The best Italian wines aren’t found on a hillside in Tuscany or on a plateau in Piedmont. They’re found in Rome.
TWO HOURS AFTER SUNSET, somewhere near the east bank of the Tiber river, in one of a warren of look-alike alleyways stuffed so full of tiny cars and motorbikes that passersby nearly have to climb over them, it has just become clear: I have no idea where I am. None. Well, I’m in Rome; that much I know. And I’m looking for wine -- Sicilian wine, to be exact, to be served to me at a Sicilian restaurant that is on Via di Panico. But I’m not on Via di Panico. I’m on Via dei Banchi Vecchi. Possibly.
Either way, finding that nice bottle of Sicilian Grillo or Nero d’Avola seems out of the question. So I give up trying to read the street signs -- or, rather, the hard-to-spot engravings on the sides of buildings that pass for street signs in the Eternal City. Instead, I leave it up to the gods, the ghosts of oenophiles of old, or maybe just a random Vespa rider to determine my course. And that’s how, eventually, I arrive at the double doorway of Via dei Balestrari, 12. It is the address of a wine bar called L’Angolo Divino (the Divine Corner). That L’Angolo Divino is the answer to my prayer I do not think is a coincidence.
But, then, I’ve been drinking a lot of wine. This is my purpose in Rome: to visit as many of the city’s wine bars as I can in just a few days’ time and to find out what it is that sets these establishments apart from the average U.S. wine bar. At the heart, it’s to discover what it is that makes them Roman.
As it turns out, what makes them Roman is that the wines are mostly not Roman. Though there’s good wine made in Lazio -- a region in central Italy with Rome at its center, the Mediterranean Sea to the west, Tuscany to the north, and Campania to the south -- Rome’s wine bars don’t favor the local grapes. Instead, they stock wines from all over Italy, from the northernmost region, Alto Adige, all the way to Sicily. From an American perspective, that might not sound odd -- wine bars are supposed to have a range of offerings -- but in Italy, it’s downright weird.
“In Rome, you get a panorama of Italian wines, which you don’t get anywhere else in Italy,” says David Lynch, a noted U.S. expert on Italian wines. Lynch is coauthor of Vino Italiano, an encyclopedia of sorts on Italy’s wines and winemakers, and I’ve brought the slim companion book, Vino Italiano Buying Guide, to Rome for referencing my new discoveries.
Lynch calls the typical Italian wine bar’s approach “hyper-regional,” meaning that a wine bar in, say, Naples typically sells wines only from the Campania region, of which Naples is the capital. “If you go to a wine bar in Florence, the offerings are going to be all Tuscan wines,” he says. “And if you go to a wine bar in Alba, it is going to be all Barbaresco and other Piedmontese wines. Rome isn’t like that.”
Put another way: Only in Rome’s wine bars will you find the best Italian wines. All the best Italian wines.
L’Angolo Divino (Via dei Balestrari, 12; 011-39-06-686-4413) is a case in point. The humming bar/restaurant stocks hundreds of wines from all over Italy, from the finest Barolo to the simplest Montepulciano d’Abruzzo. Blond wood shelves anchored to red brick walls display much of the stock here. And in the center of the space, a glass case holds cured meats, wheels of Parmigiano-Reggiano, and balls of other Italian cheeses. I get lost briefly in the dense wine list -- par for the course tonight. Finally, I settle on a bottle of Aglianico del Vulture. Aglianico is the so-called Barolo of the South, and the 2001 Vigna Caselle Riserva that I’ve selected from the D’Angelo winery is full-bodied, dry, and tastes like dirt in a delicious sort of way. The wine is rated tre bicchiere ( three glasses), akin to exceptional, by Gambero Rosso, the publisher of Italy’s top wine guide. And at 30 euros, or about $44, it’s a bargain compared with what you’d pay for this wine in the United States, assuming you could even find it there.
Enoteca Trastevere (Via della Lungaretta, 86; 011-39-06-588-5659), a little wine bar on the west bank of the Tiber, in a newly popular medieval neighborhood, is a traditional vino e olio shop. Back somewhere in the days of yore, “wine and oil” shops sold just those items and on a strictly retail basis. Overtime, some also began offering cheeses and salami for takeout. At some point, dining in joined takeout. And today, most of the city’s wine bars -- enoteche in Italian -- still follow that formula.
At Enoteca Trastevere, I enjoy a cheap glass of Prosecco -- more specifically, a three-euro, or about $4, glass of Prosecco, an Italian sparkler from the hill sides near Venice. (Prices like that can be found throughout Rome. I rarely paid more than six euros, or about $8, for a glass.) With its dark-wood walls and tables, small outdoor patio, and foods like marinated artichokes, this rustic spot is almost the stereotype of Roman enoteche; there are dozens of look-alikes all over the city. So it’s only natural that a stereotypical elderly woman is searching the shelves when I walk in. She’s dressed in a blue-and-red-patterned housecoat and looks like she just stepped off the set of a Ragú commercial. Her choice? A bottle of red Lacryma Christi del Vesuvio, a simple wine whose grapes are grown in soil that’s enriched with Vesuvius volcanic fallout. I imagine she’ll serve it with a typical Roman pasta dish like bucatini all'amatriciana.
ABOUT THAT BUCATINI … It is omnipresent in Roman restaurants. Actually, there’s an old joke about restaurants in New Orleans that could easily apply to the eateries and the wine bars of Rome: There are hundreds of different restaurants but only one menu. Indeed, the very same antipasti items you’d find at Enoteca Trastevere can be found at L’Antica Enoteca (Via Della Croce, 76; 011-39-06-679-0896), a wine bar just, ah, steps from the Spanish Steps. While sipping an eight-euro, or about $10, glass of Brunello di Montalcino, a highly respected Tuscan red, and watching some German tourists order by pointing, I decide to break out the only Italian I know -- food Italian. I order pomodori secchi, funghi ripieni, and carciofi sott’olio with fluency. But I get hung up when my wife insists on deviled eggs.
Still, there are plenty of exceptions to the singularity of the food served in Rome, and many of those exceptions are now found in the city’s wine bars, where small and increasingly innovative dishes rule. Indeed, new wine bars are opening all over the city, many of which look and feel nothing like their predecessors.
Among the avant-garde types is Enoteca Ferrara (Piazza Trilussa, 41; 011-39-06- 583-33920), a slick, modern operation in Trastevere that would be at home in Manhattan or San Francisco. Ferrara began as a high-end wine bar. Today, after several expansions, it’s as much a restaurant as it is a bar. And it is popular -- impressively popular. It took me multiple attempts over successive nights just to find an opening on one of its tall metal stools. The wine list is immense and the food au courant. Ferrara’s success has inspired the opening of similarly swanky wine bars across Rome, and the new venues treat wine and food with more solemnity than the enoteche of old.
The thing about that, though, is I couldn’t care less. I mean, good for the Romans who want something other than the old standbys. But I can get Riedel stemware and brushed-metal bar stools and a “wine philosophy” -- and the high prices that go along with all that -- at pretty much every U.S. wine bar I’ve ever been to. What I can’t usually find in the States, though, is the Italian way with wine: informal and not intimidating. Take Vin Allegro (Piazza Giuditta Tavani Arquati, 114; 011-39-06-589-5802), for instance, a homey space lit by large candles and featuring an assortment of dusty game boards -- backgammon, chess, and so on -- scattered about. This was my last enoteca to visit before leaving Rome. So I went for a glass of Barolo, a red from Piedmont that is arguably Italy’s best style of wine. It cost 10 euros, or about $14. I ordered this not off a precious wine menu but from a chalkboard. And though the wine was served to me in an oversize wide-mouthed glass, the proper stemware for this style of wine, the server plopped it down in front of me as if it were a bottle of Miller High Life. He also tossed a plate of free foods -- nuts and sundried tomatoes -- on the table because, I assume, wine must go with food. It was all very proper, kind of expensive, and yet completely unfussy. It was all very Roman. Very Italian. Lynch puts it best: “You could have a 15-year-old girl serve you a bottle of wine in Italy, and it feels more natural than some sommelier in New York,” he says. “It’s just less fraught. And it’s very endearing.”
other roman wine bars worth a visit
cul de sac
piazza di pasquino, 73
a brightly lit space with tiled walls, it’s near piazza navona and looks not unlike a pizza parlor in manhattan. of all the enoteche in rome, it offers one of the most extensive selections of local wines from lazio, with 29 reds and 25 whites by the bottle, plus an excellent local cesanese del piglio by the glass. pair one with the charcuterie plate, which features meats and cheeses from lazio.
enoteca il goccetto
via dei banchi vecchi, 14
it’s a teeny wine bar that manages to be ultracasual even while serving its wines in riedel stemware.
in vino veritas
via garibaldi, 2/a
come here for a comfortable basement wine bar on the northern edge of trastevere, not far from the vatican. like many roman bars, it offers excellent, free food during happy hour. pair the food with a glass of bonarda, a lightly sparkling red.
la vecchia bottega del vino
via di santa maria del pianto, 9a/11
located in possibly the quietest spot in rome (a piazza in a jewish neighborhood that is mercifully devoid of vespa and car traffic), this “old shop” has been here for three decades. it has a large local following; people come for the huge selection, which includes a number of wines from the northeastern region of friuli-venezia giulia.
enoteca il piccolo
via del governo vecchio, 74
featuring one of the most interesting small-plate menus of any wine bar in the tourist-friendly centro storico, this intimate space has great people-watching from its few outdoor tables as well as an unusual wine selection by the glass -- including alois lageder’s cor römigberg, a cabernet sauvignon from italy’s alto adige region.