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FishTag's Gianni Cionchi On the Existential World of Wine Pairing

Gianni Cionchi of FishTag
Gianni Cionchi of FishTag

We recently had a bit of a When Harry Met Sally moment at FishTag. (You may have wanted to have what we were having.) While we were there, we couldn't help but notice the unusual way the menu is laid out, with suggested pairings printed right alongside apps and main courses that range from sake to scotch. We went to straight to the source -- in this case, beverage director Gianni Cionchi -- for an explanation.

What's your pairing philosophy?

By organizing the menu from lightest dish to heaviest dish, we can experiment with a variety of platforms of liquor rather than just the traditional wine pairing. We wanted to showcase how beer can [be paired], as well as a variety of spirits. We just wanted to showcase that the beverage is an integral part of the food flavor profile in this restaurant and really make the dining experience overall more unique and a little bit more fun.

What's the most unusual pairing on the menu?

Our branzino dish, which happens to be stuffed with headcheese, is a great example. It opens up your traditional white wine pairings that go with the beautiful, silky texture of branzino as a traditional seafood complement. But then the headcheese expands the flavor profile of the fish, with more smoky and porky notes, which opens that dish up to being a red wine pairing, as well. That being said, the dish would go very nicely with a smooth sipping rum. I don't think that a dark rum is normally what you think of when you think about eating a light, white fish. But those smoky char notes work very nicely.

Some people think pairing food with strong spirits is akin to blasphemy.

My take on it is the dining experience is a very personal thing. It's very difficult to say that there's only one way you can take a pairing. And for that reason we describe our pairings as recommendations. For example, there are people who only drink red wine. Now, could I tell them that a red wine pairing isn't the correct thing to do? I think the world of pairings can get really crazy, really existential, but it's really just about things that taste good together. Of course, there are certain things that work less well, but really it's about personal preference.

How did you get into wine and spirits?

I began working with Chef Michael [Psilakis] about eight years ago in his first restaurant, which coincidentally was in the very same space that FishTag is in right now. I came in as an ultra-low-level employee, a barista. For me, it was a summer job, but I became very enamored with his style of cooking and took an interest in the restaurant industry that I certainly didn't have before. I became very curious with food and wine, and used my free time to experiment. I worked up the ranks -- busboy, waiter, assistant manager -- and moved to my first beverage director position at Kefi.

What are some of the drinking trends that you're excited about these days?

The restaurant industry, as a whole, has been taking a big turn towards value. I don't think that it necessarily means low price. But if it has a high price, it has to be accompanied by a high level of quality. Are those restaurants still opening with the $14-$18 cocktails? Sure, they're still out there. But there's so much worth seeing at $12-$14. I think that cocktails are a really good way to get inside a beverage director's head.   So, what does your cocktail list say about what's in your head?

I'll tell you the first thing the cocktail list says about me is that I grew up in a Greek company. I tend to use -- if not over-abuse -- the anisette flavor. I don't mind if it's ouzo, absinthe, or sambuca, I just think the flavor of anise is a very good tool of manipulation. It works well with fruit, with herbs, with spice flavors. I have two cocktails that are anise-based: Midnight Lemonade, made with black sambuca; and a Wormwood Fireball, which is an absinthe cocktail. Recently, I was toying with a sangria recipe and the first thing I said out loud is that we should probably put some ouzo in it. Then I realized I would have three anisette cocktails on an eight-cocktail list. That may be a little overkill.

Value aside, what is the craziest bottle on the list?

I just brought in a Northern Italian wine and it's really unfiltered. Texturally and visually in the glass, it looks like a wheat beer, but it is a white wine. It's a very unique grape composition as well. But what I really like is when I first tasted it, I did it with my eyes closed and actually thought I was drinking a very, very light red wine. It has a very aggressive tannic structure and certainly a much fuller mouthfeel than most whites. Definitely a wine drinker's wine.

What's better? Bad wine or no wine?

I once worked with someone who said to me, "Life is too short for cheap wine." I can't take 100 percent trust in that phrase because we really can't say all cheap wine is bad wine. I have many bottles coming in on my list that have ultra-bargain price points and I like to drink them. I think that if you know what you're doing you can end up very happy and if you don't, you can end up very, very disappointed.

Have a restaurant tip or other food news? Send it to fork@villagevoice.com.

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