When a passionate student of food and wine graduates from the acclaimed Culinary Institute of America, travels Europe to chiefly taste regional cuisine and becomes Chief Operating Officer of Lettuce Entertain You Enterprises, what’s next? A Master Sommelier Designation? Center stage/kitchen on Top Chef?
How about opening a pizza place – in Chicago.
Although the idea sounds pedestrian at first, Jonathan Fox’s La Madia is anything but another Chicago pie-tossing joint. Fox has brought his passion for internationally acclaimed standards of wine and food, and changed the genre of a Windy City staple into a gourmet standout. His pizza oven and towering wine cellar dominate La Madia’s entrance, which features hundreds of wines – with many value options.
Chicago Budget Wine Examiner met with Jonathan Fox to discuss the industry:
Chicago Budget Wine Examiner: What was the concept you envisioned when you decided to assemble your list? Some restaurants with your contemporary pizza concept might go with a smaller list, emphasizing simplicity; you went big. Why?
Jonathan Fox: The two pillars of this restaurant are pizza and wine. You have this big, bright pizza oven, and this towering wine cellar at the point of entry – so people know right away what they’re getting into. The inspiration behind the wine was to have something approachable in terms of choice. So what I really wanted to create was a list that had great range. Here, you could buy a $20 wine or a $600 wine. I wanted to have an abundance of wines offered by the glass: We have 75. I also wanted to have flexibility in glass pours, so guests can try multiple wines if they choose. So, we offer a 4- or 7-oz. pour. Our wines are very food-centric, so the focus is Old World wines. This emanates from my travels in Italy – through Tuscany and the entire country – and really enjoying the spirit of its culture, which is food and wine. But it is also a global list.
CBWE: Yes, and it includes Old World and New World Sauvignon Blanc, plus Rieslings. People might not think “pizza wine” when they see them on the list. Can you elaborate on this aspect?
JF: Although we’re a known as pizza restaurant, all the food is made by hand: the pizza dough, the pasta, the desserts, the gelato, etc. Pizza is the core, but we have wines that go with a lot of different foods. And, I want there to be lots of options. There are some New World wines that I think have nice acidity levels, are interesting and have complexity. They might not be ideally paired with a pizza, but would be nice with a salad or a pasta dish. I mentioned range earlier, and it’s important to have range for varietals, too. Say someone likes Chardonnay and another prefers Sauvignon Blanc. To provide something that would please both, I’d recommend the Vie Di Romans Sauvignon Blanc, which would be a little rounder than the typical Sauvignon Blanc, yet still has the varietal’s characteristics and style. It’s about the sense of place and how the wine is made. For every dollar in sales, we sell $0.38, or 38 percent in wine. So, our glass pours will require flexibility on the part of the distributor, to allocate significant amounts of certain wines for specific periods of time.
CBWE: What kind of obscure Italian varietals have caught your attention lately?
JF: Nero d’Avola is one example – indigenous to Sicily. It’s great with fattier meats. We have a Moroccan lamb spiced pizza. I’d recommend the Cusumano blend of Nero d’Avola and Syrah with this. The acidity goes perfectly with the proteins and fat in this pizza, but it’s not as acidic as a Chianti. For whites, I like Falanghina, and (although not Italian) I would recommend Gruner Veltliner with our pineapple and smoked speck pizza, which also have some Fresno chili peppers.
CBWE: What are some of your other promotions, specials or pairing options?
JF: On our list, we pair every pizza with a glass pour. We offer that as a quick reference guide to customers. One of the inspirations for the list is we’ll offer a “Somm Selection.” My wine buyer and I will collaborate on this together. We’ll work with growers and producers and bring in special wines. We also offer a special Wine of the Week – both a red and a white for $5 a glass. We taste the wines constantly throughout the week, and buy in enough volume so that we can pass the savings along. It’s been hugely successful for us.
CBWE: Any other industry trends you’re noticing?
JF: There are younger consumers who now have a deeper appreciation for some of the finer wines. Over the last four years, people haven’t consumed less wine; they’ve just traded down. But now, these younger consumers are experimenting with more expensive wine. The spirit of our list, the goal behind it is that you can find these great values and have a great wine. It’s easy to spend $100 and have the wine be great. It’s not as easy to find that great value wine or that interesting wine for less, but that’s where we’re so successful. Our objective with a value wine is to have a great product, not a great brand.
CBWE: What are your personal favorites – both a white and a red – that are priced under $18 at retail?
JF: For a white, I’d like the Terlan 2008 Muller-Thurgau from Alto Adige. It’s got lots of minerality and is very balanced. There’s bright citrus, and also some herbaceous aspects. It’s great with our prosciutto-parma classic pizza.
The red wine I’d recommend is the Caldora Sangiovese d’Abruzzo. It’s 100 percent Sangiovese, with a really classic, bright expression of the grape. There’s nice acidity, but also a traditional aspect with some earthiness. It’s great with a sausage and sweet onion pizza, and also with our vegetarian Margherita pizza.