Since man first fired up the brick oven, pizza and wine have had a co-dependent relationship. “Sometimes a pizza needs a wine to make it great,” says Charles Ford, sommelier at RM Champagne Salon | Nellcote and friend of Ribera and Rueda. “Other times, a wine needs a pizza to make it great. The more complex the pizza, the more balanced you want the wine to be. The more basic the pizza, a wine on the wild side is what you are looking for.”
To put an end to the notion that a simple Italian house red should be the automatic go-to for any pie, we put Ford to the test. We asked him to pair Spanish reds and whites from the Ribera del Duero and Rueda regions with America’s best pizzas, as ranked last fall by The Daily Meal. To some, the multiple regional styles and ingredients might prove to be a minefield when searching for the perfect pairings. But Ford was committed to coming up with distinct, complimentary co-stars for each meal.
A pilgrimage to Frank Pepe’s in New Haven, Connecticut for a white clam pie is a must for any respectable pizza connoisseur. Pepe’s has been serving pies since 1925 and this standout is said to have evolved on the menu in the mid-60s. Ford picks the Vicente Sanz Canadareal Verdejo to pair with this heavenly mix of fresh-shucked clams, garlic, olive oil and grated cheese. “To start, white wine is such a great pairing for seafood,” Ford says. “The lighter and crisp, the white wine, the better.” Ford recommends opening a fresh bottle “to cash in on the fresh effervescence that comes with it.”
Ford thinks that Villacreces’ hints of toffee and licorice make a great match with the Di Fara’s famed combination of sausage, peppers, mushrooms and onions.
The Daily Meal rates Roberta’s classic as the best margherita style from coast to coast, calling it “the exemplary neo-Neapolitan pie.” Ford says nothing will beat Moro’s fruit-forward Resalso to complement the tomato, mozzarella and basil trifecta.
Nancy Silverton’s standout helped define West Coast style pizza, placing Los Angeles in the company of Chicago and New York as America’s pizza capitals. Pretty amazing for a pizza that is only on the menu during blossoms’ short season. Ford knows of blossoms’ power. “They are a restaurateur’s-foodie’s-somm’s favorite menu item, that is when they happen to grace a menu. They deserve a great wine.” He says there’s nowhere to go but white. “Bodegas Naia, probably the most recognizable production of Verdejo from Rueda, is a knockout every vintage.”
There’s no cheese in sight on Sally’s simple classic that’s served just steps away from Frank Pepe’s (if you are thinking of a pizza-focused field trip soon). Ford goes for a white pairing to play off the tomato’s acid punch. “Sally’s goes for bold with the cheeseless pizza. To counteract the abrasiveness of the tomato sauce, Nieva’s youth really helps mellow things out.”
Flour + Water distinguish their Margherita with a playful combination of heirloom tomatoes, basil, extra virgin olive oil and fior di latte. When it comes to the pairing, Ford is looking for how it all plays out on the tongue. “Creamy mouth feel for both the wine and the pizza on this combo. This pairing works so well be cause the weight of the wine compares to the weight of the pizza. A big rule for pairing wine with your food is to pair body with body. Big steak, big wine! Heavy pasta, heavy wine. Light pizza, light wine.”
One has to travel deep into the Bronx to find this New York classic. While the pie itself won’t set you back, Ford thinks it’s worth a wine cellar splurge. “Meat begs for Ribera del Duero. And year in and year out Bodegas Uvaguilera practices a more restrained, elegant, and classical “old world” style. Emotionally, Louie’s pie and this wine are on the same level.”
Buddy’s Detroit Zoo punches up a signature square-style pizza with a potent combination of pine nuts, roasted tomatoes, mozzarella and tomato basil sauce. For Ford, it’s all about finding a perfect, crisp white to play off of it. “Something needs to bring those pine nuts to the forefront of your taste buds,” he says, turning to the legacy vines in the Rueda region. “The vines that give birth to this wine are 100 years old. Old vines means there’s a higher concentration of flavor. I’d use this wine to take the palate to another level after each bite.”
The Daily Meal says Coalfire’s straightforward Neapolitan-style pie edges out the deep dish pies the Windy City is famed for. Ford thinks the Celeste’s blackberries and blueberry jam notes would play off it perfectly.
Joe’s no-frills slice, served in downtown Manhattan since 1975, has a perfect sauce-to-cheese ratio. Ford says that with white or red, you really can’t go wrong. “To be truthful, both work in this scenario. In the case of a tie, drink what you normally drink without pizza.” Here, he opts for the juicy burst of tempranillo that Penafiel provides.