Italy's Best Wine Bars (Decanter)
What better way to sample Italy's exciting wines than in its best wine bars? Tour guide Patricia Thomson leads the way.
Via del Moro, 1/a
BEST FOR: Literary enophiles. Label readers will relish the two-volume list of 1,300 wines, each with a paragraph penned by sommelier Lina Paolillo alongside its label. With formal restaurant, casual osteria, and wine bar in adjoining rooms, Ferrara keeps 26,000 bottles in its cellars—as many as a small winery.
MUST TRY: Aged Pecorino. This Abruzzo grape is the latest darling of Rome wine bars, but only here can you find vintages going back to 2006.
Via dei Pellegrino, 51
BEST FOR: Cheese devotees. Artisanal rounds are eye candy in the window of this elegant Campo de’ Fiori restaurant. With a 50-page wine list and a dozen by the glass, there’s ample opportunity to argue whether cheese goes best with red or white.
MUST TRY: Bucatini cacio e pepe. Find perfection in the rustic simplicity of this classic Roman pasta with cheese and cracked pepper. Pair with an equally robust Sagrantino di Montefalco from Caprai.
Cul de Sac
Piazza di Pasquino, 73
BEST FOR: Wine freaks. Opened in 1977, this bustling cubbyhole near Piazza Navona started the wine bar phenomenon in Rome. Avoid the dinner rush and come for the phone-book-sized catalog of 1,500 labels and excellent charcuterie.
MUST TRY: With all 20 regions of Italy represented by the glass, enophiles with endurance can do a giro d’Italia, starting in Piedmont with Montalbera’s Barbera d’Asti and crossing the finish line in Sicily with Duca di Castelmonte’s Nero d’Avola.
Piazza Antinori, 3
BEST FOR: Romantics. Feel like a guest of Italy’s preeminent winemaking dynasty in this intimate and refined restaurant, housed in the family’s Renaissance palazzo. Virtually all Antinori labels are at your fingertips.
MUST TRY: There’s no better place to uncork an icon like Tignanello or Solaia. Think Super Tuscans are so yesterday? Then explore the nether regions of the Antinori empire, with options from Hungary, Chile, and Washington’s Columbia Valley.
Cantinetta dei Verrazzano
Via dei Tavolini, 18/r
BEST FOR: Art-goers. The urban outpost of this historic Castello di Verrazzano winery is perfect for an afternoon pick-me-up after intensive ogling at the Uffizi. The Chianti estate has been at it since before the birth of navigator Giovanni di Verrazzano in 1485.
MUST TRY: Wash down Pienza pecorino with a traditional (merlot free!) Verrazzano Chianti Classico. Then chase that with a semolina tort topped with custard and chocolate glaze from their exceptional bakery—Vin Santo optional.
Via delle Oche, 15
BEST FOR: Social drinkers. With only 30 seats, this is the kind of cozy hangout where one shares wine with cheek-by-jowl strangers. Wine nerds will have a field day with the esoteric list of 350 boutique producers, in constant rotation.
MUST TRY: Get sommelier Nicola Schirru to pour some Timorrasso—nearly extinct, now a Slow Food favorite. Pair that with an entrée salad (a rarity in Italy) or dine alla Toscana on pappardelle with rabbit and saffron, matched with Riecine’s Chianti Classico gem.
Campiello del Tentor, San Marco, 5513
BEST FOR: Hobnobbers. Tucked in a courtyard near the Rialto, this feels like an old-fashioned bacaro, but sociable fourth-generation proprietor Giovanni d’Este stocks 420 pedigree wines. Better yet, he’ll serve any by the glass at one-sixth the bottle price.
MUST TRY: Antique northern Italian varietals, like Schioppettino, Pignolo, Refosco, or the aptly named Tazzelenghe (tongue cutter). Cult-wine drinkers can swoon over shelves of Brunello and Amarone. A glass of Quintarelli, anyone?
Osteria La Zucca
Santa Croce, 1762
BEST FOR: Foodies A notoriously tough town for the food obsessed, Venice excels at La Zucca. Booking is mandatory at this tiny oasis, which emphasizes vegetarian plates with a modern twist. Make a splash and arrive by boat via the canal-side entry.
MUST TRY: The namesake pumpkin (zucca) flan. This calls for a northeastern white, such as Colle Duga’s Tocai Friuliano, one of a strong showing from the Veneto and Friuli on the small but well-curated list.
Osteria La Cantina
Campo San Felice, Cannaregio, 3689
BEST FOR: Cichetti fans. Unpretentious, popular with locals, and perfect for people-watching on the Strada Nova, this bar’s wow factor is in its ultra-fresh, mega-sized meat and seafood cold plates. Pick from 30 idiosyncratic wines by the glass, or try their own label of beer.
MUST TRY: Seafood cichetti. Sans menu, go with the catch of the day or suck down freshly chucked oysters along with a sea-foamy Prosecco.
N’Ombra de Vin
Via San Marco, 2
BEST FOR: Art mavens. Central to the artsy Brera ’hood, this lively bistro-enoteca recently doubled its table space by renovating the groin-vaulted refectory of a neighboring church. Everyone gather ’round the ice-filled sarcophagus for a toast!
MUST TRY: Though 30 wines rotate by the glass, the fun here is trolling the shop for discoveries to uncork on the spot. The fassona tartar goes fine with a glass of Bruno Rocca Nebbiolo, but why resist that 1971 Gaja Barbaresco on the shelf?
Via Paolo Sarpi, 30
BEST FOR: Adventurous enophiles. A Milan fixture since 1891, this no-frills enoteca has a verbal wine list and no kitchen. But 60 rotating bottles are always open, and the shop’s 1,000 labels are all available—even by the half glass.
MUST TRY: Trust second-generation proprietor Luca Sarais to suggest something intriguing—say, DeBartoli’s 20-year marsala Vecchio Samperi or Giacomo Conterno’s Monfortino Barolo cru. His offering of a 1980 Domaine del la Romanée-Conti by the glass is now legendary.
Via Salasco, 21
BEST FOR: Budding sommeliers. Free WiFi and assorted wine books make it easy to check your ciabot and cru while perusing the 200 boutique labels at this hip wine bar. But it’s the Winemaker Chats every Wednesday night that get an A+.
MUST TRY: “Italian sashimi” fresh from the market every Monday, served with a drizzle of olive oil. Perfect pairings on the rotating al bicchiere list might include an Inama Soave Classico or Alois Lageder Müller Thurgau.
Published in the Italy supplement of Decanter magazine, February 2013.