Chicago has always boasted a (Mediterranean) sea of Italian restaurants – featuring big portions and mammoth wine lists. Many are located in the Loop or near downtown, or are chains – some of which are known for promoting family to show the value of marketing prowess.
Occasionally, the inspiration for an Italian restaurant can be traced to an actual family experience of the owner/proprietor. For Massimo DiVuolo, his Neapolitan childhood was punctuated by the traditional Sunday lunch, which he helped prepare with his mother and grandmother.
The aromas, flavors, wine (moderate underage drinking isn’t taboo in Italy) and conviviality of the kitchen and table percolated in DiVoulo’s imagination long after he arrived on U.S. shores 20 years ago. After working in the catering and restaurant industries, DiVuolo decided it was time to open his own place, based on his childhood experiences: Due Lire.
For DiVuolo, it was an actual recollection of family values – not the ones associated with tiresome marketing slogans or political campaigns – that propelled his vision for a menu and wine list. DiVuolo and his co-owner, Chef Kevin Abshire, are from very different origins (Abshire is from Louisiana). But, they share a vision of Italian-inspired cuisine that’s based on fresh, simple, seasonal ingredients – and on a friendly atmosphere of celebrating life through food and wine. Their menu and wine list offer many options, but are not unwieldy; the portions and prices are both reasonable.
Chicago Budget Wine Examiner sat down with Massimo DiVuolo recently to discuss the industry – and, of course, wine’s value sector – at Due Lire’s tidy, neighborhood-friendly Lincoln Square location recently:
Chicago Budget Wine Examiner: Tell me about how you went about assembling your wine list. Are these wines all selected from individual tastings, or are they driven by the entrées or the seasons? Your wines don’t lean heavily to Italian, either…
Massimo DiVuolo: I taste everything. And, I explain up front to salespeople and distributors what I like, and I prefer if they bring me two or three samples here and there rather than 10 bottles at once. I like to offer affordable wines, and wines that I’ve really enjoyed during my tastings. The objective: Value and a food-driven list. What I try to do is combine the food with the wines that I’m putting on the list. At the beginning, I was going to do all Italian. But I was surprised how much great wine I could get from some wonderful, different regions: South Africa, Spain, Portugal. And when I find a good wine that pairs with our food, it will be added to our list. The new regions and new markets offer great value. Chile and Argentina are examples of this. These new markets really want the world to know about their wine.
CBWE: Do you switch out a number of wines on the list quite frequently? If so, why?
MD: I’ll change out some of them month-by-month. Basically, I want to be able to keep 60-70 percent of the list intact so that when the people look at it, they can be assured that for $30-$35, they’ll be ordering consistently good wine. But I do [make some frequent changes] because I’ll go to the table and listen to what customers say. I like for them to taste a wine that might be outside of their comfort zone, but is comparable to what they’re used to. People get very excited, because maybe they’ve never heard of the Cataratto grape from Sicily. It’s typically a blending grape, but the producers in Sicily are now [featuring it on its own]. The Cataratto is stainless-steel fermented, and its fruit aspects are very straightforward – apricot, and a little bit of peach. Another we’ve added recently is the Gagliardo Fallegro Favorita Bianco Piemonte 2010. It’s a clone of Vermentino, and has such an easy, summery, crisp taste. There’s a hint of sea salt and caramel in this wine [for an added dimension]. If you like Pinot Grigio, you should try this wine. The crispness and acidity are there, but with a different element – very new to a palate that’s used to Pinot Grigio.
I like to pick wines that I think go with the food, but sometimes the customers have a very different idea. I had found a very good Torrontés, from Argentina, and it did well among our customers in spring; by summer, people weren’t ordering it as much. So, I have to remember: This is the customers’ wine list; not mine. I create the list and propose it to them. If they don’t like it, that’s their right.
CBWE: Have you had any hot sellers during the summer – perhaps a varietal that’s had surprisingly brisk sales?
MD: Again, I’ve got to mention the Gagliardo Fallegro Favorita Bianco. At first, I thought it was very good, but I was a little [skeptical] about how the customers would react. As it turns out, they love its unique flavor, and that it works with so many of our items on the menu. Another pleasant surprise is the Zenato Lugana Veneto 2010. It’s actually a Trebbiano, but in the Veneto, it’s called Lugana. It has such an amazing structure and body, and at the same time, great minerality and acidity. We already have a Trebbiano Abruzzo on the list, so I had to be careful. But Trebbiano Abruzzo is a lighter table wine. One other favorite is a Spanish white with a tiny bit of spritz to it: Raventos Perfum de vi Blanc, Penedes. It is lovely, with floral, peach and mango.
CBWE: Please suggest your favorite wines – both a white and a red – that cost less than $18 at retail. What’s your favorite dish to pair with each wine?
MD: For a white wine, I like the Villa Matilde Falanghina Campania 2009. Its dryness and crispness remind me of a Sauvignon Blanc, but it’s not as grassy or green. There’s a bit more of grapefruit to it. I like it with the Pesce Persico on our menu. The Pesce Persico is a flash-fried perch, served with a citrus arugula salad and a watermelon radish.
For a red, I like the Beckmen Cuvee Le Bec 2009 from Saint Ynez, paired with the Maialino Delicato. This is a roast pork loin that’s served over a risotto parmigiano with an apricot-fennel demi-glace. The richness of the pork really pairs nicely with this red blend. The Mourvedre has some fruitiness plus structure, and the Syrah adds a touch of spice in the background. It’s a great balanced wine that won’t overpower the dish.