How to throw a dinner party like a sommelier

It’s the holiday season – the most wonderful time of the year. Pumpkin spice lattes hit menus and stores deck their halls with boughs of holly. It’s also the time of year you may don a hostess cap and throw a party or two. If you’ve ever dreamed of throwing a dinner party but stressed over the menu, IL Ritorno’s sommelier, Ronald Randall, is here to lend a helping hand.

Randall got his start with beverage programs at THOR in New York City. THOR (an acronym for The Hotel on Rivington), is a restaurant on the Lower East Side. At the time, Chef Kurt Gutenbrunner and Beverage Director Aldo Sohm were at the helm, and this was Randall’s first introduction to in-depth beverage programs.

Following his stint at THOR, Randall worked at Morimoto, where he developed the beverage program before moving to wine and spirit sales with Empire Merchants. His experience doesn’t end there, though. Randall took over beverage services for The Modern shortly thereafter, where he worked with renowned mixologist Sean Kelly. Eventually, Randall left the Big City for the Sunshine State, and IL Ritorno has been his main focus ever since.

Here, Randall breaks down the restaurant’s “Chef’s Five-Course Tasting” menu with wine pairings. You’ll learn why certain varietals pair with specific ingredients so you, too, can host a holiday party like a chef.

Course 1
Root Vegetable Salad: celery root vinaigrette, salsify, shaved beets, charred frisée, pickled Fresno peppers.
Paired with: Pietradolce Etna Rosso 2016

Wine Notes:
This wine is 100% Nerello Mascalese, a highly regarded, dark-skinned grape variety. It’s light-bodied with light red fruits on the tongue, like cranberry. “The minerality from the volcanic soil this grape is grown in gives it nice earthy notes that pair exceptionally well with the root vegetables in the salad,” said Randall.

Course 2
Celery Root Tortellini: corn and parmesan brodo, charred/pickled shiitake, charred carrot, crispy bear tooth mushroom
Paired with: Domaine Faiveley Mercurey 2016

Wine Notes:
Randall explains that this wine is perfect for the winter season. He recommends choosing a fuller, rounder expression like this, with more depth and character to pair with seasonal food, as opposed to a lighter, fruitier expression. “Mercurey carries over a lot of mushroom and floral notes that wrap into red fruit,” he said. “This pairs perfectly with the celery root tortellini, which has parmesan broth, beet infused pasta, celery root filling, and bear tooth mushrooms.”

Course 3
Cinghiale Rigatoni: braised wild boar, crispy kale, cinnamon
Paired with: Amarone Della Valpolicella

Wine Notes: This is a blend of grapes that go through a process called appassimento, meaning they are sun-dried in wicker baskets, which helps to concentrate the flavors. “It’s common to get notes of baking spice, cinnamon and clove in this is wine. Given there is a bit of cinnamon, clove, and chocolate in the braise of the wild boar, the flavors meld together perfectly.


Course 4
Venison: smoked kale, butternut squash, candied almonds, cranberry red wine jus
Paired with: La Cattura Toscana Poggio al Casone 2015

Wine Notes:
This wine is 90% Teroldego (the parent grape of Syrah) and 10% Syrah. It’s smooth, easy to drink and has a great balance of acidity, fruit, and neutral oak notes. “We aren’t trying to overpower something like venison, which is milder than lamb. The venison has a more straightforward, smooth flavor and texture, which is a character of the wine as well.”

Course 5
Olive Oil Lemon Cake: blackberry gelato, lemon basil curd, fresh blackberry
Paired with: Michele Chiarlo Nivole Moscato D’Asti

Wine Notes:
“With so many dessert wines being heavy and dense honey, or like the baked fruit character of port, this wine is light, aromatic, and mildly sweet,” said Randall. “It has some effervescence to it, but it’s not as bubbly as champagne or prosecco.” If you’re looking for a dessert wine that isn’t as overwhelming as port, this is a great option and can be just as good sipped on its own.

Randall’s key takeaways are this – pay attention to all of the ingredients – not just the protein – in your dishes, and find wines that pair well with them. You don’t want something overly sweet or acidic. Instead, identify notes that blend together or amplify certain flavors.

If you’re the type of person that needs to experience it before you attempt it yourself, you can enjoy IL Ritorno’s five-course tasting menu at the restaurant, located at 449 Central Avenue in downtown St. Petersburg. The Chef’s 5-Course Tasting is $75 per person, and an additional $45 per person to include wine pairings. To make your reservation, call the restaurant at 727.897.5900.

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