It's a blustery winter afternoon, but the bar at Lombardino's Italian Restaurant offers a cozy refuge from the sleet and snow. Frank Sinatra stares down at me from one wall, while the pope beams from another. Garish tile mosaics depict the glories of Rome and Naples, and there's a replica of the Trevi fountain in one corner. A few straw-bottomed flasks of cheap Chianti would match the decor ' but nothing could be further from the elegant and finely crafted Italian wines on Lombardino's menu.
As anyone who's gone looking for an inexpensive Italian red to go with a nice home-cooked lasagna knows, Chianti prices have escalated alarmingly. As a result, savvy wine buyers in search of a bargain have begun exploring other, less well-known Italian wines.
'Americans don't know much about Italian wines,' says Michael Banas, Lombardino's general manager and cellar master. Banas has visited vineyards up and down the Italian peninsula, and I've asked him to bring my knowledge of Italian reds up to date.
To begin with, Banas tells me, Italian winemakers think Americans have a misguided predilection for very fruity and heavily oaked wines. Big fruit and low acid make for that full, lush experience American wine drinkers have come to love. By contrast, Italian wines are much drier and more acidic.
'Acidic wines actually are much better with food,' Banas says, pouring a glass of Chianti. 'At Coltibuono, one of the major Chianti makers, they say wines that are dry and acidic pull the saliva out of your tongue so your taste buds are ready for food.'
He hands me a glass of Villa Cafaggio Chianti Classico ($11 per glass, $51 per bottle). It seems a bit mean at first ' dry and leathery with an astringent bite. Where are all those enticing aromas, the cherries and black currants and chocolate flavors I've learned to look for in wine? 'Italian winemakers don't talk about flavors so much,' Banas tells me. 'They talk about finesse. They want their wines to be elegant and sexy, not big brutes.'
I'm not remotely expert enough to identify sex appeal in a wine, but I'll take his word that it's there. In fact, once I stop looking for big fruit, I notice how long the taste of this Chianti lingers, and how it keeps changing and deepening. Now every sip brings another hint of flavor, and the tart acidity keeps it fresh.
'Try that when we have a Tuscan grilled steak on the menu,' Banas says. Italian wines have developed over centuries to complement their regional cuisines. In the Chianti area, that means grilled and roasted meats seasoned with rosemary or sage. Roasted potatoes brushed with olive oil, crispy on the outside and melting on the inside.
Head south to Naples or Sicily, and you're in tomato country, home of marinara sauces and eggplant parmigiana. For those dishes, Banas recommends wines from Sicily: Nero D'Avola ($7.50/$36) and Aglianico ($10/$47). 'They're grown near Mount Etna,' he says, 'where the soil is volcanic and they've got all these darker mineral and charcoal flavors.' That means these wines can stand up to Southern Italy's tomato-based cuisine.
Ripasso is a fascinating wine made from valpolicella in Northern Italy. The word literally means 're-passed,' and that's exactly how it's made. A batch of valpolicella is fermented in the usual way, but is then given a second fermentation, on the lees left from a batch of amarone. This second fermentation gives ripasso a lot more body and some of amarone's famous raisin and fig flavors. Banas says that when people tell him they don't like Italian reds, he pours them a glass of Zenato's Ripassa Valpolicella ($8.50/$40). 'If someone's looking for a Cabernet,' he says, 'Ripassa will win them over right away.'
And then Banas pulls out his prize ' a little gem called Saracco ($8/$38). It's an Italian pinot noir, from a maker so small Banas found him by accident: 'I was at this little winery tasting white wines, when all of a sudden the guy pulls out a bottle of red. He said it was just something he was fooling around with on the side, but as soon as I tasted it, I said I'd take all he had.'
He pours me a glass, and it's so good our conversation stops. It's got that wonderful peppery, faintly floral pinot noir flavor, but it's so clean and clear, it makes me feel like I've never really tasted pinot before. The finish keeps going and going, and we sit quietly for a while just savoring it. 'It's got a bouquet like a warm summer day,' Banas murmurs. I ask him how much of it he has. 'Five cases. That's all there is. We'll be serving it till it runs out.' To which all I can add is ' better get there quick.