Paul Zitarelli can remember where and when he had his first great tomato. The scene was a clam bar in Somers Point, New Jersey, where the now-wine guru, owner of online retailer Full Pull Wines and published author spent his mid-adolescent summers pondering the meaning of post-vacation life as fall set in. It is the encounter with this tomato — which was topping a crab cake sandwich — that inspired the September recipe for tomato salad with faux-rata (not quite authentic burrata cheese) and many others like it in Zitarelli’s new book, “36 Bottles of Wine.”
Released last week, the book features the wine writer’s snippets of eating and wine-drinking memoirs while spotlighting a monthly meal matched with three different types of wine to ultimately better readers’ understanding of why this food goes with this wine. Eat, drink, repeat — on the monthly.
“There are a lot of encyclopedic volumes on wine that try to cover every single wine in every single region,” Zitarelli says. “I don’t think the world needs another one of those. I wanted something to be accessible to the enthusiast as well as the novice.”
A proponent of seasonal wine drinking and eating, Zitarelli’s approach was to keep it simple; each chapter representing a month of the year with a handful of timely recipes and three wine recommendations — one white, one red and one “other” such as sparkling, rosé or a dessert selection. The wines recommended steer clear of specific producers and vintages but remain general for the sake of accessibility, like Oregon Pinot Noir or Assyrtiko from Santoroni.
“I wanted this to be useful for people to walk into any wine shop, say ‘I’d like to try one of these wines’ and have a good chance of being able to find it,” he says, adding he hopes the book simplifies the ever-expanding wine world, much like what he strives to do with Full Pull’s boutique wine offers. “I try to curate heavily, cut through the clutter and give people a sense of what they should be focusing on now.”
In the September recipe, Zitarelli selected tomatoes at their finest time and to shine with high-acid wines. “It’s a recipe that tries to stay out of the way and feature the beauty of those tomatoes,” he says, selecting Sangiovese-based Chianti Classico for the prime pairing. “Sangiovese grew up in Tuscany, next to tomatoes, and it’s about as good of a red wine to go with tomato-based food as there is. It’s really all about acidity; tomatoes when they’re good have that incredible mix of tart-acidity and sweetness, and they’re such high-acid foods so a lot of medium- or low-acid wines taste flat to them. That’s not the case with Sangio… They really enhance each [other] and pair great.”
When stressed to lean local, the wine pro believes Oregon Pinot Noir or Washington Lemberger could fit the bill thanks to higher acid and red fruit profiles. And when pressed to give up his favorite tomato-selling haunt, he shops local as well. “I live on Bainbridge Island [Washington], so I buy them at the farmers market on Saturday,” he says. “We’re lucky our Town & Country Market has their own farm and this time of year they have a giant display. They’re not cheap, but worth it.”
Tomato Faux-Rata Salad
Makes 4 servings
1⁄2 cup whole milk ricotta cheese
1 tablespoon whipping cream
1 teaspoon freshly squeezed lemon juice
1⁄4 teaspoon finely grated lemon zest
Kosher salt, to taste
1 (8-ounce) ball fresh mozzarella
11⁄2 pounds ripe tomatoes
Freshly cracked black pepper, to taste
3 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
12 leaves fresh basil
In a medium bowl, whisk together the ricotta, whipping cream, lemon juice and lemon zest. Season to taste with salt and set aside.
Drain the mozzarella ball and slice it nearly in half, leaving a thin connection at the bottom of the ball. Set the split ball at the center of a large serving plate and fill the opening with the ricotta mixture. You can be decadent and use it all, or set some aside. (It makes a wonderful dessert when served along fresh fruit for dipping.)
For the prettiest slices, place each tomato on its side and cut slices, approximately 1⁄4 inch thick, from bottom to top. I prefer a serrated knife for the task (a sharp bread knife will work great); if you’re using a chef’s knife, it needs to be ridiculously sharp or you’ll end up popping the water balloon. Arrange the slices in an overlapping circle around the faux-rata.
To serve, season the tomatoes with salt (recall that you’ve already seasoned the faux-rata) and pepper. Drizzle the olive oil generously over the tomatoes and cheese. Tear the basil leaves into small pieces and sprinkle them over everything. Serve family style, allowing your guests to grab their favorite tomatoes along with a spoonful of faux-rata.
*(c) 2018 By Paul Zitarelli. All rights reserved. Excerpted from “36 Bottles of Wine” by permission of Sasquatch Books