The best of the eternal City’s classic dishes are deceptively simple: they are made with only a handful of ingredients. However, all of them are pristine. It is much like any other regional Italian food: streamlined. When I first moved back to New York from Rome my first Italian editor told me that if a dish has more than four or five ingredients, it is not really Italian. Those are words to live by.
Thankfully Rome is a pretty international city when it comes to wine. Most other Italian regions focus on their own bounty, which makes the options more limited. Lazio, the region where Rome is located, is also not well known for major wines above and beyond some of the simple whites from the Castelli Romani, often favored by the Pope.
Digging Into Roman Dishes
So many Roman dishes are focused on the savory, and elemental, intersection of Pecorino, Parmigiano and choice pig fat: think guanciale—pig’s cheek—or pancetta. So, the umami flavors are right and center with the savory cheese and the right dose of pork fat.
Think of Cacio e Pepe, a mound of spaghetti dressed in a snowstorm of Pecorino and Parmigiano and black pepper. Carbonara takes it up a notch with eggs—again super umami on the radar: no wonder the Japanese love these dishes—and pancetta.
These dishes are rich, comfort foods that require a crisp wine to cut through the fat and zing your palate. Think high-acid wines like bubbles like Prosecco and Franciacorta. There are also some high-acid, elegantly made wine from unusual grapes like Kerner, such as those produced by Abbazia di Novacella.
Some of the bracing whites from Campania, such as Fiano and Greco di Tufo—would also be stellar with these dishes as well as Sicilian Grillo and Catarratto blends. Neither region probably indulges in as much cheese as the Romans, but their wines are up to the task.
The Big Red Sauce Challenge
Amatricana is a major Roman delight: it is made with pancetta and red sucase. Most tomato-based sauces deserve a red wine to complete the astringency of the tomato. So, I would go with Barbera from Piedmont—what doesn’t it work with?—soft tannins elegant style. If you wanted to take in down a notch in a similar vein perhaps a little Chinon from the Loire Valley (don’t tell the Italians as they will hate me).
Another two major dishes in the Roman vernacular are angello scottaditto—roasted lamb chops—and oxtail stew. Both are divine and need bigger pairings. So here I would step it up to potentially a SuperTuscan like Oreno from Tentuta Sette Ponti, or even a Douro Valley red such as Quinta do Crasto or Niepoort’s affordable Twisted label. The Portuguese known their way around a suckling pig, among other meats, so these corpulent reds are up to the task.