Seth Allen Riffs on Wine
by Seth Allen, Winebow
I remember the term “Pizza Wine” being used long before I ever even thought about getting into the wine business, and certainly at least as far back as my college years – in fact, it is such a common expression that until Jonathan asked me to write about the subject, I probably even assumed that the term was meaningful. Now that I’ve thought about it, I’ve decided that the term “Pizza Wine” is probably less meaningful than it is simply mean. “Pizza Wine” demeans both the pizza and the wine, because it inevitably reduces the hedonistic expectations of the meal. “Pizza Wine” implies that anything much more interesting than a simple country wine would be too good for such a pedestrian food. Do we think that pizza is not worthy of a quality wine, or is there something about wine that we think calls for a more “complete” entrée? I suspect that we really don’t appreciate that although pizza may be simple, it may also be profound, and while wine may be profound, it may be at its best when it is simple.
Pizza, whether it is delivered from a wood fired pizza oven, a freezer chest, a delivery truck or a deep dish cast iron pan to the sounds of an NFL game, is still pizza, and despite its multiplicity of forms and frank inconsistencies of quality, the portability of the concept of Pizza has done no harm to the true Platonic form of authentic Naples pizza itself. Pizza in its many incarnations is almost certainly the most ubiquitous food in the United States, and is as universally loved as anything one can think of, despite it all. It is the immediacy of pizza and its consequent familiarity which are probably the source of our collective under-estimation of this culturally significant dish: how can something so affordable, so readily available, and so immediate actually be so good? Well, think about water.
On the other side of the equation, those who are devoted to the concept of authentic Naples pizza are often caught talking about passion, soul, emotion, and other concepts that seem more befitting a house of worship than a restaurant, but such a vocabulary is universal among the ‘masters of the forno’. Are these practitioners simply delusional or is there actually something to the mystical aspect of the process of making pizza? And how does this relate to the other, less noble forms of pizza? And what in the world does this have to do with wine? In an important way, the idea of immediacy plays a role.
Because pizza may theoretically be made from virtually any ingredients one may happen to have in the refrigerator, or even without any ingredients whatsoever as long as one has a valid credit card and an internet connection, when wine is the preferred beverage, it doesn’t seem necessary to plan things too precisely. In the U.S. it is thought appropriate to put just about anything on a pizza, even things that simply make no sense – barbecued chicken, canned artichokes, pineapple slices anyone? With such a standard there is simply no expectation of a thoughtful food and wine matchup. This is one reason why beer and soft drinks are so popular with pizza, and in fact, even in Naples there are many who believe that beer is the best match with authentic pizza. No argument here – a fresh crisp beer is a fine companion even to the finest and most elegant Naples pizza if that is what one craves – but there is also a deeper reality at work.
Whether in Naples, in Greenwich Village, or on Sunnyside Street in Chicago, Master Pizzaioli also value immediacy – but it is an immediacy far removed from the freezer, the microwave oven, or the delivery truck. It is the immediacy of one person, the pizzaiolo, confronting himself and his short list of ingredients, in order to please another person, his customer, in the immediate present and in his immediate presence.
It is, without tongue wedged too far in cheek, the immediacy of the ‘Moment of Creation’, the ‘Living Truth’ of the yeast in the dough, the dough’s unyielding responsiveness to temperature, humidity, the air in the room, and to infinity of otherwise unremarkable artifacts, which forms the pizzaiolo’s reality. It is the vivid freshness of the greens, the tomato, and the mozzarella. It is the expertly restrained hand on the living dough, the deft addition of the toppings, and the recognition that every defect of technique or material will be not only captured but highlighted by the outsized heat of the wood burning oven, which in the space of just over a minute adds its own signature of char and smoke to the pie. It is the collective appreciation that the most important qualities, the perfumes and vivid flavors of the finished pizza will begin to deteriorate within minutes after its removal from the oven. And it is the most sincere hope of the pizzaiolo that this will be deeply appreciated, hedonistically, if not intellectually, by the diner.
The truth of Naples pizza is based in its uncompromised freshness and vitality. The handful of traditional “DOC” pizzas are made entirely from local ingredients, ingredients which together ring harmoniously true. Such a pizza carries its freshness forward with clear but delicate aromatics, the char of the crust, the basil, black pepper, tomato… The true expression comes not from the work of the pizzaiolo, but from what nature has provided. The “processing” of the pizza, and the hand of the pizzaiolo are ideally invisible, or at least no more than neutral. Against this pure canvas any “processed” wine seems out of place. In Naples, the wines most commonly served at pizzerias are local and fresh, whether red, white, or rosato, with a minimum of oak influence, if any. They are as much like the ingredients as possible and expressive of the grape. And they are expressly not “wines of the world”.
Because of demand, some pizzerias don’t mind serving more “sophisticated” wines which command higher prices; wines of more power and structure, and perhaps more complexity. These may be a pleasure to drink, and may even complement authentic pizza perfectly, but the most satisfying experience is likely the most authentic whites, reds, and rosés made from native varietals from zones not too far from Naples. These include Greco, Fiano, and Aglianico from the volcanic soils around Vesuvius, and many other varietals as well. At Spacca Napoli we focus our wine selection from the Region of Campania primarily, but include other Southern Italian regions as well, such as Basilicata, Abruzzo, Calabria, Apulia, and the islands of Sicilia and Sardegna. We go out of our way to highlight wines that feature the grape and its natural perfumes most prominently, leaning away from more international style and processed wines, but we are not dogmatic. Sometimes a wine just makes us happy and we assume it might make the diner happy as well, even an unexpected wine made in a different way. And sometimes we find surprising food and wine matches, such as a fleshy Aglianico with anchovies and oregano, or a slightly tannic rosato with brocollini.
In an ideal world we would also offer super fresh local wine direct from a steel tank, the sort of wine that is served in Naples from the carafe and almost always chilled, whether white or red, but such wines are notoriously difficult to transport without sacrificing freshness, and once bottled, lose the vitality that makes them so appealing in the first place. This is a part of our recognition that even authentic Naples pizza can only be so authentic 5000 miles away, so when reality insists that we compromise, we remember that our goal is to bring the best of ourselves to you, from the cuore and the forno.