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Is Primitivo a Zin?
Well, technically, they're both crljenak kaštelanski, but let's keep it simple. Especially with this broccoli rabe dish.
My friend Jackie gets incensed by people who confuse broccolini and broccoli rabe. She’s from New York, but now lives in a part of southern California where broccoli rabe is not widely available. At the local supermarkets, she often sees broccolini misidentified as broccoli rabe. “Which enrages me,” she says. “Broccoli rabe isn’t even in the cruciferous family. It’s in the turnip family.” She is absolutely correct. In Italian, broccoli rabe is cime di rapa, or literally “turnip tops.”
Many of us from the northeast corridor, where broccoli rabe is common and treasured, feel the same way. Around Philadelphia, where I live, broccoli rabe is an essential ingredient in our great local sandwich: Philly-style roast pork with sharp provolone, peppers…and broccoli rabe. (The roast pork sandwich with provolone and broccoli rabe may be superior to the more famous, but overrated, Philly cheesesteak. Yes, I said it.)
Nutty, slightly bitter, pungent—broccoli rabe brings something unique to a dish that few greens can. Even better than pork sandwiches, broccoli rabe is the key ingredient is the classic pasta dish of Puglia: orecchiette con cime di rapa.
Of all the Italian pasta shapes, I find the humble “little ears” to be among the most elegant and versatile. Orecchiette reach their apogee, though, when tossed with broccoli rabe, along with good olive oil, a handful of garlic, a generous shake of red pepper flakes, and grated pecorino. Simplicity and perfection.
I also want simplicity in my wine pairing with this dish, and with the big flavor of broccoli rabe, I steer toward a happy, bright Puglian red made from primitivo.
Over the years, primitivo has suffered from the same kind of name confusion that broccoli rabe does. In fact, for years, no one really knew primitivo’s origins. The earliest mention of the grape in Puglia was in 1799 by a local priest. Almost two centuries later, a DNA profiling confirmed that it was the same grape as zinfandel grown in California.
(The confusion surrounding zinfandel is the subject of this over-the-top, pro-American promo video for the Paso Robles Zinfandel Festival that you may find ironic or amusing.)
Zinfandel in California had always been a mystery. Some had a hunch that the grape had a Croatian origin, because it takes its name from a black grape was mistakenly identified as tzinifándli. In the 1820s, when the Habsburg Imperial nursery first shipped tzinifándli vines to a New York nursery, it was wildly mislabeled as “Black Zinfardel (sic) of Hungary.” The mistaken name spread and eventually became zinfandel.
In 2001, through a University of California Davis research project called Zinquest, the true Croatian identity of zinfandel/primitivo was finally verified to be the hard-to-pronounce crljenak kaštelanski. It was also known long before that as tribidrag. Yes, grape names are confusing! Let’s just stick to primitivo!
Primitivo from Puglia is very different from the big, jammy, high-alcohol, zinfandel you often find in California. In fact, when it comes to Puglia, I have always preferred primitivo over negroamaro, which I often find to be dense and jammy. I especially love primitivo that’s lighter bodied, without a lot of oak, and full of energy and verve.
I recently found a banger in Filippo Cassano ‘Calx’ Primitivo Puglia 2020—organically grown, native-yeast fermentation, no oak, and low alcohol. Calx is the best sort of primitivo, fresh and lively, zingy cherry and juicy plum, taut structure, and just fun to drink. You can usually find it for under $15. For me, Calx the perfect red wine to pair with a meatless dish such as orecchiette with broccoli rabe. I also enjoyed Pasqua’s Desire Lush & Zin 2019 which, though a little fruitier, still brought a lively, fresh vibe. On its label, Pasqua is obviously being cheeky about the primitivo-zinfandel connection.
In any case, when you open one of these Puglian wines with your orecchiette con cime di rapa, just don’t call them zinfandel. I won’t fly into a rage like my friend Jackie will over broccolini, but I still might curse you, sotto voce, in Italian.
Orecchiette con Cime de Rapa
3 pounds broccoli rabe, trimmed and rinsed
2-3 cloves garlic, minced
¼ cup extra-virgin olive oil
½ teaspoon crushed red pepper flakes (or more)
16 ounces dry orecchiette
Bring pot of salted water to a boil. Cook the broccoli rabe until tender, 3 to 5 minutes. Remove broccoli rabe with slotted spoon or tongs—allowing the water to continue simmering. Place broccoli rabe in colander and run under cold water, then squeeze out as much water as possible. Chop roughly, then set aside.
Return water to a boil, then add orecchiette. Cook per instructions on the box, stirring occasionally.
As pasta boils, heat two tablespoons oil in a large skillet on medium. Add the garlic and red pepper flakes, cook for a minute or two, being careful not to burn. Take off heat until pasta is finished.
Drain pasta and add to skillet, along with the broccoli rabe, salt, and the rest of the oil, then toss over low heat. Serve immediately, sprinkling with grated pecorino and more red pepper flakes.