I began researching this DECANTER story even before I knew it, routinely hitting up the wine bars of Florence, Venice, Milan, and Rome whenever I had a spare moment there. A few years back, I’d written about the rise of wine-bar culture in Italy in an article on the FRESCOBALDI WINE BAR & RESTAURANTin Florence—a phenomenon that arose much later in Italy than in the U.S., for reasons I explain in that story.
So when Decanter editor Guy Woodward asked me for a roundup of the best Italian wine bars for their annual Italy supplement, I was ready.
I wound up writing two version of the article. One you’ll find on newsstands right now in their February issue. It includes 12 wine bars overall, with micro blurbs on each. An earlier version, which I include here, singles out 1 wine bar per city, with a little more verbiage on each. Next time you visit one of these cities, drop by—and tell them I sent you.
Enoteca Ferrara - Via del Moro 1/a, Piazza Trilussa 41
BEST FOR: Literary enophiles. Label readers will devour Ferrara’s two-volume list of 1,300 Italian wines. Each entry pictures the label alongside a descriptive paragraph penned by sommelier Lina Paolillo, who co-owns this elegant Trastevere oasis with her sister Maria, its chef and architect. With a formal restaurant, casual osteria, and wine bar in adjoining rooms, Ferrara suits all appetites and wallets. The osteria’s smaller, user-friendly list is grouped by price, starting with 80 choices at 15€, while the restaurant’s comprehensive list includes an impressive backlog of vintages. Altogether, some 26,000 bottles reside in their three cellars—as many as a small winery.
MUST TRY: For a truly unique experience, raid Paolillo’s archive of aged Pecorino wine. This Abruzzo grape is the latest darling of Rome wine bars, but only here can you find vintages going back to 2006. “After 10 years, it becomes like the best of French whites,” Paolillo swears. If dining, do as the Romans do and go for carciofo alla giudia, or Jewish-style artichokes, a classic here served with slow-baked suckling pig. Paolillo would pair this notoriously difficult-to-match dish with a Lazio white—either a Frascati (now enjoying a renaissance) or a skin-fermented Grechetto. Craving something more exotic? Try their ravioli stuffed with foie gras on a bed of radicchio, raisins, and almonds and wash that down with a palate-cleansing Franciacorta, such as Uberti’s Comari del Salem.
Coquinarius - Via delle Oche 15
BEST FOR: Social drinkers. With only 30 seats, this cozy Duomo-area restaurant is the kind of spot where one shares wine and conversation with cheek-by-jowl strangers. That convivial spirit is sparked by co-owner and sommelier Nicola Schirru, who radiates a contagious enthusiasm for their esoteric selections. Want a history of Timorasso, the nearly extinct Piemontese white that’s now a Slow Food favorite? He’ll happily provide one—and a sample pour—while you’re deliberating over the 14 by-the-glass choices. The full carta dei vini rotates continuously “to keep ourselves interested,” says Schirru, who has about 350 wines in the cellar at any given time. About half are from Tuscany, most are organic or biodynamic, and all are small properties (“no more than 10 hectares”) otherwise absent from the Florentine vinoscape—wineries like Ar.Pe.Pe. in Valtellina, Girolamo Russo near Mt. Etna, and Taschlerhof in Alto Adige.
MUST TRY: With 20 inventive entrée salads, Coquinarius is a favorite haven for the veggie-deprived, a frequent affliction among restaurant-dependent travelers in Italy. Salad nibblers should kick the Pinot Grigio habit and try an Erbaluce, Verdicchio di Matelica, Bianco di Pitigliano, or other exotic option. Homemade pasta is another magnet, especially the sumptuous ravioli filled with pear and cheese. To dine alla Toscana, order the pappardelle with rabbit, saffron, and robiola cheese, then take your pick of a dozen Chianti Classico gems, such as Val delle Corti in Radda or Riecine in Gaiole. “Small and famous is our politic,” says Schirru.
I Rusteghi- San Marco 5513, Campiello del Tentor
BEST FOR: Authenticity hounds. A notoriously tough town for foodies, Venice is likewise behind the curve on Italy’s wine-bar boom. The old-fashioned bacaro still rules, but the vino sfuso at these neighborhood watering holes isn’t likely to satisfy discriminating palates. That’s why it’s worth tracking down I Rusteghi, tucked in a hidden courtyard near the Rialto bridge. It has a homespun feel, but fourth-generation proprietor Giovanni d’Este possesses the wine credentials and worldliness his progenitors did not. Trained as a sommelier in Piedmont and Lausanne, the sociable d’Este stocks 420 wines from the regions he loves—above all, Tuscany, Piedmont, Alto Adige, the Veneto, and Friuli. The best part? Everything is available by the glass—always at one-sixth the bottle price. So if none of the daily blackboard specials strike your fancy, don’t hesitate to ask for a bicchieri of that cult Dal Forno Amarone or the off-beat Israeli Gewürtztraminer spotted on the shelf.
MUST TRY: Adventurous drinkers will find nirvana in the raft of antique northern Italian varietals, including Schioppettino, Pignolo, Refosco, and the aptly named Tazzelenghe (tongue cutter). But if fame’s your game, check out the 20 Brunellos and swoon over marquee names like Casanova di Neri, Biondi Santi, and Poggio di Sotto. Ditto for the Amarones, where Quintarelli, Tedeschi, and Fumanelli dwell, with vintages going back to 1990. Although I Rusteghi serves only cold plates, there’s plenty to tempt, including hand-sliced prosciutto di Parma and Spanish jamón, Bay of Biscay anchovies, and pint-sized panini with culatello and truffle cream.
N’Ombra de Vin - Via San Marco 2
BEST FOR: Cultural mavens. After soaking up Michaelangelo at Castello Sforzesco, Piero della Francesca at the Pinacoteca, and Robert Wilson at the Piccolo Theater, art denizens need to recharge. Fortunately, Milan’s artsy Brera quarter has N’Ombra de Vin. Founded in 1973 as a wine shop by the Corà family, it has doubled as a lively bistro since 2005. This fall, a renovation opened up 40 more seats in the groin-vaulted space downstairs, once a refectory for the 13th century St. Marks church next door, where young Mozart stayed and Verdi conducted. Now you can gather ’round an ice-filled sarcophagus for a pour of Prosecco di Valdobbiadene while rubbing shoulders with staffers from Corriera della Sera and neighborhood patrons arriving on bicycle.
MUST TRY: The wine list’s giro d’Italia runs through Italy tip to toe, with 30 rotating selections grouped by type—“perfumed whites,” “reds to drink chilled,” “structured reds,” etc.—to easily pair with a short but well curated menu of cold plates. The shop’s 2,000 wines are all available by the bottle, so the options are endless. That tartar of Piemontese fassona beef would go perfectly well with a glass of Bruno Rocca Nebbiolo Fralù from the list. But treasure-seekers might prefer it alongside a bottle of 1971 Gaja Barbaresco or a 1981 Brunello from (pre-Frescobaldi) Castelgiocondo discovered in some nook. Here the pleasure is in the hunt.