One night last fall at Scarr’s Pizza on New York City’s Lower East Side, as Destiny’s Child played over the speakers, a woman rested her Louis Vuitton clutch next to a flimsy napkin dispenser. A gentleman dressed in a Dickies suit and pearls wedged into a booth with friends, while 20-somethings downed grandma slices.
And almost everyone in the dining room was drinking natural wine.
Scarr’s has all the trappings of a low-brow New York slice joint: glistening pepperoni cups, jars of red pepper flakes on the counter and doubled-up paper plates. But it also has a tight, organic wine list with just 11 or so selections that range from Austrian frizzante rosé to a Carignan-Merlot blend from Costières de Nȋmes.
The restaurant represents a great moment for casual dining in America. You can have your pie, and drink an amazing bottle of wine, too.
Scarr’s is but a single slice of an expanding American pizza and wine scene. There’s Folk in Nashville; Lovely’s Fifty Fifty in Portland, Oregon; Del Popolo in San Francisco; Jon & Vinny’s in Los Angeles; Bufalina in Austin; Pizzeria Locale in Denver; and Pizzeria Beddia in Philadelphia.
La Natural hopes to open in Miami early this year. New York City boasts Scarr’s, Ops, Una Pizzeria Napoletana and Roberta’s. Elsewhere in NYC, Ariel Arce hosts Champagne and pizza parties in the cellar of Niche Niche three nights a week.
But first there was Shelley Lindgren and A16 in San Francisco.
Turning pizzerias into progressive wine havens
Lindgren grew up eating Red Boy Pizza every Friday night, and her first industry job was in the dish pit at Straw Hat Pizza. As she rose up the ranks of French fine dining, she never imagined that she would return to pizza.
While studying with the Court of Master Sommeliers, though, Lindgren fell in love with Italian wines. She felt that Southern Italian wines were particularly underrepresented on American wine lists. When Lindgren zeroed in on Campania, she landed squarely in the birthplace of pizza.
A16 opened in 2004, and Lindgren struck on a darling of concept: Neapolitan-certified pizza served alongside a killer wine list, all in a space where guests could come daily or to celebrate special occasions.
As Lindgren discovered, pizza’s accessibility makes it an ideal partner for lesser-known bottles and styles of wine.
“I had gone to Italy, and a light bulb went off,” says Lindgren. “Everything revolves around food and wine. It’s a complete lifestyle.”
In the 15 years since A16 opened, the availability of Southern Italian wines in America has mushroomed. Lindgren’s first list had just three Etna Rossos. Now, there are 150, along with sizeable representation of grapes like Aglianico and Fiano.
The rise of Southern Italian wines reflects a broader trend in the market. Compared to five years ago, let alone 10 or 15, America has been flooded with wines from small producers, some made from lesser-known grapes and grown in off-the-beaten-path regions. Natural wines and low-intervention wines have skyrocketed in popularity in tandem.
And, as Lindgren discovered, pizza’s accessibility makes it an ideal partner for lesser-known bottles and styles of wine.
Craft pizza and natural wine catches on
As a kid, Steven Dilley loved Pizza Hut pan pizza, and his mom would occasionally spring for frozen Stouffer’s French Bread Pizza. Eight years ago, leaving a career in finance, Dilley opened Bufalina in Austin, featuring a wood-burning oven and a list of 30 or so wines printed on cheap copy paper.
“I was concerned people would just drink beer,” says Dilley.
His fears were unfounded. Dilley has since opened a second location, and shelves groan under the weight of a 450-label list. He sells Domaine Leflaive’s Bourgogne blanc (white Burgundy) and a Sangiovese-Ciliegiolo pét-nat from Danilo Marcucci, along with bottles from Southold Farm & Cellar, one of Texas’ few minimal-intervention wineries.
“I was concerned people would just drink beer.” –Steven Dilley, owner, Bufalina
Bufalina has become a destination for natural wine, which accounts for 70–80% of the selection, according to Dilley. During happy hour, all pizzas and bottles under $100 are 50% off. Guests can get a Taleggio pie and pair it with a bottle of Loire Valley Chenin Blanc.
When constructing his wine list, Dilley looks for refreshing, fun, low-alcohol offerings that work with a light chill.
“In my mind, if I would put it in a picnic basket, it works well at the table,” he says.
Refreshing? Check. Fun? Check. Low-alcohol? 12%.
Pizzeria Beddia’s owner, Joe Beddia, looks for wines that are natural, light-bodied, high in acidity and low in tannin. Bubbles are a plus. Beddia worked as a brewer for years before he became a pizzaiolo. He first experienced the magical intersection of pizza and wine with a bottle of Gragnano at Una Pizzeria in 2008.
At Pizzeria Beddia in Philadelphia, a red Grolleau is presented to customers as “Gamay’s bratty little cousin.”
“It was light and effervescent like beer, but it was a red wine,” he says. “I thought, ‘This is pizza wine.’ ”
That first glug of Gragnano still informs Beddia’s palate. When he opened a second iteration this year, he and beverage director Heather Lesher put together a list of easy-drinking, affordable Old World wines, plus a few more highly allocated bottles in reserve.
“Our diners are on the younger side, in their 30s, and they’re looking for a great time,” says Lesher. “They want something that’s going to be joyful and delicious with pizza.”
Democratizing wine through low-brow food
Pizza parties, low-fuss weeknight meals, dorm-room feasts and late-night slices are baked into our national DNA. But pizza helps democratize wine, too, perhaps even better than burgers or other traditional comfort foods.
“Italian food is delicious and accessible, and I think it reaches a wide swath of the population,” says Helen Johannesen, operations and beverage director of Joint Venture restaurants, which includes Jon & Vinny’s. “People want to be in an inclusive environment and feel comfortable, and Italian food touches that part of your souls.”
Roughly 80% of Jon & Vinny’s diners eat pizza, many of whom request pairings or taste wine flights in Johannesen’s retail shop as they wait for a table. Johannesen has made wine as essential to the restaurant’s identity as Los Angeles-inspired pies, like the El Chaparrito with chorizo, Asiago, cilantro, red onion and crema; and the Ham and Yeezy with ham, vodka sauce, red onion, caciocavallo, smoked mozzarella and pickled fresno peppers.
Ariel Arce is a ride-or-die New Yorker and a sucker for a greasy slice. Although she doesn’t run her own pizzeria, she has found a way to combine her favorite food with her favorite beverage: Champagne.
Every Wednesday through Friday, in the cellar of Niche Niche, Arce hosts a pizza and Champagne party. For $65, you get four Champagnes, French onion dip, popcorn, olives, Caesar salad and thin-crust pizza delivered from Emmett’s across the street. Diners sit around communal tables lit with dripping wax candles and learn the merits of Côte des Bar as they wipe their hands on paper napkins.
“It’s an insane value,” says Arce. “You get to taste beautiful Champagnes for $10 a glass. I have a dedicated commitment to get people to drink as much Champagne as possible.”
At a recent Niche Niche pizza party, every guest opted for an extra glass of vintage Champagne at the end of the meal, a J.L. Vergnon 2010 MSNL Blanc de Blancs. The pizza worked.
“It seems like people are starving for casual food in a place where they still feel like they’re doing something cool.” –Mike Fadem, co-owner, Ops
The same can be said, though, for the fresh, low-alcohol wines Mike Fadem curates at Ops. The restaurant doesn’t have a printed wine list. Instead, servers bring over a few bottles they think diners would like, roughly the same price range. They tell diners the story of the producers, grapes and styles. Suddenly, your table is four bottles deep by the time someone polishes off the last slice of mortadella-draped pie.
“It seems like people are starving for casual food in a place where they still feel like they’re doing something cool,” says Fadem, who recently opened his second pizza concept, Leo, in the Williamsburg neighborhood of Brooklyn, New York. “People want to eat at higher-quality places that aren’t so stuffy.”
For Fadem, that means Neapolitan-like pizza and a dogmatically natural wine list. It’s Lindgren’s model, just set in Bushwick.
“Young people care about the quality and story of a product, and wine tells a story, especially small-production wines, and organic and biodynamic wines,” says Arce. “Trends come in go. But quality pizza isn’t going anywhere, nor is quality wine.”