Evan Sung for The New York Times A pizza with ramps at Franny's in Brooklyn, surrounded by pie-friendly wines.
By ERIC ASIMOV
Published: April 16, 2012
I KNOW what you are thinking: What could possibly be said that’s new about wine and pizza? There’s nothing to it. Just pick some fresh Italian red wine, not too expensive, like Barbera d’Alba or Dolcetto di Dogliani, and be done with it.
So allow me to suggest something else entirely: Champagne.
Yes, Champagne. If it seems like overreaching to pair elegant Champagne with humble pizza, perhaps that’s because we underestimate pizza.
First, we must get over thinking of pizza as just a fast food. Of course, too many pizzas are made of poor industrial ingredients, rushed in a sodden cardboard box to your door. What goes with those pizzas? A burning sensation on the roof of your mouth.
But good pizza, that’s an entirely different issue. Fine ingredients like pure flour, San Marzano tomatoes, buffalo mozzarella, sea salt, fresh basil and great olive oil can result in near perfection. A good pizza margherita, made just with those ingredients, is a platonic ideal, elegant in its simplicity. Why not with Champagne?
If you don’t believe me, try it. I would choose a good nonvintage Champagne, something sturdier than a blanc de blancs, something with some oomph to it, like, say, a Bollinger Special Cuvée, which will echo and amplify the savory, sweet and yeasty flavors of the pizza. The excellent wine list at Franny’s in Brooklyn offers a rosé Champagne from Billecart-Salmon, which I think would go terrifically with a plain pizza.
The fact is, pizza is one of those rare foods with such versatility it can be enjoyed with an enormous assortment of different beverages. Sure, some things will clash, or deaden pizza, like very oaky wines with little acidity. But most pairings, including Champagne, work well. It’s a joy to experiment and make your own discoveries.
Alas, what should generally be a relaxed process of selecting a beverage can sometimes be weighed down by over-analyzing pairings. Obsessively specific suggestions and hard-and-fast rules might be right for the highest-end restaurants, but not for casual home dining.
It’s not just the food-and-wine pairers who are inhibiting. Who hasn’t encountered a well-meaning busybody who considers it a duty to inform you, just as you’re deciding what wine to order with your pizza margherita, that Italians themselves prefer to drink beer with pizza?
Really? And in the United States people don’t drink beer with pizza? Beer and pizza, together, are one of life’s pleasures. But Americans drink wine with pizza, too. Besides, Italians don’t choose only beer. They like Coca-Cola with pizza. In fact, if I can speak generally about a people of diverse tastes, Italians essentially consider any beverage with bubbles as a good match with pizza, which brings me back to Champagne.
Champagne should no longer be consigned to the black-tie visions of its marketers. Sure, it can be urbane, but Champagne is also racy, earthy and as casual as you want it to be. The only argument against Champagne with pizza might be its cost.
If that’s a factor, the bubbles in the glass need not be Champenois. Gragnano, an effervescent red from Campania, is a great pizza wine. Don Antonio by Starita, which recently opened in Clinton, serves a delicious Gragnano from Grotte del Sole by the carafe. Good, earthy Lambrusco would also go beautifully, as would myriad other bubblies.
Beer is a great complement to pizza, it goes without saying, as long as it’s a gulpable beer and not a contemplative brew so powerful it must be slowly sipped. A pizza beer ought to be fresh, lively and bitter with a pleasingly tart tanginess. This leaves plenty of room for experimentation. Pilsners are a great if obvious choice, but if you want something a little more esoteric, Belgian lambic beers and the wider genre of sour beers will go brilliantly. But it’s important not to over-think. If you prefer an India pale ale or a stout, why not? Anything with bubbles.
With wines, most people reflexively reach for a red with pizza, but don’t dismiss whites, especially dry whites with lively acidity. Those from Campania, the home territory of pizza, are superb even if the grapes are unfamiliar, like a falanghina or a Fiano di Avellino. Try Soave or even a good, dry riesling. Come to think of it, next time I have a pizza, I may try a Vouvray.
I don’t mean to say whites are better than reds with pizza; not at all. They’re just another satisfying option. Reds will always be the go-to pizza wine, but don’t worry too much about the perfect match. I remember a magazine article a few years ago suggesting that the choice of a wine depended on the toppings: pinot noir with a mushroom pizza, primitivo with pepperoni, barbera with fresh tomatoes, and so on. Please.
The other day I had a California pinot noir that was delicious with a plain Neapolitan pie, though not a mushroom was to be found. It was a 2005 Clos Saron from the Texas Hill Road Vineyard in the foothills of the Sierra Nevadas. What made the wine so good with the pizza? It was dry, fresh, lively and its acidity carried the flavor of the wine through the rich cheese and sharp-sweet tomato flavors. Had the wine been another style (oaky, say, or oozing with powerful fruit flavors), it would have been neutralized by the pizza, mushrooms or not.
Of course, Italian reds are tried and true: Those fresh barberas, dolcettos and sangioveses will be great, but don’t ignore the up-and-coming reds from Sicily, like frappatos, Cerasuolos di Vittoria and nerello mascaleses from Mount Etna. By all means, consider aglianicos from Campania and Basilicata and the many lively reds from all corners of the boot, whether Valpolicella from the Veneto or Savuto from Calabria.
But why stop in Italy? Beaujolais and Côtes du Rhône fill the bill, as would a zesty Austrian zweigelt, and many others.
Though pizza is generally inexpensive and thought to be casual, the wines need not be the same. Charles Scicolone, a wine consultant, loves to drink great old Barolos with great pizza margheritas, as well as Champagne. And why not?
“I think people really underrate pizza because there is so much terrible pizza,” he said. “If you’re going to get good pizza, why not drink better wine with it?”
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