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The Timeless Charm of Cheap Chianti

There’s a three-restaurants-in-one Italian joint in Chicago called Italian Village that I’ve been going to since I was 7. The best way to describe this century-old temple of Italian-Americana is that it looks like Epcot couldn’t make up its mind on how to do Italy, so it vomited up three glorious versions in one building.

Upstairs, the Village features mini Renaissance-style statues and frescos of the Tuscan countryside to match a throwback menu of lasagne, chicken Vesuvio, and veal scallopini. On the main floor, the theatrical, pasta-focused Vivere sports swirl motifs, oversized fixtures, and high-backed red velvet booths, like fine dining fit for the Venetian in Las Vegas. The subterranean chophouse, La Cantina, with its curved entryways and low ceilings, features Italian wine varieties spelled out in different fonts on its walls. (As of writing, the main-floor and downstairs restaurants were open only for private dining, in a holdover move since the pandemic.)

Every time I go to the Village, I happily suspend myself in gastronomic arrested development, to the tune of fried calamari, cups of minestrone, and heaps of spaghetti Bolognese. The same goes for the drinking side, in the 18-odd years I’ve been of age here. Never mind that Italian Village maintains an imposing wine cellar of 30,000-plus bottles, among which I assume one can find some formidable Chianti Riservas and Classicos. I wouldn’t know, because I’m far likelier to order Chianti in a grass skirt, also known as Banfi Winery’s Bell’Agio Chianti fiasco.

Someone with a “sophisticated” palate might say this wine tastes like cherries and leather, or passable red table wine, or maybe even cheap sh*t. (“You can drink something far better for a similar price!”) To me, middling Chianti is the drinkable incarnation of America’s platonic, if outdated, ideal of Italy. It’s red-checkered tablecloths, drippy candles, and Rosemary Clooney belting “Mambo Italiano.” It’s Audrey Hepburn in “Roman Holiday,” eating gelato in a cinched-waist dress and sandals or Michael Corleone on his first trip to Sicily in “The Godfather,” sipping nondescript table red from a little glass tumbler. Is it at least 80 percent Sangiovese? I don’t know or care; I’m only here for the fantasy.

DOCG vs. Me

Tuscany’s Banfi Winery is one of the few producers to still bottle its Chianti in the straw “fiasco,” which was invented centuries ago to protect the glass from “sun and shocks” during transport, a Ruffino spokesperson told me. (Ruffino was the first to import Chianti to the U.S., in the late 1800s.) The bottle was popularized in the U.S. in the 1960s when Chiantis began to appear more readily on the market — its bulbous shape and bucolic ensemble all but begged it to be repurposed as a holder for only the drippiest wax candles.

As Chianti improved in quality, it graduated to a more internationally standardized high-shouldered bottle shape. In 1987, Chianti’s appellation was upgraded to “Denominazione di Origine Controllata e Garantita (DOCG),” a strict series of rules that winemakers must follow to be called Chianti.

Three years after that, my family moved to the suburbs of Chicago at which point I started going to Italian Village in a fluffy dress each Christmas and building a framework for the Me Designation of Italian food and wine through the distinctly American lens of the red sauce joint. (This proved easy, seeing how roughly one in eight U.S. restaurants serves Italian food.)

I’d find plenty of other means for propping up this fantasy. For instance, my steady diet of Martin Scorcese mobster films and Chicago-centric lore concerning John Dillinger and Al Capone. “The Sopranos,” which consumed six years of our collective attention in the early aughts and forever changed drama television, even reclaimed the title of HBO’s hottest show in April 2020, 13 years after its finale aired.

Americans can’t seem to shake our obsession with visiting Italy, either, despite decades of globetrotting since the jet age first sparked our wanderlust. Roughly 6 million of us descend on Italy each year, and as of 2019 the country was the top dream destination among millennial travelers ages 18 to 34 by more than 9 percent, according to a survey by Vrbo.

This is not entirely our fault. We live in a feedback loop of aspirational travel programs in which people traipse around discovering “the real Italy” in gauzy linens and loafers without socks. (Yes, I binge-watched “Searching for Italy” mid-pandemic. Yes, I longed to slurp zucchini pasta on the Amalfi Coast in the worldly yet gentle presence of Stanley Tucci.) And need I even mention the bum-rush to Sicily that’s ensued since Season 2 of “The White Lotus” made us all want to go to picturesque Taormina?

This kind of unattainable show-and-tell reminds me of the early waves of cheffy, regional Italian restaurants that tried to convince Americans that pasta portions should be barely sauced and small, to precede whole roasted branzino or thick steaks. Some of them held on, but many others succumbed to our conviction that pasta equals main and quietly upped their serving sizes.

It’s appealing to think that people are capable of mini evolutions in their lifetimes on things that matter. But too often the notion of growth is misapplied in the name of snobbery.

For a long time I wrote myself off as having a low wine IQ because I never felt comfortable with the way it was described and often got overwhelmed by its prestige and scope. That’s probably what first drew me to Bell’Agio and wines that are similarly intended for everyday tables alongside home-cooked food, that don’t require contemplation or description beyond the words “house red.”

When I finally visited Italy for the first time, in 2018, one of my favorite memories was the night my family and I cooked pici pasta with fresh fennel sausage in a rented apartment in Florence. We washed it down with the best Brunello di Montalcino of our lives, which we bought for 20 euros at a corner store. This was the so-called real everyday wine — perhaps even a little pricey to Florentines — that invited me to live out a small version of the fantasy I’d built over 28 years. Who made it? What vintage was it? What did it taste like? I can’t remember. But it felt a lot like drinking Chianti fiasco and eating spaghetti with meat sauce in my fluffiest dress in a nondescript, frescoed “Tuscan village.”

The article The Timeless Charm of Cheap Chianti appeared first on VinePair.

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