If you want to find someone who knows wine, Ciao Bella Ristorante owner Joe Scalzo would be the man. He’s made wine, sold wine, paired wine and taken sommelier classes and he uses that knowledge and passion to bring unique paired meals to his patrons.
Scalzo hosts four to five wine pairing dinners a year and cooking demonstrations every other month, which include wines paired with the featured dishes. He’s also going to be moving into offering craft beer dinners in the near future. He’s been a wine enthusiast for the past two decades and loves bringing others into the wine lover world, even if it is just for a night. However, his expertise and enthusiasm could easily convert many a casual drinker who doesn’t put much thought into how his food and drink mesh.
So, how does a wine expert go about arranging such a special event? For Scalzo, it’s all about the wine and the food, while significant, comes second. “I always tell my guests that wine pairings are important,” said Scalzo. “It’s important to know what wine goes with the food. You have to create that ‘wow’ factor with a good balance between the wine and food. You don’t want the food to overwhelm the wine or the wine to overwhelm the food. That’s what a good pairing should be about.”
At Ciao Bella in Schererville, which will celebrate it 5th anniversary this fall and focuses on regional Tuscan cuisine, Scalzo says that he has wine distributors and occasionally wine makers cone out so he can make selections of what he wants to bring to his customers.
“I taste every wine personally,” he said. “We are very meticulous. We choose the best of the best. It’s my passion. I like to have beautiful wines at reasonable prices. I hand pick each one.”
Once he’s confident that he has some spectacular wines to feature, he works with his two chefs and gets into the kitchen himself to help determine the best meal to go with the best wine. A bit of brainstorming is done. Next comes the tasting and tweaking. Some selections get paired with salads. Some with pastas. Others with game. Scalzo has a collection of his mother’s recipes and others he collected throughout different regions of his native country of Italy. Wine dinners typically have a starter drink during the social cocktail half-hour and five courses (appetizer, salad, pasta, main course and dessert) and range in price from $55 to $69 per person. Game dinners, which include unique meats, are usually $79 per person.
It was as a young child that Scalzo was introduced to the art of wine making with his family in Adami, a village in Calabria in southern Italy. He has fond memories of making wine with his father as a young child. “My dad and uncles would harvest our own grapes. We’d pick them and crush them to make our wine. It was a great experience. I did that from the time I was young until about age 25.”
At age 27, Scalzo came to the United States to get his MBA at Loyola University. He went into mechanical engineering and ended up opening three restaurants. The first two are located in Chicago and are now run by his brother, both called Via Carducci, named for the street he grew up on in Italy.
While the majority of the wines available at the restaurant are from Italy, you’ll also find a varied selection of wines from around the world, including such places as France, Spain, Australia, Chile, Argentina, California, Germany and New Zealand.
His knowledge of wine has not gone unnoticed as he has earned a spot on Wine Spectator’s elite Award of Excellence list for 2013. Those who make the list are recognized for having one of the most outstanding wide lists in the world. Ciao Bella is also in the running for the 2014 list.
The next cooking demonstration takes place at 6 p.m. May 20. The class includes four courses, each paired with a different wine for $45 per person. Scalzo described it as a “mini wine dinner” where participants learn about pairing wines with the four courses they learn to prepare.
Scalzo anticipates the next wine pairing dinner to take place in September, but he encourages those curious about wine pairings to visit anytime. “We do some tastings with the staff every week to educate them on pairings, so they can learn about how it is done and share that with our regular customers,” he said. Every Wednesday, wines that are $40 or more are half price.
For information on other upcoming events, go to ciaobellaonline.com and follow along on Facebook.