After virtual nonstop gorging on traditional Southern holiday fare, bring on the Italian, America’s favorite ethnic cuisine. Though it can be argued that America’s favorite ethnic cuisine is as Americanized as apple pie.

I like pizza and spaghetti as well as the next person, but when I cook Italian, I am most often drawn to cookbooks by the two grand dames of regional Italian cooking, Lidia Bastianich and the late Marcella Hazan.

Hazan’s Tuscan take on the lowly meat loaf, polpettone alla toscana, reaches new heights when braised in white wine with dried wild mushrooms.

Bastianich’s simple Umbrian recipe for sausage and grapes elevates two simple main ingredients to a state of deliciousness.

Italian cuisine is as diverse as those cultures that colonized the boot of Italy, dividing it into city states. Each of these cultures put their mark on the cuisine of their settled regions.

An abundance of Italian wines

The boot of Italy is divided into 12 major culinary/wine regions. Each region has its own wines, dictated primarily by varietals that thrive in the region and by what the government allows to be grown there.

When matching Italian wines with regional Italian cuisine, selecting a wine from the region of origin usually ensures a successful pairing, but this can be a daunting task.

Daunting because the entirety of Italy is a vineyard, and virtually every region produces wine. There are hundreds of thousands of vineyards and thousands of wineries, both registered and unregistered. To complicate matters, there are more than a thousand documented grape varieties grown across this ancient land.

Varietals familiar to Americans include merlot, cabernet and chardonnay, but hundreds of less familiar varietals are also grown, such as sagrantino, negroamaro and garganega.

An upscale Chianti

One of the most important and widely planted grape varietals in Italy is sangiovese. It is the dominate red grape of Tuscany and forms the backbone for Chianti.

Chianti is the name of a region and also a type of wine in Tuscany. Traditionally known in America as a cheap, rustic quaff for spaghetti, now sophisticated, complex Chiantis are making their way to our market area, such as Nipozzano 2010 Riserva Chianti Rufina.

Retailing for about $30 per bottle, this wine is from one of Italy’s most prestigious wine families, the Frescobaldi. Fruit is sourced from vineyards surrounding Nipozzano Castle, the ancestral Frescobaldi home in the region of Rufina in


From 90 percent sangiovese, this wine is dark garnet in color, with dark dried fruit flavors and good but understated structure. This subtlety makes it an ideal pairing for Marcella’s rich meat loaf.

A rustic zinfandel

South of Tuscany in the landlocked district of Umbria (known especially for its pork), sangiovese is grown and vented into a wine known as Rosso di Montefalco. This wine contains a small percentage of sagrantino.

In Umbria near the town of Montefalco, a handful of vintners produce superior wines from the obscure sagrantino.

Never heard of sagrantino? Neither had I until recently. I tasted two sagrantinos from different producers and found them an excellent accompaniment to Lidia’s Umbrian pork sausage and grape recipe.

These wines are made in small quantities, and scarcity drives the price. Perticaia Montefalco Sagrantino 2008 retails in the $50 range, while Arnaldo-Caprai Collepiano Sagrantino di Montefalco 2008 retails in the $60 range.

These wines are reminiscent of American zinfandels but perhaps a bit more rustic. Both have substantial structure. Tannins were still tight on the 2008 Perticaia, aged 36 months before release, though better integrated in the Collepiano.

Both these interesting wines became more approachable after having been opened for a while. You are not likely to find them on local wine shelves, but they are available in Alabama through United Johnson Brothers Distributors.

Whether cooking classic Italian or ordering pizza, be adventuresome. Try one of the fine wines listed above.

Contact Pat Kettles at