Chicago is one of the nation’s destination cities, and the Old Town neighborhood is a landing place that’s enjoyed both by locals and tourists. Young people descend on Old Town from all over the metro area to experience the pulsating vibe and the buoyant nightlife.
The North & Wells environs are full of history and fine restaurants. The old Up Down Cigar shop still holds forth in the area. It’s a reminder of the time when accessories for other smokable substances were sold all along Wells Street – and when Chicago permitted indoor smoking.
But the idea of a smoke-filled, dark and brooding Italian restaurant with lots of Frank Sinatra music is not what the owners of Dinotto Ristorante have in mind when it comes to expressing the food and wine of Italy.
And, although Dinotto has a New World feel, it still projects European warmth and intimacy. The bright and cheerful dining room is alive with soft, easy listening music; the understatedly elegant cuisine and creative wine list are bustling with Old Town’s “new” essence.
Recently, Value Wine Chicago sat down with Chef/Owner Dino Lubbat to discuss the restaurant business and the wine industry. Joining in the discussion was the Dinotto’s affable wine purveyor, Gaetano Comerci, who added some valuable insight.
Value Wine Chicago: What is the philosophy behind the assembly of your wine list here at Dinotto, especially your large by-the-glass list?
Dino Lubbat: The list used to be made up exclusively of Italian wines. But, about seven years ago, we found there were some great values from South America. Also, the Euro went up and the Dollar went down, so that made us look for other values all over the world. We feel that the quality of wine that South America is producing is very good for the price point. Our Wine Director, J.C. Canales, is actually from Chile, so that lends some sympathy to bringing in South American wines, too.
VWC: Do you switch out a number of wines on the list quite frequently, and if so, why?
DL: Yes we do change the offerings on the list quite a bit, for reasons of availability, but also because the wines must be in accord with what’s on the current menu. Our price point here at the restaurant is such that we cannot carry a lot of $100-plus bottles of wine. So, we price our wines so we can market them to people who are attracted to our menu. And we price our wines more aggressively than other restaurants.
Gaetano Comerci: What Dinotto does so well – and not that many restaurants do this – is that it offers affordable prices for very high-quality wines. There is a lot of “bang for the buck” here.
DL: We don’t believe in the philosophy of the 300 percent mark-up for our wines. Due to our physical limitations – we don’t have a lot of storage space – we don’t like to carry excess inventory. A bottle of wine that’s selling here for $44 per bottle – that same bottle in another restaurant could be priced between $60-70.
VWC: Any trends you see developing, either varietally or regionally? What’s become popular among the more obscure Italian varietals?
DL: Some varietals have become more popular just because of a novelty factor, but they’ve really been around for a long time. Primitivo is an example of this. Carmenère from Chile is another. People aren’t just saying, “I’ll have a glass of Pinot Grigio. I’ll have a glass of Chardonnay,” etc. It’s a whole different market. More people are well versed, and amenable to certain varietals. Wine is both an educational and an enjoyable experience. It creates a level of comfort. Prosecco and sparkling wine was once reserved for celebrations; now, it’s enjoyed the same way (as still wines).
GC: Also, when it comes to Italian wine, the winemaking techniques and the vinification processes have made their way to southern Italy. Regions like Puglia and Sicily might not have been associated with high-end wine, but winemakers from, say, Tuscany have made their way south and made Aglianico or Falanghina very palatable, world-class wines.
VWC: What would you recommend as value wines for those on a budget – both a white and a red from your list – that can be purchased for $15 or less at retail. Perhaps, a white that would pair with your Pollo Carciofi, or a red with your Pasta Bolognese…
DL: For a red, I strongly recommend the Cusumano Benuara Nero d’Avola/Syrah blend, to go with our Bolognese. The sauce is made with veal and beef, and I think the combination of the Nero d’Avola and the Syrah work well in that pairing – not too rich, not too heavy. For white wine to have with the Pollo Carciofi, I like the Inzolia white wine, as its citrusy flavors really go with that particular dish.