It’s often heard that a family-run restaurant is a “labor of love.” For the husband-and-wife owners of Lakeview’s Pizza Rustica – Stefano Roman and Juliana Montebello-Roman – their Northern Italian restaurant affirms their commitment every day. Juliana calls Stefano “the best chef around,” while Stefano humbly defers all wine expertise to his beloved wife.
Pizza Rustica's inspired cuisine and a creative wine list are propelled by a powerful and passionate tandem. Stefano, whose family was always involved in restaurants, arrived in Chicago from the most romantic place in Italy: Venice. Juliana, a Chicagoan, has always had a keen interest in wine. Together, they've established a gem on the North Side.
For seven years, Pizza Rustica was a small and intimate BYOB in the neighborhood. When it moved across Sheridan Road in March 2012, and expanded into a much larger restaurant – where Stefano could brandish Northern Italian culinary expertise and Juliana could craft a wine list – there was some concern that it would disconnect from the neighborhood.
But, Pizza Rustica never forgot what made them a Lakeview destination: quality and value. Juliana sat down with Chicago Budget Wine Examiner to discuss this concept, and how she’s found that bucking some industry standards have been good for business.
Chicago Budget Wine Examiner: What went into the building of your wine list, and how do your selections dovetail with the price points that people expect when they come here, especially considering the toll of the recession?
Juliana Montebello-Roman: Our philosophy has always been, if you don’t overcharge the customer when times are good, then you won’t be forgotten when the economy goes sour. We’ve always had really reasonable prices, and provided really high-quality food – so much so that we’ve had a lot of repeat business. When times got tough, we didn’t feel it that badly, because we had built this trust among our customers and in the neighborhood. Now, Stefano and I like to go out, too – and we don’t like to overpay. And this is especially true when we go to a place and we see excessive markups. It takes the fun out of it. I made a vow that I would not price a glass of wine for more than $9. The range would be $7-$9. And, all the liquor distributors brought wines to me that were so cheap, I could mark them up according to the standard margin, and sell them at $9 per glass. But their quality just wasn’t cutting it. So, I kept my pricing philosophy, but I buy much better wine. I don’t have a single glass of wine that covers the bottle cost. And that’s the value we provide in the by-the-glass area. I have the same approach with the wines on the bottle list. I don’t take the standard margin. If I did abide by the industry standard, my wines would be between $9 and $14 per glass. Sometimes, when the wines are so different, and the pricing is reasonable, people might assume it’s merely cheap, but I taste everything, and it’s on the list for a reason: good quality.
CBWE: Are many of your wines not necessarily at big-box stores, so the wine experience here can be more unique?
JMR: I try to find wines that provide people with an opportunity to taste what they might not find anywhere else. And yet, it’s a fine line: I still try to have some wines that are recognizable, because that maintains some approachability. But, I also try to avoid the brands that are at big supermarkets. The thing is, what’s also nice is if people come here and like a particular wine, they can go to (well-known retailers), buy it for themselves, and realize that we haven’t marked it up that much.
CBWE: How do you distinguish between value wine and wine that’s simply inexpensive?
JMR: There’s a certain price point that I won’t go below, because the price-to-quality ratio can get skewed at those really low levels. So, I do have a price range to keep my prices reasonable. But, it simply comes down to taste. I have to taste it and like it. And if it’s good quality and doesn’t have a huge cost, that’s the best value. But I also have to consider what my clientele might be looking for – it might be different than what I might like – and what goes with the food. And, it’s good to have international representation.
CBWE: You do some interesting international/varietal combinations, such as Chardonnay from Chile. How do you come by some of these initiatives? Are there any promotions?
JMR: Well, one thing we do is we have “wine battles” every month. I’ll take a varietal from two different producers and pit them against each other. People will come in for a free tasting and choose which of the two they like. They jot down their preference on a card, put it in a jar, and whichever wine wins, there’s a random drawing of cards. The person whose card gets picked receives the winning bottle delivered to their table (free of charge) with dinner upon their next visit. We pitted the Errazuriz Chardonnay, which is unoaked, against the David Bruce Chardonnay, which is oaked. The David Bruce won the battle – it was close, though. We tried it just for fun, and now we do the “battles” every month.
CBWE: Any obscure Italian varietals catch your attention lately?
JMR: Well the Carmenère we have – usually associated with Chile – is from Italy. And it’s excellent. It’s big, bold – and dirty! It’s great with grilled meats, such as rib eye on the bone, and anything with rich, tomato-based sauces. It goes with all of the heavier items, really.
CBWE: Please name your personal favorites – both a white and a red – that can be purchased for less than $17 at retail.
JM: For a red, I like the Maculan Brentino from the Veneto. It’s a Merlot/Cab blend. There’s really nice, velvet fruit coming from the Merlot, and the Cab adds some sophisticated tannic structure. It goes with any meat entrée, but I would be partial to having this with Osso Bucco. The Cab cuts through the fattiness, but the Merlot’s fruit will accentuate the flavor. It would also be really nice with a chocolate dessert.
The white wine I really enjoy is the Errazuriz Chardonnay, which is unoaked, and from Chile. I’d pair it with the artichoke ravioli, with the four-cheese sauce. You’re not cutting through the sauce with any citrus elements, but with the fantastic acidity.