Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Sublime Wines and Magnificent Pizzas

The classic margherita pizza, Kesté, New York City
(Photo ©Tom Hyland)

One of the most memorable wine and food evenings in my life took place in New York City last week, but it wasn’t at one of the city’s most exclusive eateries and our group wasn’t drinking a rare Brunello or classified Bordeaux. Rather, it was pizza and some humble, but wonderful Italian reds that we enjoyed. What is it they say about great food and great company going together? Well this was it.

This evening actually began with an invitation last summer from my friend Charles Scicolone of New York. Born in Brooklyn, Charles has been a passionate follower of vino italiano for more than four decades and makes no bones about his love of traditional Italian wines. He was accompanying his wife Michele to my hometown of Chicago, as she had been invited to conduct a cooking demonstration for Taste of Chicago. A marvelous chef, she has written many great cookbooks and is as knowledgeable about Italian food as anyone in the country.

The three of us enjoyed lunch at Spacca Napoli, a great authentic Neapolitan pizzeria not far from my home on the city’s north side. We all loved the pizza prepared by the owner (and pizzaiolo) Jonathan Goldsmith; Charles then asked when I would come to New York so we could enjoy similar pizza in Brooklyn.

I finally made it to New York last week and a few days before the meal, I asked if we were still heading for that place in Brooklyn. Charles told me no, as he had found an even better pizzeria in Greenwich Village called Kesté. It’s run by Roberto Caporuscio (a veteran pizzaiolo) and it’s been having a successful run since its opening less than one year ago.

Roberto Caporuscio, pizzaiolo, Kesté Pizzeria
(Photo ©Tom Hyland)

Joining Charles and me were Alfonso Cevola, the Italian wine director for a large wine distributor from Texas and author of the marvelous blog, On The Wine Trail in Italy. Alfonso and I had emailed each other dozens of times over the past few months, so it was nice to finally meet him. Alberto Longo, a wine producer from northern Puglia, was in town and accepted my invite to dinner, while the final person in our group was Ernie De Salvo, a friend of Charles.

I could go on and on about how great this evening was, from the outgoing welcome of Roberto and his staff to the incredible array of pizzas he prepared for us, from the classic margherita to the house speciality with prosciutto di parma, arugula and mozzarella known as Kesté. I certainly haven’t had the experience of some when it comes to sampling authentic Neapolitan pizzas in this country (maybe I need to get to New York more often?), but for me, this is the finest pizzeria in America. Need I say more?

Kesté pizza with arugula and prsciutto
(Photo ©Tom Hyland)

As if that wasn’t enough, Charles and Ernie brought some memorable wines for the evening. We began with a 1982 Tuscan red from Grato Grati; this wine, basically a declassified Chianti Rufina, was marvelously young and so subtle with pinpoint acidity and sublime dried cherry fruit. Thee we moved on to two exceptional bottlings of Spanna, a Nebbiolo-based wine from Piedmont from the producer Antonio Vallana. The two vintages, by the way, were the 1958 and 1964, both from Ernie’s cellar. Both were quite special and in excellent condition, with the 1958 tasting fresher than the ’64. Alberto Longo brought his Nero di Troia which we also enjoyed, so we consumed plenty of distinctive Italian wine. In fact, we were satisfied enough that we didn’t even open the 1982 Michele Chiarlo Barolo – next time!

A few points about enjoying wine with Charles and Ernie. Not only do they have incredible cellars – how many people have such bottles at home? – but they are adamant about the special qualities of traditional Italian wines. Charles talks of Italian winemakers these days that “have gone over to the dark side,” as he likes to put it, meaning vintners that age their wines in small oak barrels (usually French barriques). He didn’t say it that night, but all of us at the table knew what he meant – that these producers are more interested in trying to secure 90 points plus in the top wine magazines, when they should be making wines that highlight varietal fruit and offer a sense of place. Hard to talk about terroir when vanilla spice is the dominant aromatic note!

Charles believes that there were many outstanding Italian wines made three and four decades ago and these bottles certainly were proof of that. Too many “instant experts” who write about Italian wines these days make the claim that Italian viticulture has matured since the early 1970s and that today’s wines are much better than those from the 1950s and ‘60s. I can’t imagine too many of these critics have tried the wines we enjoyed that evening. Today’s wines – many of which are first-rate – are cleaner, with fewer faults than some of the rustic wines of the past (there were some failures back then, just as there are today), but give me an honest wine any day over one manufactured for the enjoyment of a few pundits.

My many thanks to Charles, Ernie, Alberto and Alfonso for the wines and the wonderful conversation and of course to Roberto Caporuscio for his hospitality as well as his exceptional pizzas!

La gruppa (l. to r.) Alfonso, Alberto, Charles, Ernie and yours truly

Kesté Pizzeria
271 Bleecker Street
New York, NY 10014
(212) 243-1500

You can read Alfonso's post about this evening here


  1. Cool post - interesting how two people can be at the same even and pick up on different things - I like that. I also like Spacca Napoli a lot too!


  2. Yes, we did pick up on different things, but that's because we've learned a lot, continue to learn a lot and are intelligent enough to communicate what we know.

  3. That be a ton of great wines to have with fine pizza, Tom. Only in New York.