Pairings: Pasta e Vino

Pairings: Pasta e Vino

Pasta e Vino

When trying to harmonize a wine with a pasta dish, the sauce carries the tune. Restaurateur, cookbook author and TV chef Lidia Bastianich shares her secrets for making beautiful music in the kitchen.

here I come from, “pairing wine and food” an idea that is redundant. For my family, wine has always been food. The motto in our house was, the table is not set unless there is wine. As a child I was allowed some wine, with water, at dinner. It was not a big deal—and besides, it was only fair, since every year I helped my grandparents with the harvesting of their grapes. I even took the first steps, literally, in making their wine.

I grew up in Istria, a peninsula that is now Croatia. At harvest time, we would ride in horse-drawn wagons bearing wooden vats into the vineyards. After the grapes had been gathered, we didn’t waste a moment: Even as the carts were returning to the cantina, the children were in the vats, stomping the grapes, watching the countryside roll by through peepholes. When we arrived and it was time to get out of the vats, we knew we had to run for the hoses, because huge clouds of aggressive bees would swarm around our legs, attracted by the grape sugars.

Part of my family now lives and makes wine in Italy, just across the border from Istria, in the region of Friuli Venezia Giulia. Situated in the foothills of the Julian and Carnic Alps, with a distant view of the Adriatic sea, Friuli is the source of some of Italy’s best white wines. And home is, of course, the source of the best memories, the best meals.

I’ve spent many years cooking in restaurant kitchens and planning special menus as well as testing recipes for cookbooks and television shows. But I never stray far from what I learned at home: simple preparations with only as many ingredients as strictly necessary. I want my ingredients, like my wine, to reflect the culture from which they came, the terroir that nourished them and the passion of the artisans that produced them. With wine, I want to taste in every glass the flavors and body of each varietal. And when my food and the right wine come together, it should be like music. Like two intertwining melodies, food and wine must create harmony, bring complexity to the palate and create a sense of well-being to the mind and body. The sensation should linger well after the music has been played and the meal enjoyed.

So how do you go about creating music in the mouth? It’s difficult to generalize, because there are so many variables: temperature, occasion, season, your own palate, the palates of your guest or guests, and your budget. Pairing wine with pasta dishes creates even more variables—think of the varieties of pastas and the spectrum of sauce textures, seasonings and ingredients.

The first step, pairing the sauce to the pasta, is straightforward. Think of the texture and flavor of a pasta as the conduit for the texture, density and flavor of the sauce. The pasta should have the texture to hold the sauce, and the shape to ensure that the two can be brought to the mouth together. Some sauces are too thick for angel hair, or too light for ziti, for example. But your own preferences clearly are most important here.

To pair the right wine with the sauce, I find it useful to rate my sauce on a scale of one to six, from the lightest sauce to the heaviest in terms of density, complexity and spiciness. A light white sauce is a one, and a zesty, dense red sauce is a six. What I find is that most sauces from one to three pair well with white wines, and most sauces from four to six pair well with reds, though the sauces in the three-to-four range can sometimes go either way. But it’s just a starting point, anyway, because now I fine-tune:

· If a sauce is sweet, choose a dry, assertive wine with bright acidity. If you’re leaning toward white,   try a Pinot Bianco from Alto Adige, Vermentino from Sardinia or a stainless-fermented Sancerre. If   it’s a red wine you prefer, try a Montelpulciano or Cannonau, the Sardinian Grenache.

· If a sauce is creamy, choose a fruity, lightly tannic red such as Barbera, Nero d’Avola or Chianti   Classico.

· If a sauce is robust and intense, choose a wine with acidity, tannins, lots of elegant fruit and some    tobacco and tar to carry the flavors. I recommend Barolo, Brunello, Barbaresco, Amarone or   Valpolicella.

· If the sauce is spicy, I would go with a jammy, fruit-filled, low-acid red wine with a powerful,    persistent finish. Filling this bill are Sagrantino di Montafalco, Primitivo and Cabernet- and    Sangiovese-based super Tuscans. A California Zinfandel would be quite good, too. And if you’re    leaning toward a white wine, think Soave.

· If there are combined elements, like fish in a light but spicy sauce, then the dish’s complexity should   prevail over a simpler wine. Go with a red, but not a big one with lots of tannins and complexity.   Try Pinot Noir, a light-style Nebbiolo or a Sangiovese.
  If you have a trophy bottle you’re just dying to try, or a bottle you’ve been saving for a special   occasion, then work backwards from the style of wine you’re anticipating to the sauce that would   most perfectly complement it.

And that’s the point. Romantic, poetic and whimsical approaches to pairing wine and food are as valid as this gustatory approach. Ultimately, the near-perfect pairing is personal. The recipes that follow and the wines I recommend are some of my personal favorites.

Linguini all’ Istriana
This dish is quick and deliciously briny when the fish is at its freshest. The tomatoes give it complexity and the pepperoncino— hot pepper flakes—add a little kick. With all this going on, I consider the pasta a stabilizer and—if it’s correctly al dente—as additional texture.

1 pound medium-sized headless shrimp
½ pound sea scallops
15 littleneck clams
6 large garlic cloves
2 cups crushed peeled tomatoes (fresh Italian plum tomatoes, plus whole peeled canned tomatoes)
6 tablespoons olive oil
1 teaspoon crushed hot red pepper flakes
3 to 4 tablespoons chopped parsley
1 ½ pounds linguini
3 tablespoons sea salt


To prepare the shellfish: Devein and shell the shrimp. For the scallops, cut off and discard the hard little white nubbin attached to the side and slice the scallops in half horizontally. Set the clams in the freezer for 20 minutes to relax the muscle that clamps the shells together. Holding the clam over a bowl to catch its juices, set it in the palm of your left hand, the hinge end with its indentation toward you. Hold the clam knife in your right hand, its back poised between the shells at the opposite end, and guided by the fingers of your hand. With the clam secure in your left hand, force the blade between the shells. Then cut around under the top shell to release the muscle. Rotate the blade between the shells to force them open. Run the blade under the body of the clam to release and remove it. Pour juices into a bowl, chop the clams, place in a separate bowl and reserve.

To prepare the sauce: Peel and crush the garlic. Peel the fresh tomatoes, quarter them lengthwise, then seed them. Seed the canned plum tomatoes. Set a frying pan over moderate heat. Add 2 tablespoons olive oil and brown the crushed garlic very lightly. Add the tomatoes and pepper flakes and let simmer for 20 minutes.

Pour 2 tablespoons of olive oil in a second frying pan and set over moderately high heat. Stir in the shrimp and scallops and sauté 30 seconds until the liquid has evaporated, then stir in the clams and the clam juice, being careful not to include any sand at the bottom of the container. Raise heat to high and shake the pan until the liquid comes to a boil. Add more pepper flakes, if desired.

Pour in the tomato sauce, bring again to the boil, shaking the pan. Check seasoning again, then pour in 2 tablespoons of fresh olive oil and stir in parsley. Set aside.

Heat 6 quarts of water in the stockpot, adding the salt and timing it so that the water is at a full boil by the time the shellfish is ready. Then stir in the linguini for approximately 7-9 minutes or until al dente. Drain the cooked pasta and toss immediately with the hot sauce. Serves 6.

Wine recommendations: Crisp, structured white wines from Northern Italy have the brisk acidity to cut through the sweetness of the scallops and shrimp; then the wine’s fruitiness and a hint of almond harmonize with the clams and tomatoes. Try Jermann 2000 Tunina or our own Bastianich 2000 Vespa Bianco. Other good choices are Scarbolo’s Tocai Friuliano, Feudi di San Gregorio’s Fiano di Avellino and Marisa Cuomo’s Falanghina.

Cacio e Pere Ravioli
(fresh ravioli stuffed with pear and pecorino cheese)

Cacio e Pere are pillows of pasta that I first experienced in Bologna on one of my research trips with my daughter, Tanya. A Renaissance art historian, Tanya organizes special food, wine and art trips to Italy. I give the food and wine input, and she handles the art. So the research treks are continuous searches for the perfect this, the best that, the undiscovered whoever or whatever. One day, we were directed to a small pasta store, Le Sfoglione, on Bologna’s Via Belvedere. A mother and her two middle-aged daughters made all the fresh pasta on the premises every day. It was here that the magic of the cacio and pear ravioli was revealed to me. We make this recipe at Felidia and our other restaurants, and it is a winner every time.

For the fresh egg pasta:
3 cups unbleached all-purpose flour, or as needed
4 large eggs
1 teaspoon extra virgin olive oil
½ teaspoon salt
Warm water, as needed

For the filling:
3-4 Bartlett pears, peeled and cored (approximately 1 pound)
3 tablespoons mascarpone
1 pound grated fresh Pecorino Romano cheese (for ravioli stuffing)
2 tablespoons grated Pecorino Romano,
to finish pasta

To finish the ravioli:
Fresh egg pasta (see recipe)
Ravioli filling (see recipe)
4 ounces aged Pecorino Romano cheese, grated
6 ounces butter
8 ounces water
Freshly ground black pepper, to taste

To make the pasta: Spoon 2 2/3 cups of the flour into the bowl of a large-capacity food processor fitted with the metal blade. Beat the eggs, olive oil and salt together in a small bowl until blended. With the motor running, pour the egg mixture into the feed tube. Process until the ingredients form a rough and slightly sticky dough. If the mixture is too dry, drizzle a very small amount of warm water into the feed tube and continue processing. Scrape the dough out of the work bowl onto a lightly floured wood or marble surface.

Knead the dough by gathering it into a compact ball, then pushing the ball away from you with the heels of your hands. Repeat the gathering and pushing motion several times, then press into the dough, first with the knuckles of one hand, then with the other, several times. Alternate between kneading and “knuckling” the dough until it is smooth, silky and elastic—it should pull back into shape when you stretch it. Flour the work surface and your hands lightly any time the dough begins to stick. The process will take 5 to 10 minutes of constant kneading, slightly longer if you prepared the dough by hand, rather than in a food processor.

Roll the dough into a smooth ball and place in a small bowl. Cover with plastic wrap. Let the dough rest at least one hour at room temperature, or up to a day in the refrigerator before rolling and shaping the pasta. If the dough has been refrigerated, let it stand at room temperature for about an hour before rolling and shaping.

To make the filling: On a cutting board, grate the pears and the fresh pecorino cheese in two different mounds, using the side of the grater with the larger blades. In a bowl, mix this together with the mascarpone and remaining pecorino romano.

To make the ravioli: Divide the dough into three equal pieces and cover them with a clean kitchen towel. Working with one piece at a time, roll the pasta out on a lightly floured surface to a rectangle approximately 10 x 20 inches. Dust the work surface lightly with flour just often enough to keep the dough from sticking; too much flour will make the dough difficult to roll. If the dough springs back as you try to roll it, re-cover with the kitchen towel and let it rest for 10 to 15 minutes. Start rolling another piece of dough and come back to the first one once it has had a chance to rest.

Let the pasta sheets rest, separated by kitchen towels, at least 15 minutes before cutting them. Roll each piece out to sheets about 30 inches long by 11 inches wide. Keep two of the pasta sheets covered with kitchen towels and place the third on the work surface in front of you with one of the long edges toward you. Arrange 20 of the filling mounds in two rows of 10 over the top half of the dough, starting them about 1 2/3 inches in from the sides of the dough rectangle and arranging them about 2 ½ inches from each other.

Pat the fillings into rough rectangles that measure about 2 x 1 inch. Dip the tip of your finger into cool water and moisten the edges of the top half of the dough and in between the mounds of filling. Fold the bottom of the dough over the mounds of filling, lining up the dough to the bottom firmly, squeezing out any air pockets as you work. With a pastry wheel or knife, cut between the filling into rectangles approximately 2 ½ x 2 inches. Pat the tops of the ravioli lightly to even out the filling. Pinch the edges of the ravioli to seal in the filling. Repeat with the remaining two pieces of dough. Cook the ravioli in boiling water for 3 to 4 minutes. Drain.

To complete the dish: In a sauté pan, melt the butter. Gradually add the water and bring to a boil. Toss the ravioli together with the melted butter in the sauté pan for a few seconds. Remove from heat and finish with the aged Pecorino cheese and freshly ground black pepper. Serves 6.

Wine recommendations: With a complex cheese, a velvety pasta and sweet pears plus the unexpected piquant element of the coarsely ground pepper, this dish requires a complex and structured wine. At the same time, the wine needs to be flowery and buttery to play up to the pears, with a tinge of acidity at the end for a clean finish on the palate. For this dish I go again to the Friulian super whites like Zamo’s Tre Vigne, Villa Simone’s Frescati, Paola di Mauro’s Marino Biano and Moris Farms’s Avvoltorre. Or opt for lighter-bodied reds like Fattoria Le Pupille’s Morellino di Scansanso Riserva.

Orecchiette con Pancetta e Cavolo (Orecchiette with Bread Crumbs, Pancetta and Cauliflower)
This is an earthy pasta dish, full of flavor and complexity, yet you taste each ingredient as if it were flying solo. It is a dish that has its roots in southern Italy. Enjoy with a wine from that same region and you’ll discover a rustic harmony with gentle undertones—in other words, you’ll taste the spirit of Puglia with every bite and sip.

¼ cup extra virgin olive oil, divided
Three ¼-inch slices pancetta (about 8 ounces), cut into
1 x ¼ x ¼-inch sticks (about 1 1/2 cups)
1 pound dried orecchiette, cavatelli, cavatappi or shells
2 medium onions, diced ½ inch thick (about 2 cups)
½ head cauliflower, stalks removed, florets cut into ½-inch pieces (about 3 cups)
Crushed red pepper
1½ cups hot chicken stock or canned reduced-sodium chicken broth
¼ cup fresh Italian parsley, chopped
¼ cup fine dry bread crumbs, or as needed

Bring 6 quarts of salted water to a boil in an 8-quart pot over high heat. Heat 2 tablespoons of the olive oil in a large skillet over medium heat. Add the pancetta and cook, stirring occasionally, until the pancetta has rendered some of its fat and is lightly browned but still soft in the center, about 4 minutes. Don’t overcook the pancetta.

Stir the orecchiette into the boiling water. Return to a boil, stirring frequently. Cook the pasta, semi-covered, stirring occasionally, until done, about 10 minutes.

Stir the onion into the skillet and cook until barely wilted, about 2 minutes. Stir in the cauliflower and cook, stirring occasionally, until the cauliflower begins to brown, about 4 minutes. Season lightly with salt and a little crushed red pepper.

Pour the chicken stock into the skillet, bring to a boil and lower the heat so the sauce is at a lively simmer. Cook until the vegetables are tender and the liquid is reduced by about one-half, about 5 minutes.

If the skillet is large enough to accommodate the sauce and pasta, fish the pasta out of the boiling water with a large wire skimmer and drop it directly into the sauce in the skillet. If not, drain the pasta, return it to the pot and pour in the sauce. Bring the sauce and pasta to a boil, tossing and stirring to coat the pasta. Check the seasoning, adding salt if necessary. Stir the bread crumbs, parsley and remaining 2 tablespoons olive oil into the pot. Cook, stirring and tossing the pasta until the sauce is lightly thickened. Serve at once. Serves 6.

Wine recommendations: With this dish, there is no wine that I like better then a Primitivo from Puglia, the heel of Italy. This red, which is the ancestor of American Zinfandel, is full-bodied and spicy; the spiciness tames the sulfur undertones of the cauliflower and the body stands up to the bacon and the hot, red pepper flakes. I suggest robust reds from the south such as Librandi-Gravello (Val Di Neto), Palari’s Faro Palari, Cantine del Notaio’s Aglianico del Vulture and Tenuta di Donnafugata’s Milleunanotte.

Spaghetti ai Funghi (Spaghetti with Mushrooms, Garlic and Parsley)
As a child I was frequently summoned to accompany my aunt when she foraged for mushrooms. I carried the basket while she scouted. The aromas, flavors and pleasures of mushrooms—from foraging to cooking—slowly seeped into my soul and has remained with me for life. Even today, it’s an exhilarating experience to meander in the autumn forest and find clusters of coral-like Hen-of-the- Woods mushrooms nestled on the musty, humid ground.

This is a great recipe on its own, but if you can add a few ounces of grated black truffle, this dish will take you straight to Norcia, the Umbrian city of the norcino, or the Italian black truffle. The rich earth of Umbria not only produces the norcino but also Sagrantino di Montefalco, the only wine I would want to drink with this earthy dish.

¼ cup extra virgin olive oil
8 garlic cloves, finely chopped
1½ pounds of assorted mushrooms, cleaned and sliced ¼-inch thick
(about 6 cups)
Freshly ground black pepper
8 fresh sage leaves, chopped
1 pound spaghetti
1 cup vegetable stock or pasta cooking water
¼ cup chopped fresh Italian parsley
1 cup freshly grated Parmigiano-
Reggiano cheese

Bring 6 quarts of salted water to a boil in an 8-quart pot over high heat.

Heat the olive oil in a large skillet over medium heat. Scatter the garlic over the oil and cook, shaking the pan, until golden, about 2 minutes. Add as many of the mushrooms as will fit comfortably into the skillet. Season lightly with salt and pepper and toss in the sage. Add the remaining mushrooms as the mushrooms in the skillet wilt and make room. Cook, stirring and tossing frequently until the mushrooms are sizzling and brown, about 10 minutes. (If the mushrooms have given off a lot of water during cooking, you’ll have to wait for that liquid to boil off before the mushrooms begin to brown.)
Stir the spaghetti into the boiling water. Return to a boil, stirring frequently. Cook the pasta, semi-covered, stirring occasionally, until done, about 8 minutes.

Add the stock to the browned mushrooms, bring to a boil and lower the heat so the sauce is at a lively simmer. Cook until the liquid is reduced by about half, about 5 minutes.

If the skillet is large enough to accommodate the sauce and pasta, fish the pasta out of the boiling water with a large wire skimmer and drop it directly into the sauce in the skillet. If not, drain the pasta, return it to the pot and pour in the sauce. Toss in the parsley, bring the sauce and pasta to a boil, stirring gently to coat the pasta with sauce. Check the seasoning, adding salt and pepper if necessary. Remove the pot from the heat, stir in the cheese and serve immediately in warm bowls. Serves 6.

Wine recommendations: Earth and fruit meet and create gustatory magic if you open a bottle of Arnaldo Caprai 1997 Sagrantino di Montefalco, a burly red with aromas ranging from blackberry jam to pine tar. Or you can try Sagrantino, Nebbiolo or Barbera noble reds from Piedmont. Look for Villa Sparina’s Monferrato Barbera, Sottimano’s Barbaresco and Jean Franco Scaglielano’s Le Grive.

Lidia Bastianich is co-owner (with her son, Joseph) of Felidia, Becco and Esca restaurants in New York, and Lidia’s in Kansas City and Pittsburgh. She is the star of Lidia’s Italian American Kitchen and Lidia’s Italian Table, shown nationwide on public television. She is the author of Lidia’s Italian-American Kitchen (Knopf, 2001), Lidia’s Italian Table (William Morrow, 1998) and La Cucina di Lidia (Doubleday, 1990).

Published on April 1, 2003