When Life Gives You Lemons, Pair Them With Sicilian Whites
Pasta al limone, zibibbo, and the mystery of pairing citrus and wine
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You probably don’t think very much about lemons. They’re so commonplace as to be an afterthought. It may surprise you that, throughout history, they’ve been among the world’s most coveted and mysterious of foodstuffs. Without question, the lemon is the most painted fruit in Western art. During the Dutch golden age alone, more than half of the 17th-century still-life paintings depicted the yellow citrus. Why did the lemon appeal so deeply to those artists? But then that isn’t the lemon’s only mystery. When and where was it first grown? Perhaps 3,000 years ago? Maybe older? Perhaps from northwestern India? Maybe Myanmar? Who really knows?
What we do know — and what is most relevant to our pairing this week — is that lemons were brought to Sicily by conquering Muslims in the 9th century, when the island was part of the Byzantine Empire. Within a few centuries, lemons were so plentiful in Sicily that the Bay of Palermo was called the Conca d’Oro, the shell of gold, for the yellow citrus fruits shining along the coast. By the 19th century, after doctors realized that citrus cured scurvy, it was 60 times more profitable to grow lemons than any other crops, including olives and wine grapes. So lucrative was the lemon trade that it gave rise to Sicily’s mafia, who controlled the industry.
So why all the talk about lemons?
First, if you’re like me (and god help you if you are) you enjoy a pairing challenge — and citrus is devilishly difficult. Second, if you’re like me, one of your favorite dishes is the southern Italian standard pasta al limone—a deceptively simple recipe that calls only for lemon, lots of butter, basil, and Parmigiano-Reggiano, along with spaghetti or linguine.
As with the tomato — another southern Italian staple — lemon defies easy pairing. Do you match the acidity, with a white like pinot grigio or sauvignon blanc? Do you contrast with sweetness, like an off-dry Riesling, or with a jammy, oaky red? Neither, I say. With pasta al limone, it’s an exemplary case of the pairing advice given by many so-called wine educators: “What grows together, goes together.” That means Sicilian white wine for this classic Sicilian dish.
Sicilian whites made from lesser-known—but ancient grapes—such as grillo, catarratto, zibibbo (aka moscato d’Alessandria), inzolia, and others have been gaining popularity over the past decade as good value, everyday wines. Particularly around the cool volcanic slopes of Mount Etna, they are becoming some of the most sought-after Italian whites.
Dry whites, however, are a relatively recent phenomenon in Sicily. From the late 18th century until the end of the 20th century, grapes here were mainly grown for producing Marsala, the island’s famed fortified wine. But over time, poor quality doomed Marsala’s reputation as a cheap cooking wine.
Enter Marco de Bartoli, who made the revolutionary move in the 1990s to vinify grillo and zibibbo as dry wines. There are now over 8,000 hectares of grillo planted in Sicily, up from just under 2,000 at the turn of the 21st century.
Catarratto, though, remains the most widely planted grape, and it’s the backbone for one of my go-to value Sicilian wines, Donnafugata Anthìlia. At under $15, its lush floral and fleshy stone fruit notes, along with its supple roundness, pair beautiful with a Tuesday night pasta al limone. It’s an amiable crowd-pleaser.
These days, Sicily has become a hotbed for natural winemaking from producers such as Frank Cornelissen and Arianna Occhipinti. One of my favorite whites in all of Italy is Occhipinti’s SP68 Bianco, which is a blend of zibibbo along with a rare, ancient variety called albanello, of which there are only a few hundred hectares remaining. SP68 (“the name of a road, for a wine which is a journey,” says Occhipinti) is both complex and refreshing. There are unique aromas of grapefruit, litchi, saffron, rose, and even kirsch, yet in the mouth, it’s salty and stony, full of nectarine and sage with a very dry finish. Beautiful, and with its low alcohol, eminently drinkable — the bottle just magically disappears.
What’s striking about the Sicilian whites I’ve tasted over the years is that while there’s a common thread—drinkability, freshness, big floral notes, and an underlying seaside element—I find a lot of variety. Part of that is because of Sicily’s diversity of grapes. But the other part is that Sicily’s dry wine culture is young and there aren’t so many strict traditions and rules.
In that way, Sicilian whites mirror pasta al limone, which is a simple recipe with dozens of local variations. In mine, I use butter instead of oil, linguine instead of spaghetti, and I always use lemon zest as well as the juice. I’ve seen people (ahem Nigella Lawson) misguidedly incorporate eggs and cream. In a word: No. But the recipe is more of a form or suggestion rather than a prescribed list. Make it to your taste.
Do yourself a favor, though, and see how well it pairs with one of these delicious Sicilian whites.
Pasta al Limone
This lemon pasta dish is an often overlooked classic, native to both Sicily and the Amalfi Coast. The basics are always the same—lemon, butter, basil, and Parmigiano Reggiano. Adjust according to your taste. (I tend to use slightly more butter, lemon, and salt). The key is to use lemon zest as well as the juice for a fresh and lively sauce. This is a perfect accompaniment to grilled fish, or great simply on its own. Serves 4.
16 ounces dry linguine
8 tablespoons unsalted butter
Zest of one lemon
Juice of one lemon
1 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon fresh-ground black pepper
½ cup fresh basil leaves, chopped
1 cup Parmigiano Reggiano, freshly grated
Basil sprigs for garnish
1. Bring a large pot of well-salted water to a boil and drop in the pasta. Cook according to the package instructions, stirring occasionally.
2. When pasta is almost finished, melt butter in a large skillet. Add zest, juice, salt, and pepper and heat on low for 1 minute.
3. Strain the pasta when it is ready and then add it to the skillet and toss. Add basil and Parmigiano-Reggiano and toss until the pasta is evenly coated. Serve with more grated cheese and black pepper at the table.