This night wasn’t your traditional food and wine tasting experience. I was invited for an evening of pizza (six of them to be exact!) and just as many wines from Sicily’s Cusumano Winery. Our posse of wine writers was led by fearless pizza leader, Jon Porter, founder of Chicago Pizza Tours, and handsome Diego Cusumano, one of the owners of the winery. We sampled creative pizza pies from three unique Chicago restaurants and wines handpicked for pairing by Diego. What ensued was one of the most fun and creative ways to learn about my favorite pie and the remarkable wines from Cusumano.

Diego Cusumano

Diego Cusumano and Chicago Pizza Tours

Cusumano Winery

A relatively young winery by European standards, the Cusumano family has produced fine wines in Sicily, one of the most popular wine-producing regions in the world, for over ten years. Brothers Diego and Alberto Cusumano have blended traditional styles of wine making, state-of-the-art technology, and their understanding of the native grapes of Sicily to produce premium wines. If the six wines I tasted are indicative of the quality of their portfolio, wines from Cusumano should be on everyone’s table.

Based in Palermo, Cusumano Winery offers a range of wines and styles: from light whites to bold reds, from sparkling wines to those delicious with dessert. Grapes are cultivated on more than 1000 hectares of vineyards found throughout Sicily. Diego and Alberto run the winery with their father, Francesco Cusumano, and work with winemaker Mario Ronco to produce vibrant wines that are meant to satiate every palate.

By all accounts, the modern tasting room in Palermo reflects the forward thinking of the Cusumano brothers; the wines I tasted boasted an international style that paid homage to the authenticity of Sicily’s native grapes. I was impressed with not only the profile of these wines, but their ability to complement an array of mouthwatering pizzas. Let the pizza/wine crawl begin!

Diego Cusumano

Diego Cusumano

Coda Di Volpe Pizzas (and Cusumano Wine)

The first restaurant visited was Coda Di Volpe (3335 N. Southport) where our group greeted each other with genuine handshakes, followed by clinks of the wine glass. Jon explained the art of crafting pizza and fascinated us with fun facts about dough, sauce, meats, cheeses, and more…who knew there was so much to appreciate??

Seated with views of the pizza oven, tireless workers in the kitchen, and a full pour of 2016 Cusumano Nero d’Avola ($12), the first pie was presented: Salsiccia Pizza with fennel sausage, chili flake oil, garlic, pecorino, fior di latte mozzarella, and roasted red peppers. The explosion of flavors from the pizza was like no other. And the wine? Nirvana… 100% Nero d’Avola grapes from the rich, white soil vineyards of San Giacomo were refreshing and fruit forward on the nose and palate; spice, berries, and firm tannins were a delicious complement to the spicy Salsiccia Pizza.

Cusumano wine
A testament to discipline, I quickly learned that only one slice of each pizza would be enough. Before I could say “mangia!”, our second pizza, Margherita di Bufala Pizza with San Marzano tomatoes, buffalo mozzarella, and basil (the colors of the Italian flag, by the way) was served piping hot. Naturally, another wine was poured – 2014 Cusumano Noa ($60), an exceptional blend of 40% Nero d’Avola, 30% Merlot, and 30% Cabernet Sauvignon. Grapes were grown from Cusumano vineyards in Presti e Pegni where rolling hills are of clay based soil. In retrospect, this pairing was a favorite; the sweet basil and soft flavors of the chewy pizza were in total harmony with the round mouthfeel, texture, complexity and notes of dark berries and spice of the Noa.

Pizza and Cusumano wines
Our merry band of pizza and wine lovers boarded the Chicago Pizza Tour bus that delivered us to the second restaurant. Our palates were satisfied…yet we couldn’t wait to taste more!

Coalfire Pizza (and Cusumano Wine)

Candles flickered on high-top tables offering a view of the double coal fire oven at aptly named, Coalfire Pizza (1321 W. Grand Avenue) as each of us found a seat next to someone new. Conversation flowed…as did the wine.

Once Diego poured a glass of 2015 Cusumano Benuara ($22.99) and a few sips were taken, I realized that this lip smacking blend of 70% Nero d’Avola and 30% Syrah from Presti e Pegni, was one that I must find and share with friends who appreciate a wine with notes of red and black berries, rich red fruit, soft yet broad tannins, and spice…oh, that spice! Paired with the ‘Nduja Pizza with ‘Nduja sausage, Berkshire sausage, low-moisture mozzarella, cherry bomb tomatoes, and ricotta, this rustic wine met its pizza soul-mate.

You’ve never had Lasagna Pizza? Neither had I until that night. Savory Berkshire sausage, low-moisture mozzarella, sweet red peppers, ricotta, basil, and garlic combined for a festivus of flavors. The spice, cheese, plenty of garlic and peppers created that *wow* factor that grew exponentially with sips of the 2012 Cusumano Sagana ($49), a sophisticated wine from 100% Nero d’Avola grapes cultivated in the white soil vineyards of San Giacomo. On the nose, I found notes of blackberries and earth leading to broad flavors of dry plums, vanilla, sweet figs bolstered with firm, velvet-like tannins and lively acidity.

Before I knew it, it was time to board the bus for our next stop…

Stella Barra Pizzeria (and Cusumano Wine)

Lest you think that I had tasted my share of pizza and sipped enough wine, think again! I was more than anxious to try the offerings at Stella Barra Pizzeria (1954 N. Halsted) where we made ourselves comfortable at the Chef’s Private Table. As you can imagine, our vibrant conversation was turned up a few notches with anticipation of more pizza and delicious wine pairings from Cusumano.

Diego poured our first white wine of the night, 2016 Alta Mora Etna Bianco ($24.99), 100% Carricante from Alta Mora, a new winery from the Cusumano family. Grapes were grown on the slopes of Mt. Etna, the largest active volcano in Europe. Honestly, I could have sipped the rich Bianco on its own while savoring broad flavors of ripe citrus, white flowers, lemon, and eucalyptus…and I did just that until the mouthwatering Avocado Arugula Pesto Pizza with goat cheese, chili flakes, parmesan, pecorino, arugula, and avocado was served. Light, textured, and flavorful with the optimal amount of spice, both pizza and wine honored each other in a marriage made in foodie/wine lover heaven.

Pizza and Cusumano wine
Our last pizza, Hobbs Pepperoni Pizza featuring spicy pepperonis made in-house, fresh mozzarella, and parmesan, was accompanied by generous pours of 2014 Alta Mora Etna Rosso ($24.99). Diego explained that it was a “lifelong dream” to build a winery in the shadows of Mt. Etna. The Alta Mora name signifies the great heights of the vineyards (up to 4,000 feet) and the black volcanic soil. The Rosso we tasted was of 100% Nerello Mascalese grapes, indigenous to Sicily and the predominant red grape of Mt. Etna. I was impressed with its soft tannins and lively acidity that framed flavors of black currant, herbs, white pepper, and spice. With each sip of the palate pleasing Rosso and a bite of the robust pizza, I seriously considered booking a one-way ticket to Sicily…

Cusumano wine

Hungry for pizza and thirsty for Cusumano wines? Yes! It’s time to purchase a few bottles of Cusumano wines to sip with a favorite pizza. A perfect pairing to be sure.

 Cheers! ~ Cindy


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