Pizza and beer? Of course, we’ve known that works since our college days. Pizza and wine? Naturally, it’s what the Italians do, and they did invent pizza after all. Pizza and whisky? Um, really?
Pairing pizza with single malt, bourbon, Irish, Canadian, or Japanese whisky might not be anything you or I would consider, but one meal at pizzeria Dry Milano in Italy’s fashion capital will change your mind. For in that acclaimed restaurant, excellent pizza is served alongside not just a superlative cocktail menu, but also an impressive list of spirits, with a strong emphasis on whisky.
Before turning to the pairings, however, it makes sense to look first at the dish itself, since pizza can and often is interpreted quite differently in Naples, New York, Chicago and the democratic republic of Pizza Hut. To help sort it all out, I turned to Rocco Agostino, executive chef and partner in Toronto’s Pizzeria Libretto, which in 2009 became the first restaurant in Canada accredited as a producer of “true Neapolitan pizza” by the Associazione Vera Pizza Napoletana (VPN).
While you might expect some snobbishness from the maker of such strictly regulated pizza—the VPN certification process takes days and covers everything from how the dough is made to oven construction and temperature, and, of course, flavor—Agostino says that he is first and foremost a pizza lover.
“I see pizza as a blank canvas,” he says, adding that so long as tradition is respected, there is no reason not to tweak it any way you see fit. Noting that he personally grew up on Sicilian pizza—thicker crust and ample sauce, usually rectangular—he sees nothing wrong with Detroit pizza (thick and crispy crust with cheese to the edge), Chicago deep-dish pizza, or New York style pizza. “There are probably two or three variations within New York pizza alone,” he says.
The primary point of differentiation, Agostino maintains, is the crust, which can vary widely depending on its hydration, proofing, and weight. After that, there are obviously the toppings to consider—which Agostino says can easily cross over between styles—and then the baking temperature, which can range from 500º F for New York pizza to 800º F for Neapolitan.
When deciding on a whisky to sip alongside your slice, then, it makes sense to begin with the crust and choose heftier, fuller whiskies for thick-crust pies and lighter, more delicate ones for thin crusts. So, for the most elemental of pizzas, the thin crust, sauce-basil-and-cheese Margherita, a light Japanese blend, triple-distilled Irish, or single grain scotch is an ideal partner.
Move to a more imposing crust and you’ll want a much bigger spirit, such as a full-bodied bourbon. For deep-dish or Sicilian pizza, mix it up with a Manhattan, with the vermouth balancing the sweetness and acidity of all that tomato sauce.
In between, of course, we have the take-out and delivery pies from independently owned or chain pizzerias. For these, with their medium-thick crusts, look at the pizza as a whole and take a contrasting approach to pairing whisky: the more complicated the toppings, the simpler the spirit. So for a standard supreme pizza, a lighter Canadian or Irish whiskey, perhaps with a little ice or water, makes a refreshing, palate-restoring companion. Similarly, although with a bit of a twist, a dry, complex, and not-too-smoky single malt serves as the ideal foil to the diverse, salty, and intense flavors of a meat-topped pizza. And for a spicy diavola, reach for a straight rye to match and balance the heat.
Three Whisky and Pizza Pairings to Try
Deep-Dish Sausage Pizza with a Woodford Reserve Manhattan
The combination of rich bourbon and sweet vermouth is bold enough to handle sauce, sausage, and crust.
White Pizza ai Funghi with Springbank 10 year old
The earthiness of mushrooms (funghi) unencumbered by tomato sauce blends beautifully with smoke and nutty caramel.
Margherita Napoletana with Suntory Toki
A meeting of equals: pure pizza with a delicate whisky of surprising complexity.