Red Sauce Pasta with a Sicilian White

Red wine is out and white wine is in with this olive- and cauliflower-studded spaghetti, inspired by the flavors of Sicily

Red Sauce Pasta with a Sicilian White
Humble cauliflower starch thickens the tomato sauce in this cozy plate. (Lucy Schaeffer)
From the Nov 30, 2019, issue

A widely accepted maxim of pairing is that red sauce calls for red wine. The specific dish might drive debate over which grape, region and style are the best fit, but most of us stick with a red. Why stray from what works?

John Kelley, wine director at Baltimore's Tagliata, can think of a reason: Red wines actually do not work with tomato sauce. In his opinion, owing to their tannins, alcohol levels, viscosity and intense flavors, red wines often have "too much stuff" for tomato sauce: "You'd have to have a red wine that is built more like a white wine," he says. "It has to have minimal skin contact. It has to be very low in alcohol. It needs to be something that's really bright with acidity."

Borrowing from a previous life in music, Kelley thinks of pairing in terms of the timbre, or tonal quality, of food and wine, matching like with like. To him, the generous, juicy timbre of tomato sauce is closer to a medium- to full-bodied fruity white than it is to most reds.

The pasta shown here may look homey, and it is, but you've never had it before. It's the brainchild of Tagliata chef-partner Julian Marucci, a Philadelphia native who absorbed the basics of Italian cuisine through watching his mother and grandmother cook. He later moved to Baltimore to attend culinary school and launch his career.

At Tagliata, an Italian steak and pasta destination in Charm City's cobbled Fell's Point neighborhood, his cooking is approachable yet often divergent from the Italian canon. This Sicily-inspired pasta combines fresh tomato sauce with briny anchovies and Taggiasca olives, cauliflower, chile and Marcona almonds. "It's not 100% Sicilian," Marucci says, noting the Ligurian olives and Calabrian chile paste, "but the thought process and the flavors are."

One classic pairing rule that does get some attention at Tagliata is "What grows together goes together." From the restaurant's 1,000-label Wine Spectator Best of Award of Excellence–winning cellar, Kelley pulls Marco de Bartoli's Grillo Sicily 2015 for the meal. "It's big and rich and sunny," he says.

Traditionally used in the Sicilian fortified wine Marsala, Grillo is an indigenous grape that retains high acidity even while reaching voluminous ripeness levels. But as interest in Marsala has declined, "you're seeing more producers playing around with [Grillo]," Kelley says. In this version, "There is peach, there is salt, there is a subtle underlying herbaceousness. There are these nutty, oxidative tones. You almost don't notice how much acidity it has because the fruit and the texture are so generous."

Portrait of Julian Marucci
Chef Julian Marucci makes this dish for Sunday supper with his family.

Chef’s Notes

Spaghetti with tomato sauce is about as basic as dinner can get … kind of. The fewer the components, the more each one shows through—or as Marucci puts it, “The simpler the dish, the harder it is to make perfectly.” For a crash course in how to finesse pasta and sauce like a pro, here are his tips.

  • Make the cauliflower work overtime. We tend to cut cauliflower into florets about the same size as your typical broccoli pieces, but you want to go finer here. Marucci suggests pieces about half the size of a cherry tomato: The additional cut surface area releases the cauliflower’s starches, which act as a natural thickening agent for the tomato sauce.

  • Think like an Italian grandma. Marucci grew up in Philadelphia and learned to make pasta by watching his mother and grandmother. After emptying a can of tomatoes into their saucepot, they would fill up the empty can partway with water and pour that into the pot too. Rinsing the can into the sauce ensures that not even the tiniest bit of tomato clinging to the can goes to waste. Here, the water helps cook the cauliflower simmering in the sauce, which takes longer than tomatoes to cook to a friendly consistency.

  • “Account for adjustment.” Marucci cautions against viewing a recipe too literally, particularly when it comes to time and temperature. The varying size, thickness and heat conduction of different pots, plus the relative strength of different burners, will affect how long it takes to bring your cauliflower from its raw state to al dente, for instance. That means you need to taste as you go, adjusting heat, time and seasoning as needed. “If your sauce is too thick, add a splash of water to it,” Marucci counsels. A little reserved pasta water is a nice touch, as it’s got a bit more body from the residual pasta starch than tap water. Conversely, “If that pasta water’s too salty, just add a little splash of regular water, or do fifty-fifty.”

  • Get sauced, but do it right. A lot of us drain our pasta from the boiling water, portion it into a few room-temperature serving bowls, ladle some sauce on top of each and set them out at the table with a hunk of Parmesan cheese. “That’s kind of the biggest mistake,” Marucci cautions. At that point, the cooling pasta is becoming gummier by the second. The sauce will only coat the spaghetti superficially, and its texture and flavor will both suffer.

    For the most fully flavored, silky spaghetti, with sauce hugging every strand, “You really gotta take the pasta out of the water and put it into the pan that you’re cooking the sauce in,” Marucci counsels. He suggests setting a timer for 1 or 2 minutes less than the cook time suggested on the pasta box, cooking the pasta for that length of time, then draining it and transferring it to the saucepan to finish cooking. “The starches come out and the pasta absorbs the sauce so it all comes together,” Marucci says.

Pairing Tip: Why a Sicilian White Wine Works with This Dish

A medium- to full-bodied, expressive white with keen acidity and generous stone fruit notes will pick up the bright tones in tomato sauce with greater delicacy than most red wines would. Grillo, a native Sicilian variety, would be an excellent choice for a dish grounded in the region's cuisine.

Chef's Pick Marco de Bartoli Grillo Sicily 2015
Wine Spectator PicksArianna Occhipinti Terre Siciliane White SP68 (91, $32)
Lamura Grillo Sicilia 2017 (88, $10)

For even more wine pairing options, members can find other recently rated Sicilian whites in our Wine Ratings Search.

Spaghetti with Cauliflower, Chiles, Anchovy, Tomatoes & Almonds

Recipe courtesy of chef Julian Marucci and tested by Wine Spectator’s Julie Harans.


  • 1/4 cup salted Marcona almonds
  • 1/3 cup extra-virgin olive oil
  • 2 tablespoons diced shallot (from 1 small shallot)
  • 2 cloves garlic, minced
  • 4 white anchovy fillets
  • 1 teaspoon Calabrian chile paste
  • Florets from 1 head cauliflower, cut into nickel-size pieces (about half the size of a cherry tomato)
  • Salt
  • One 28-ounce can pomodorini (canned cherry tomatoes)
  • 16 ounces spaghetti
  • 1/4 cup pitted Taggiasca olives
  • 1 tablespoon chopped parsley
  • 1 tablespoon chopped chives
  • 6 oregano leaves
  • 11 basil leaves
  • Freshly ground black pepper


1. Preheat the oven to 325° F. Spread out the almonds on a sheet pan lined with aluminum foil and transfer to the oven. Toast for 7 to 10 minutes, until fragrant but not browned. Let cool slightly, then roughly chop and set aside.

2. In a large, wide-bottomed pot big enough to fit the sauce as well as the pasta, heat the olive oil over medium-low. Add the shallot, garlic, anchovies and chile paste and cook until fragrant, 3 to 5 minutes. If the ingredients begin to sizzle, reduce heat to low. Add cauliflower and season generously with salt. Pour the canned tomatoes and their juices over the cauliflower. Fill the empty tomato can halfway with water and add to the pot, stirring to combine. Cook, uncovered, over low heat until the cauliflower is tender (a paring knife should meet with a little resistance), 30 to 35 minutes.

3. Meanwhile, bring a large pot of water to a boil and add salt to taste. When the cauliflower is almost tender, add the spaghetti to the boiling water. Cook for 1 to 2 minutes less than the time indicated by the package instructions. Ladle about 1 cup of the pasta water into a bowl. Drain the pasta and add it to the pot with the sauce, tossing to coat. Raise heat to medium, so that the sauce begins to bubble, and cook for 2 to 3 minutes. If the sauce gets too thick, add a splash of the reserved pasta water and toss to combine. If it is too thin, continue cooking, raising the heat as needed. When the sauce is cooked to your liking, stir in the olives, herbs and almonds, and season to taste with salt and pepper. Serves 4.

Recipes Pairings White Wines Cooking Italy

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