One of the culture shocks visitors to Italy face is discovering that Italians don’t drink wine with pizza too often.
Matching pizza with wine seems rather obvious, yet when visiting historical establishments across the country you will always find fridges filled with beer.
Beer has long been the best-selling beverage in the Italian pizzerie – and that is mainly due to its affordability and successful marketing strategies pursued by industrial breweries.
However, the tradition of pairing wine with pizza predates the upsurge of beer sales in Italy and the rise of gourmet pizza is bringing this habit back to life – an ever-greater number of connoisseurs are matching wine with slow-leavening dough and high-quality ingredients. Wine lists in pizza restaurants are improving, too.
The origins of Italian pizza
Like many Italian classics, pizza was created to feed peasants and workers. In the 16th century, the Neapolitans started oven baking the flatbreads they had been eating since the Middle Ages.
In the following centuries, they developed more sophisticated procedures and began topping the preparation with tomato sauce and mozzarella.
Pizza surged in popularity after the unification in 1861. Named after Queen Margherita di Savoia, pizza Margherita became an emblem of the newly founded nation, mimicking the colours of the Italian flag with the above-mentioned ingredients plus basil.
However, before the 1960s few pizzerie existed north of Rome. If anything, chefs from the wealthier north contributed to the success of gourmet pizza. Veneto-born Simone Padoan was one of the first to propose complex toppings, elevating this preparation to an art form.
What is authentic Italian pizza?
Pizza Napoletana is a Traditional Speciality Guaranteed (TSG) product, regulated under European law. The ‘Art of Neapolitan “Pizzaiuolo”’ is also included on UNESCO’s list of intangible cultural heritage.
The TSG means that authentic Pizza Napoletana can be made anywhere in the world, as long as it meets the requirements laid out by the Associazione Verace Pizza Napoletana (True Neapolitan Pizza Association):
The pizza must be obtained by rolling out a 200 to 280g dough ball by hand, topping it with tomato sauce, hard cheese, fior di latte or mozzarella, and basil (‘Margherita’), or tomato sauce, garlic, olive oil and oregano (‘Marinara’). Ingredients are recommended to come from the Campania region of Italy.
The pizza must be cooked in a wood-fired oven with a cooking surface temperature of 380-430°C for 60-90 seconds .
It must be no larger than 35cm in diameter, and should be thin (around 0.25cm), with a 1 to 2cm high ‘cornicione’, or crust. The cornicione should have a soft texture, with very few bubbles or burns.
Best Italian pizza and wine pairings
Scroll down to see Raffaele’s wine recommendations
Lighter wines are preferable with pizza, but every style has its match. The only general recommendation is to avoid big tannins and heavy oak imprinting.
The quintessential Italian pizza may be the most challenging to pair with wine. Most whites are too lean to cope with the tomato sauce, and most reds too structured.
Dark rosé such as Cerasuolo d’Abruzzo represents the best compromise, possessing judicious acidity, light tannins and enough palate weight to withstand – and even empower – the ingredients.
The easiest pizza to pair with wine, fried Neapolitan pizza comes in different styles, ranging from Montanara (with tomato sauce and Parmigiano) to calzone (stuffed with meat and provola cheese).
All you need is a refreshing, high-acid wine: locals recommend Asprinio di Aversa, a white wine from an historical district in northern Campania.
Pizza with cold cuts
While Naples is the cradle of pizza tonda (thin-crust pizza), Rome is best-known for pizza al taglio (pizza by the slice), often topped or stuffed with salumi (cold cuts).
You cannot leave the eternal city without having tasted crunchy pizza Romana with mortadella, better if paired with bottle-fermented sparkling wine such as Franciacorta, the mousse of which resets the palate by dissolving the fats.
Capricciosa boasts several ingredients, including tomato sauce, mozzarella, cooked prosciutto, artichokes, mushrooms and sometimes even boiled eggs.
Easygoing reds such as Piedirosso from the Campi Flegrei area near Naples work best in this case. Piedirosso balances the richness of the topping with its bracing salinity while refreshing the mouth with peppery and herbal flavours.
Authentic Italian pizzerie don’t serve pepperoni pizza. Instead, they serve Diavola (‘devil’), the original spicy salami pizza.
Diavola pairs well with fruit-forward red wines such as unoaked Barbera, the plump red fruit appeasing the piquant flavours, while crisp acidity cleans the palate.
The name Boscaiola derives from the Italian word for ‘woods’ and refers to a pizza with sausages, mushrooms and mozzarella.
This pizza pairs well with medium-bodied Tuscan reds, especially Morellino di Scansano from Maremma, which has enough acidity to counterbalance the sausage fat, along with velvety tannins that avoid clashing with the mushrooms.
Wine recommendations for Italian pizza
Where to eat great Italian pizza
L’Antica Pizzeria Da Michele – Naples
‘The benchmark for the Neapolitan style,’ according to leading food critic Luciano Pignataro. Da Michele is a chain with multiple branches but the original, in Naples’ old town, only serves classic pizzas that are larger than the plate.
+39 081 553 9204
Pizzarium Bonci – Rome
The go-to place for top-notch pizza al taglio, located close to the Vatican Museums in Rome.
+39 06 3974 5416
Seu Pizza Illuminati – Rome
Rome’s best pizzeria according to the ‘50 Top Pizza’ guide offers a wide choice of classic and gourmet options. The wine list is excellent, too.
+39 06 588 3384
50 Kalò – Naples and London
Ciro Salvo relies on slow maturation and Slow Food presidium products to make light and flavourful Neapolitan pizza. The main restaurant is in Naples, but Salvo also runs a location in London. Both offer solid wine selections focusing on the Campania region.
Naples: +39 081 1920 4667
London: +44 20 7930 9955