When I was in New York last week, attending a three-day conference on Italian wine, my one major meal outside the hotel was at Morandi, an Italian restaurant at Waverly Place and Seventh Avenue in Greenwich Village. This is a sole venture into Italian food for restaurateur Keith McNally, whose French-inspired outposts, from Odeon in TriBeca to Balthazar in SoHo to Pastis in the Meatpacking District, not only defined casual Gallic dining below 14th Street but helped to establish their neighborhoods as destinations.
Bartender Brad Pitts stocks the bar at Bari Ristorante e Enoteca, 22 S. Cooper St., one of only two Italian restaurants in Memphis with an all-Italian wine list. (Photo: Lance Murphey)
Morandi was bashed by critics when it opened early in 2007, but matters must have improved considerably because some of the dishes I tried – grilled octopus with celery and black olives, fried artichokes with lemon, cloud-like gnocchi with rabbit, and spaghetti with lemon and Parmesan – could not have been better.
My theme in this column, however, is the idea of the all-Italian wine list in Italian restaurants.
Morandi’s list is all-Italian: 59 white wines, 107 reds, in addition to sparkling and dessert wines. The roster is divided by region rather than type of wine or grape. When I asked for wine suggestions to accompany our food – there were three of us at dinner – the savvy waiter brought us the reasonably priced Villa Dugo Sauvignon Blanc 2009, Friuli Isonzo ($49) and the Barone Ricasoli Chianti 2009 ($41).
No Italian restaurant at which I have eaten in New York offers anything but an all-Italian wine list. Regionality makes sense with a particular cuisine and locality. For example, no restaurant in Burgundy would serve any other wines than those made in Burgundy; restaurants in Piedmont, say, provide the wines of Piedmont; restaurants in Germany pretty much stick to German wines generally if not the wines of their own village.
In California, many restaurants, especially in winemaking areas, are loyal to the wines of their state or even their county or valley. On the other hand, few restaurants in New York City, a world wine mecca, list any wines made in their home state, a shameful situation.
Anyway, the question lingered: Of Italian restaurants in Memphis or towns in Shelby County, why do so few offer all-Italian wine lists? It’s not that the wines are not available; the six wholesale distributors that serve West Tennessee stock plenty of Italian labels. And Italian wines, breathtaking in their diversity – these are 20 broad wine regions, more than 250 individual wines and more than 2,000 grape varieties – are extremely versatile.
Still, only two Italian restaurants that I am aware of in these parts provide their customers with all-Italian wines lists: Bari Ristorante e Enoteca, in Overton Square, and Pasta Italia in Collierville. Ronnie Grisanti is in the process of changing his list to all-Italian.
Perhaps the typical attitude is summarized by Robbie Clarke, bar manager at Frank Grisanti’s Italian Restaurant in the Embassy Suites in East Memphis.
“We’re in a hotel and get customers from all over the country and all over the world,” Clarke said. “We have to have a wine list that appeals to all our customers, not just those who might like Italian wines. We have made some changes recently, mainly taking off some of the more expensive wines because of the economy.”
The roster of wines at Frank Grisanti consists of 51 red wines, of which 17 are Italian, and 27 white, with five Italian, for about 28 percent Italian wines.
Rebecca Severs, manager of Bari and owner with her husband, chef Jason Severs, takes the opposite tack.
“From the time we opened Bari eight years ago,” she said, “we never considered anything but an all-Italian wine list.” That list now includes 30 white wines, two rosés and 56 reds, in addition to sparkling wines and dessert wines.
“Nobody has ever been offended or upset that we only serve Italian wines,” said Severs. “They might say that they’re unfamiliar with Italian wines and that they need help, but customers learn to have faith in our servers who have been trained really well in the list and the wines we have available. In fact, I would say that 80 percent of our patrons let us choose their wine.”
Given the chance, Severs would like to expand the list, “but it’s a small restaurant. I have boxes of Barolo under my desk. There are plenty of wines to choose from anyway from among the local distributors, and that wasn’t the case eight years ago. We’ve kind of grown together. I can pick and choose what I want. I would encourage other Italian restaurants to do all-Italian wine lists. It’s challenging and fun.”
The wine list at Andrew Michael Italian Kitchen, on Brookhaven Circle, is compact – 12 whites and 26 reds, of which a total of 17 are Italian, plus sparking wines – because of lack of storage space, said Michael Hudman, co-owner and co-chef with longtime friend Andrew Tice.
“We would love to have an all-Italian wine list,” said Hudman, “but there are so many great wines from California and other places that we want people to have an opportunity to try them with our food. We want the list to be friendly, and a lot of people don’t know much about Italian wines. There are so many regions and so many grapes and different names that it’s confusing, but we’re gradually incorporating more Italian wines in the list.”