Simon Anixter on Ligurian Wines

Simon Anixter, wine director at Rose Pistola, began his food and beverage career like many people did, working summers in restaurants while he attended Claremont McKenna College in Southern California. Realizing his true passion, he decided to pursue a career in wine after graduating with a degree in science and management. He worked as a sommelier in several restaurants throughout the Bay Area including Masque Ristorante in El Dorado Hills, where he served as wine director and sommelier until 2006. In 2007, Anixter joined Rose’s Café as wine buyer and floor manager, where he remained for one year before being promoted to wine director of both Rose’s Café and Rose Pistola. He focuses on hard-to-find Italian and regional Californian wines that compliment the Ligurian cuisine at Rose Pistola.

Ligurian Adventure: Epicurean Bliss

It’s hard not to love the red wines from Italy. From the regal Barolos and Barbarescos of Piemonte, to the many expressions of sangiovese from Tuscany, there is so much to choose from, and so many dishes to enjoy them with. Due to the quality and reputation of Italian reds, their whites often get overshadowed. A recent trip to Liguria quickly reminded me that Italy is producing truly amazing white wines that are worthy of attention.

I was in Italy for the annual VinItaly Wine Fair in Verona, but managed to extend my trip to explore much of Italy (albeit very quickly). I was particularly interested in spending time in Liguria to understand more about Rose Pistola’s original inspiration and concept. With many of North Beach’s original Italian immigrants coming from Genoa and the surrounding areas, our cuisine and wine list have always been driven by this rich, coastal region.

Ligurian wines are not exactly on the tip of everyone’s tongue, but my trip there confirmed that their place is firmly seated in the wine community. Located on the northwest coast of Italy just south of Piedmont, or what is considered the Italian Riviera, much of Ligurian cuisine comes from the sea. Together with great fresh pastas, often times pesto based, and stracchino-stuffed focaccias, white wines find themselves center stage on every dining room table.

Two of the most popular white wines found here are vermentino and pigato, with a nice range of varietal expression. You can find a casual, crisp, clean wine from producers like Bardellini, all the way to more complex, big, full-bodied styles, from the likes of Laura Aschero, Lambruschi, or Giacomelli. These are great examples of local varietals and local cuisine meshing seamlessly.

One of the most memorable meals I had during my whirlwind trip was in Rapallo. Rapallo is right on the coast, just east of Portofino, and a bit further east from Genoa (the home of pesto). My friend and I chose a restaurant, Trattoria Genovese, on a recommendation from our hotel. We had heard about their fresh pastas from the concierge, but what we didn’t know was how complete and fulfilling the meal would be. The restaurant not only offered to set up a tasting menu so we could enjoy a variety of regional dishes, but they served us two completely different tasting menus, one from the land and one from the sea. What a personal touch!

The server, Andrea, recommended a nice bottle of pigato, “Le Russeghine,” from Bruna. He then brought six different pastas–three small portions for each of us–including gnocchi with pesto, green beans and potatoes, cheese ravioli, spaghetti with fresh local herbs, a seafood pasta with grilled octopus, calamari, and prawns, and, lastly, a ravioli stuffed with white fish in a light cheese sauce (don’t let anyone tell you cheese and seafood do not mix). We were both surprised that a mid-range bottle of local pigato could handle all these flavors. Clean and unassuming, the wine enhanced each of the dishes.

After practically licking our plates clean and finishing off the Le Russeghine, I was served rabbit and my friend a whole white fish. For this course, we tried a vermentino by Giacomelli. Rabbit and vermentino may not be a classic pairing, however they cooked the rabbit in a lighter style, with a freshness that complemented the wine. It felt bigger than the pigato, with more complexity and flinty nuances. This particular vermentino was a bit more expensive than the pigato, but the added complexity paired perfectly with the entrées.

Not only was the food extraordinary, but the wine complemented our meal perfectly and the hospitality was amazing–what a trifecta! The experience epitomized everything great about Italian dining: great food, wine, and people–there’s nothing like it. It wasn’t until after homemade tiramisu, over a glass of Gaja Grappa, when I realized this was the first time in a very long time that I’d had a meal without a bottle of red on the table. It was instant verification that these Ligurian whites were not only of quality, but absolutely delicious with a wide range of foods.

Coming back to San Francisco with a new appreciation of Italian whites, I’m happy to offer several vermentinos and pigatos, including those from Aschero, Lambruschi, and Giacomelli on our list; additionally, we offer a wonderful Ligurian blend by the glass called “Cinqueterre” (vermentino/bosco/albarola). If you can’t make it to Liguria, try North Beach in the meantime, and I’ll be glad to share my recommendations with you.