cheese. These wines have firm but not high tannins (the component in wine that dries out the gums and tongue), but enough to give the wine crunch and texture, like the base of a good pizza.
For the same reasons, a rosato—light in body and tannin, high in acidity—is a pretty pairing with pizza Margherita, marinara with plenty of origano or a vegetarian loaded with aubergines.
The preference for an ‘unoaked’ Sangiovese is crucial. If the wine is young and un-wooded, the freshness and immediacy of the fruit works beautifully with a fresh tomato base. Wines that have spent time in barrel lack the energy to compete with pungent sauces. Spicy toppings such as nduja can play havoc with tannic, oaky riserva reds.
What to do if you’re a pizza bianca lover? Red wines have the potential to overwhelm tomato-less pizzas with too much red fruit flavour and distracting, drying tannin. If buffalo mozzarella is your chosen topping, then keep the match regional and choose a direct, light white like Falanghina from Campania. White wines from the south prove a great match for fans of ‘Hawaiian’ pizzas, granted you’d be hard pushed to come across pineapple pizzas in Italy.
However, sparkling wines offer the easiest and most convincing crossover from beer to wine drinking with pizza. Light fizz refreshes even more markedly than a white or a chilled red. Which led me to thinking that maybe it’s the bubbles or the yeast in a beer that makes it so thirst quenching. In which case wine can perform those same tricks. Alessandro Marchesan, wine buyer for Zuma and Roka, recommends prosecco col fondo with a white pizza (a prosecco that remains on its yeast cells a bit like a Champagne) or a dry, frothy sparkler from Emilia Romagna for prosciutto-topped pizzas. Wine blogger Francesco Saverio Russo plumbs for Franciacorta bubbles as the perfect pairing for pizza, closely followed by beer. My suggestion? Try a white Sangiovese frizzante. It borders on the sublime.
No Wine With Pizza myth debunked.
Be very careful about the serving temperature. Ambient-temperature reds and whites don’t work at all with pizza. With hot melted cheese the wine must be cold, otherwise no refreshment is guaranteed whatsoever.