When it comes to wine and food, mentioning the word "Italian" is likely to draw a crowd faster than a warm piazza on a Saturday afternoon. There's something about Italy's cuisine that simply does not intimidate the average food and wine aficionado in the way French food and wine traditions do.
Perhaps it's the Italian propensity for showing up late and staying late that sets a tone for informality. More likely it is the simplicity of the food and the clarity of flavours served on one plate. Often, one or two flavours dominate the dish, sometimes three but rarely more, and it's that reliance on two or three flavours plus the simplicity of such dishes that attracts.
In view of the sputtering economy or "in keeping with situation" as Ebenezer Scrooge's housekeeper, Mrs. Dilber, would say, we suggest you consider organizing an in-house dinner party and end a hectic day at home with friends, Italian-style.
It's easy enough to pull together a no-fuss menu and share it beforehand with your guests, and then suggest they bring along some of their favourite Italian labels to accompany one of the courses. Guests should remember with no restaurant mark-ups to double the price you can consider spending a bit more at retail wine stores and bring along a better bottle while still saving money.
To get the party underway, think about serving a selection of antipasti and your favourite sparkling prosecco. Prosecco gets its moniker from the white grape of the same name grown in the Conegliano and Valdobbiadene regions of Veneto, just north of Treviso.
Prosecco is softer style bubble, with ripe fruit and a slightly bitter aftertaste, well-suited to all types of antipastos and pre-dinner bites to eat. Think marinated artichoke hearts, roasted red peppers, and a selection of olives from bulk olive bins, and some thinly sliced sopressata, capicola and Genoa salamis.
Wine picks to consider include Villa Teresa Prosecco Veneto ($16) , a delicious party opener with plenty of green apple- and pear-flavoured fruit with a dusting of almonds, all under an innovative ceramic/metal closure. Another star choice would be the Mionetto Il Moscato N/V Prosecco ($19), a well-balanced bubble with sweet ripe peach and spicy baked apple mineral flavours. Love the classy blue package and the very hip crown cap. Perfect for spicy appetizers.
Make pasta your secondi , or second course, and keep it simple. You can pick up a variety of fresh pastas at most specialty markets. Simply decide on the saucing and you are ready to go. Linguine with pesto is both satisfying and easy to prepare and it's relatively wine-friendly. All you have to do is boil some water, cook the pasta al dente and then toss with the pesto.
To accompany the pasta, think about cooler, fresher style Italian whites from the north or those grown near the sea or at altitude. A current favourite is the Fazi Battaglia Titulus Verdicchio dei Castelli di Jesi Classico 2006 from Marche ($15) . This fresh, 100 per cent verdicchio never sees any wood. Look for floral, mineral, almond, citrus notes on the nose and the palate and fine balance.
Another smart choice would be the Tommasi Pinot Grigio Le Rosse 2008 ($20) from the Verona region. The '08 jumps from the glass showing youthful, fresh, tropical fruit notes combined with bits of orange and nutty quince notes. The palate is equally fresh with weighty creamy textures and spicy, citrus tropical fruit. Classic Northern Italian white that would work well with a variety of pasta dishes and it is perfect with pesto.
The main course may sound impossibly challenging but grilled Florentine steak, or Bistecca alla Fiorentina could not be simpler to prepare. Rub the steak with a good olive oil and generously season it with salt and pepper. Then simply toss it on a pre-heated grill and prepare it to order for your guests. Grill some vegetables ahead of time - they taste sensational as the dry heat concentrates natural sugars and gives them a bold and rustic look. Now you have a main course built for big reds.
Tuscan sangiovese or super-Tuscan reds are perfect match or you could look to the south of Italy for slightly more rustic reds that are big on value. An icon and an affordable choice is the Peppoli Chianti Classico 2005 ($28) from Tuscany. Look for a fragrant, floral showy red with black cherry fruit and a wisp of mocha coffee. Antinori adds a pinch of syrah to spice up the finish. A perfect wine to tame the steak.
Ornellaia Le Volte 2006 ($34) , a sangiovese cabernet and merlot blend, is a real crowd pleaser with its smoky, peppery, meaty, coffee, black fruit nose and dry, elegant styling. Love the finesse and final acidity that makes it perfect pairing with the steak.
But the ultra-bargain steak wine comes from southern Italy's Apulia region Tormaresca Neprica 2006 ($16) . Neprica takes its name from the first two letters of each grape in its blend: NEgroamaro, PRimitivo and CAbernet Sauvignon. This is a much more rustic meaty, floral-style red with bits of liquorice, pepper and black cherry jam flavours. That said, it will tame any style of meat entree.
If you have paced yourself through this multi-course marathon you can easily cap off the evening with an array of chocolate truffles from your favourite local purveyor and a lightly frizzante fruity ending based on the aromatic moscato grape. The fruity, orange ginger notes of the lightly sparkling moscato will set off the chocolate and send your guests home smiling.
Two delicious bottles are the Batasiolo Bosc Dla Rei Moscato d'Asti 2007 ($22) with its mineral, orange/ginger aromas and flavours and/or the very reliable Michele Chiarlo Nivole Moscato D'Asti ($18) in half bottles, that hits your palate with a whack of orange fruit and a paltry six per cent alcohol.
All you need do is add the music, Italian, of course, and you have a "big night" at home.
Anthony Gismondi is a globetrotting wine writer who makes his home in West Vancouver, British Columbia. For more of his thoughts on wine log onto www.gismondionwine.com