A good educator reins in an unwieldy topic by breaking it into manageable, relatable chunks. Consider Italian wine.
Here’s an example of why the category is notoriously difficult to grasp: abbuoto, abrusco, acitana, addoraca, aglianico, aglianicone, albana, albanella, albanello bianco, albaranzeuli bianco, albaranzeuli nero, albarola, albarossa, aleatico, alionza, ancellotta, arilla, arneis.
Those unfamiliar words are names of grapes starting with the letter a, in an alphabetical list that includes over 2,000 varieties. Granted, many hover on the precipice of extinction and are wholly irrelevant to the majority of consumers. Only an ampelographer, a lifelong student ofla dolce vita, or a member of the Wine Century Club might be able to conquer all of the boot’s indigenous wines. However, even mastering ten or fifteen of the most important ones requires a time commitment and attention span most folks don’t have.
Enter Mulino a Vino (337 West 14th Street, 855-343-4513), a subterranean Italian restaurant beneath an apartment building on 14th Street. Judging from the exterior, surrounded by nail salons and outworn liquor stores, one would be forgiven for scurrying past. I did many times, until one day I paused to take a phone call, looked down and saw the sign.
I booked a table for a wintry Friday night and discovered the city’s most thrilling Italian wine program inside the cozy, dimly lit space. The owner, Paolo Meregalli, who runs a sister restaurant with the same name in his native country, has assumed a self-appointed ambassadorship of Italian vino in New York City — yet few seem to know about it.
Meregalli offers an unprecedented 100 wines by the glass (all available by the bottle, too). It did not prove to be the marketing gimmick I initially imagined. He has not bloated the list with twenty Chiantis, twenty pinot grigios, twenty bland blends, nor has he uncorked a bunch of bottles, relegating the obscurest to languish and oxidize behind the bar, as, amazingly, I’ve seen done in New York City.
Instead, the suavely attired host, who has a genuine fascination — nay obsession — with the country’s vinous bounty, takes wine seriously enough not to open a single bottle unless a guest orders one. He eagerly shares his painstakingly assembled selections, ranging from unsung to blue-chip, with the equally well-dressed Italians who fill the bar, by pouring every glass fresh with a Coravin.
Prices range from affordable-ish ($13–$20) to reserve-end ($500 for rare vintages from the cellar collection). The choice in pour size — small, medium, and large — is an approach more restaurants should emulate; it allows customers to take advantage of the intent of the program: exploration by sample.
A nerd or student (I’ll use myself as an example of both) might giddily pick wines based on access to rarity, like Elba ansonica (named aptly for its origin), white sangiovese, schiava gentile, ruché, and vespaiolo (not to be confused with vespolina or vesparola, of course). Some of these I’d never tasted, others I infrequently see on restaurant wine lists. At Mulino a Vino, I could acquaint myself with the qualities of a difficult-to-find wine without having to buy an entire bottle.
A neophyte, on the other hand, who might not care about a rare Elba ansonica sighting, could still arrive at the same wine in their glass using a different methodology. Thanks to Meregalli's clever subcategorization by flavor, mouthfeel, and descriptions, what could be a bewildering list for newbies is easy to navigate.
The delicately floral and fruity white from Napoleon’s isle of exile falls under the "Bright and Lively" category, as does the silky, forest-berry scented schiava gentile. The other three categories are "Clean and Earthy," "Smooth and Velvety," and "Big and Luscious." All four, plus a fifth for reserve wines, contain grapes and wines hailing from north to south, including Tuscany, Lazio, Piedmont, Sicily, Veneto, Emilia-Romagna, Liguria, and Sardinia. Every crag and crevice planted with a vine has found (or will find) representation on Meregalli’s extensive list.
The menu’s organization also facilitates stress-free food pairings. Each category comes with a list of dishes vetted to match wines from that bucket. Risotto with scamorza fondue pairs with any glass of "Bright and Lively." Tagliatelle Bolognese complements "Smooth and Velvety" sips, and so on.
Diners agree to a repast revolving around the glass, although it’s possible to work backward. I was encouraged to select a pour, then check the recommended food pairings. But I could have easily scanned the dishes for an appealing description and gone back to the list to find an appropriate wine. While the ambitious beverage program takes a "wine first" stance, the food is no afterthought.
When Mulino a Vino first opened in November of 2014, chef Davide Scabin (of two-Michelin-star restaurant Combal.Zero acclaim) wrote the menu and trained staff on its execution before departing. Initial reviews of the food ranged from overwrought to underwhelming. However, a new executive chef was hired last July: the young and energetic Massimiliano Eandi (sharpened at Combal.Zero under Scabin’s tutelage). With Eandi at the helm, the kitchen has been revitalized. My experience: plate after plate of precisely arranged (think tweezers), flawlessly executed, creative twists on traditional Italian foods that married perfectly with the suggested wines.
The “Cecina on the Rock,” a chickpea crepe with pickled onion and tapenade served on a Himalayan salt brick, had good rapport with a Roma rosso red blend from Lazio. Savory almond notes in a glass of the Tuscan white il templare accentuated the creaminess of a riff on cacio e pepe with ravioli, while the wine’s electric herb and pear aromatics brightened a swirl of green pea puree.
No dish is intended to be paired exclusively with one wine, since different partners bring out different traits. Fragrant herbs and earthy chanterelles in a slow-cooked, roasted lamb volcano, came to the foreground with a glass of vibrant ruché, but a richer barbaresco accentuated the gaminess of the lamb.
Clearly, getting schooled on Italian wine at Mulino a Vino is a delicious path to an education.