"Where’s the Chianti?" Shelley Lindgren gets that question all the time. As the wine director and co-owner of A16, the standout Southern Italian restaurant in San Francisco, Shelley has built a wine list that’s more than just an invitation to adventure—it’s a command. There are no Chiantis, no Barolos, no Amarones. Instead, the 350-bottle list is stocked with varieties most diners have never heard of: Aglianico, Casavecchia, Pallagrello, all grown in Southern Italian regions like Campania, Basilicata and Molise.
"If my wine list is everything you already know, then where’s the fun?" Shelley asks. "My job is to show you something new and take you on a journey."
Shelley shares a taste for adventure with her husband, Greg, who co-owns three of San Francisco’s best, most inventive bars, including Rye, an ode to haute bartending and rye whiskey that recently opened in the edgy Tenderloin district. Greg and his business partner, Jon Gasparini, are both mixologists, and they lay out ingredients on the counters behind the bar like they would in a kitchen’s prep area, filling bins with fresh herbs and fruit from farmers’ markets. The two men turn out intriguing concoctions like their signature basil gimlet and the Golden Rye Flip, a mix of fresh clementines and Advocaat, a creamy Dutch liqueur made from egg yolks, brandy and vanilla. They also stock hard-to-find liqueurs under the counter and break them out for those in the know. Looking for a rare Amaro, the bittersweet Italian herbal aperitif, which can be relatively hard to find in the United States? Ask for one by name, and Greg might pour you a taste. He bought an obscure bottle in Italy in October, when he and Shelley were on one of their regular scouting trips.
Shelley and Greg met in 1998 at 15 Romolo, one of Greg’s bars, a high-end speakeasy down an alley from a strip club in the city’s red-light district. At the time, Shelley was working at Fleur de Lys, waiting tables to put herself through college. She also worked at Acquerello and took cooking classes at Tante Marie’s, a two-room cooking school on a hill by the Bay. Greg had a similar background in restaurants, starting out as a line cook in the Palos Verdes area of California, where he grew up. On an early date, he made Shelley a dish he often fixed for himself as a cook: a decadent version of eggs Benedict with scrambled eggs, Canadian bacon, olives and Gruyère cheese topped with hollandaise sauce.
They got married in 2000 and honeymooned in Umbria. There, over a simple lunch of umbricelli (thick pasta twists) with local truffles, Shelley had an epiphany. They had ordered a bottle of Arnaldo Caprai Sagrantino—a full-bodied, rich wine produced in the area, which was excellent with the truffles. "It was unforgettable," she says. "It made me realize that I loved finding those perfect matches between a wine and a dish."
Back in San Francisco, Shelley became a sommelier at Bacar, a 1,400-bottle wine temple of a restaurant. Three years later, she was ready to step out on her own. Her friend Victoria Libin, an entertainment lawyer, had just returned from an Italian vacation and fallen in love with Neapolitan pizza; she was ready to back a pizza restaurant. Thus A16—the name of a major freeway in Naples—was born.
An early test of the restaurant came soon after it opened on Valentine’s Day in 2004. Shelley announced a special Southern Italian dinner and invited friends and former colleagues.
"To be honest, I was absolutely dreading it," recalls Eugenio Jardim, the wine director at Jardinière. "I thought I was in for some coarse, rough wines. I mean, Falanghina grapes? No one had ever heard of them and, frankly, no one cared to."
But Jardim was caught off guard. The pizza was the best he’d tasted outside of Italy. It had a fluffy, wonderfully chewy crust made with "00" Caputo flour, the Neapolitan standard, and a sauce prepared from canned Italian tomatoes imported from Campania.
More impressive still were the wines. Palari, a 15-acre estate near the Sicilian city of Messina, produced a Faro that reminded Jardim of some of the best of Burgundy. It had a captivating, velvety texture and a hint of Messina’s volcanic minerality. "The wine industry used to have a low opinion of Southern Italian wines, and rightfully so," Jardim says. "But while we were all ignoring those wines, the producers got more sophisticated. The wines got better—a lot better—and Shelley realized that. Her timing was superb."
For years, Southern Italian wine distributors had been calling Jardim. He didn’t pay much attention. But first thing in the morning after his dinner at A16, he got on the phone and ordered an "ungodly amount" of the Palari, which he still serves at Jardinière.
Today, A16 is almost always packed, especially on Meatball Mondays. Nate Appleman, A16’s new 27-year-old chef, makes his savory meatballs so light—buoyed by bread crumbs and ricotta—that everyone from downtown suits to hipsters dressed like bike messengers comes in for a taste. Waiters buzz past, hoisting steaming plates of meatballs stacked in pyramids, which Shelley recommends pairing with a smoky, black cherry-inflected I Favati Cretarossa, made from the Aglianico grape in Campania. Appleman also prepares an unusual yet delicious dish using fava beans quickly grilled whole in the pod, which he then tosses with scallions and crushed red pepper. Shelley likes to pair the appetizer with the 2005 Alois Caulino, a crisp white with honeysuckle aromas made from the Falanghina grape.
Several times a week, Greg ends his night at A16 and Shelley returns the favor at Rye. They rarely have free evenings—Shelley teaches a wine class at Tante Marie’s and is busy consulting on Vestry Wines, a Manhattan shop. Once in a while, they’ll have a few friends over and cook dishes like silky asparagus soup with lemon, which Shelley learned to make at Acquerello, or delicious fusilli pasta with a lemony leek sauce she learned in cooking school. And when they can, the Lindgrens go out together—they’ll have breakfast at Café Bean, a laid-back coffee shop near Rye; spend free afternoons checking out the art at the M.H. de Young Memorial Museum in Golden Gate Park; or have supper at the new Mediterranean late-night spot Nopa.
One evening at the Slanted Door, staff and patrons repeatedly stop by the Lindgrens’ table to say hello. It starts to seem like the pair is friends with half the restaurant. Many ask if the rumors are true: Are Shelley and her partners going to open a new place soon? Shelley smiles. It doesn’t look like her forthcoming restaurant will need much advertising.
Joshua Davis, author of The Underdog, is a contributing editor at Wired.
Greg & Shelley’s Favorites
Bucatini with Pancetta Pecorino & Pepper
2000 Librandi Duca San Felice Siro Rosso
Fusilli with Creamy Leek Sauce
2003 Terredora di Paolo Terre di Dora
Pork-and-Ricotta Meatballs in Tomato Sauce
2003 I Favati Cretarossa
Grilled Garlic Chicken with Salsa Verde and Sage Polenta
2003 Feudi di San Gregorio Serro Cielo