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The Life and Times of “Pizza Wine”

February 24, 2021

Story: Hannah Selinger

photo: Dylan + Jeni

Wine

The Life and Times of “Pizza Wine”

February 24, 2021

Story: Hannah Selinger

photo: Dylan + Jeni

The stale wine writer trope has found new life as a cornerstone of the avant-garde pizzeria.

To consider the evolution of the term “pizza wine” in the United States, first consider the “fiasco,” the straw basket–wrapped Chianti bottles filled with plonk that took root in Italian-American restaurants in the 1950s and ’60s. The double meaning of “fiasco,” of course, is a huge catastrophe. “The whole situation of wine being poured into something and sold as something [else] was a huge fiasco,” says Shelley Lindgren, co-owner and wine director of San Francisco’s A16.

But pizza wine, as we’ve come to know it, has evolved beyond its association with candlelit restaurants, checkered tablecloths and Lady and the Tramp sharing a single spaghetti strand—which is to say, beyond the fiasco. In some ways, wine writers helped develop the trope of pizza wine that’s emerged today. Drop the phrase into an Internet search and you’ll encounter a piece from nearly every notable food media outlet relying on the term for its heavy lifting. Pizza wine, in this context, is described as “quaffable,” “casual,” and “bright.” It’s “straightforward,” “traditional” and, often, lambrusco. In wine writer parlance, “pizza wine,” lumps together producers, varieties and styles and urges its drinker to not take anything too seriously.

The way the restaurant crowd employs the term isn’t entirely dissimilar from wine media. Steven Dilley, owner of Austin’s Bufalina, describes pizza wine as “a $10 to $15 bottle of Chianti or Barbera.” Dilley’s vision for his own pizza restaurant, opened in 2013, included a wine list populated with what he calls “picnic wines,” or high-acid whites and lightly chilled reds that pair well with cheese and charcuterie. Hristo Zisovski, beverage director for the Altamarea Group and Nicoletta Pizzeria, says, “I think of pizza wine as an inexpensive crusher, a medium-bodied red. You need acid.” Lindgren says, of late, the term can connote a wide swath of natural producers that lean toward easygoing and mineral-driven styles.

Today, “pizza wine” denotes a spectrum—from col fondo prosecco to Sicilian frappato to mondeuse from Northern California—that has been transformed not just by the natural wine movement, but by the ambitions and ethos of the modern pizzeria.

Before nouveau Neapolitan hit the mainstream and its attendant wine list expanded beyond Chianti, a wave of restaurants like Delfina in San Francisco and Una Pizza Napoletana in Manhattan heralded the elevation of the casual, everyday food into something more than the sum of its parts. At Una Pizza, which opened in New Jersey in 1996 and relocated to the East Village in 2004, 12-inch pizzas were both simple and complex; the original menu featured only four pies, and when the dough ran out the shop shut down for the day. In 2008, Roberta’s opened in a gritty corner of Bushwick with Neapolitan pies drizzled with honey and strewn with artisanal meats while Mathieu Palombino opened Motorino in Williamsburg to rave reviews (it would eventually take up residence in the vacated Una Pizza space). In 2009, pizzaiolo Roberto Caporuscio opened Kesté Pizza & Vino on Bleecker Street, calling on traditional techniques he had studied in Naples.

If the decade has been kind to pizzaioli, it has been equally generous to natural winemakers who have risen to cultural stardom and collided, glass-first, with the world of food.

“As pizza has evolved and become more of its own dining platform—almost equal, now, to premier pasta dishes—it has become more serious,” says Anthony Mangieri, chef-owner of Una Pizza Napoletana. Diners, he notes, are now accustomed to a different experience when it comes to pizza, one that extends beyond the corner slice joint to a consideration of dough texture, ingredient sourcing and the wines served alongside.

If the decade has been kind to pizzaioli, it has been equally generous to natural winemakers who have risen to cultural stardom and collided, glass-first, with the world of food. Fully understanding the growth of the category of wine that accompanies pizza means understanding the emergence of the natural wine movement in the United States. In those early years of pizza’s evolution, a new definition of pizza wine began to emerge, in the likeness of lambrusco at Motorino, erbaluce at Roberta’s, and schioppettino at Kesté. Today, pairing a pancetta and Brussels sprout pie with a bottle of Donkey & Goat’s Brut Nat, a rich California sparkler, or a pepperoni and fresh mozz slice with Domaine Tissot’s earthy Arbois, is entirely commonplace.

Part of the mutual embrace of food and natural wine can be attributed simply to the latter’s flexibility. “You could drink [orange wine] with tuna conserva,” says Helen Johannesen, partner in Los Angeles’ Helen’s Wines and Jon & Vinny’s. “Then you can just pivot slightly, and you’re going to drink it with cavatelli with kale and sausage, and you’re like: Oh, this is so good, because it has tannic structure.” Johannesen is of the belief that natural wines have a lot more give, a sentiment echoed by New York Times wine critic Eric Asimov, who says they’re “really flexible with a whole lot.”

Even in its simplest form, pizza is complex—a dish of many layers and constructions. “Pizza’s basically like a sandwich, in a way. It has so many flavors on it,” Hristo Zisovski says. “It’s not just one thing. [Pizza] was one of the original composed dishes.” Sausage to mushrooms, clams to arugula and all manner of cheese, not to mention the diversity of dough—wafer-thin to focaccia-chewy—pizza’s vast permutability requires an equivalent versatility in wine.

At Ops in Brooklyn, chef, wine director and owner Mike Fadem shifted the breadth of his list based on guests’ feedback. He started “narrow and focused” with around 20 wines, but discovered that light, easy-drinking reds didn’t prevail. “Most people just want something that is interesting and delicious. They have an idea of the color they want to drink, but, beyond that, it’s: What’s the best thing we have?” Ops remains minimalist at heart though—offering eight pizzas and five starters, complemented by a broad, constantly changing verbal wine list of around 300 selections that emphasize natural wine’s adaptability.

Such openness sees beyond the pigeonholing of high-acid Italian reds as the preeminent category of pizza wine and accepts pizza’s potential complexity. More broadly, the melding of the term “pizza wine” with the world of natural wine underscores the growing democratization of wine itself. David Lynch, author of Vino Italiano and editorial director at SommSelect, says that natural wine today is “not about status or big cellar points in magazines,” but, rather, about “appreciating how wine is made.”

Pizza and wine have been on parallel paths for a long time now, given their overlapping disdain for manipulation and championing of fermentation and ethical growing practices, which have converged in places like Portland, Oregon’s Lovely’s Fifty Fifty, Los Angeles’ Jon & Vinny’s, and Brooklyn’s Ops. Asimov notes that the farm-to-table movement has carried pizza along with it, and as with most culinary trends, wine took some time to catch up. “I don’t think I would look at it in terms of food and wine pairings,” says Asimov. “It’s not that natural wine has more of an affinity for pizza than for any other kind of food. It’s that the people who happen to run Ops or happen to run Roberta’s are open to serving those sorts of wines.” The convergence, then, of pizza and natural wine, may feel, in part, like a foregone conclusion.

So what does “pizza wine” mean in an age of pizza farms, pizza consultants and pizza pop-ups springing up from New Orleans to Seattle? Perhaps the appeal of pizza wine today is that there is no formal definition, that it’s a wholly mutable category with limitless possibility. “We’re slowly evolving to a more full embrace,” says Lynch. “Rather than saying ‘pizza wine’ in a dismissive, pejorative way, we’re starting, I think, to view it as a compliment.”

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Hannah Selinger's IACP Award-nominated work has appeared in The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, Wine Enthusiast, The Washington Post, Eater, The Cut, and more. She is a Certified Sommelier with the Court of Master Sommeliers.