Everything you always wanted to know about sommeliers (but were afraid to ask)

We talked to Antonio Catena, sommelier of Tommasi in Milan


The figure of the sommelier is one of perhaps the most mysterious in the restaurant world. Everyone is familiar with the role, but often afraid to ask too many questions for fear of appearing ignorant. That's why we had a chat with Antonio Catena, 36-year-old sommelier of the restaurant Tommasi in Milan, to have him tell us something more about his craft and ask him to pair two dishes with one of our most recent labels, Hey French. You could have made this but you didn’t.

Tommasi Milano is unique on the Milan restaurant scene. Located in the beautiful Piazza Giovine Italia, just a few steps from Da Vinci’s Last Supper, it was launched with the intent of offering guests a peaceful respite from the frenetic pace of Milan.
Ciao Antonio. When did you become a sommelier?
I started in the world of alcoholic beverages for passion many years ago - at 15 I was already working in a cocktail bar - and gradually I fell more and more in love with wine. I've been a professional sommelier for about 8/10 years.

How do you think wine has changed in the last ten years, on the market side?
Well, there has certainly been exponential growth in consumption, but also in the awareness and knowledge of the wine world, both for those working in the industry and the end customer. I also see it in my work: the demand for wine has increased, spread throughout more of the day. Both at lunch, where a glass is increasingly sold, and for an aperitif, where wine is very popular any time of the year, through dinner, where wine is never missing since it is an integral part of it.

Typically, do you advise a glass or a bottle?
That depends. If I have a big table, it goes without saying that I tend to promote the bottle, also for cost considerations. But in general, it depends on who's in front of me and the kind of dinner they've ordered. For example, for a tasting menu combining a glass with a dish is definitely easier.

I see you love to dress well. Is it easier to pair a wine with a dish or shoes with trousers?
Ahah! Thank you. Well, I definitely think trousers and shoes. The moment we talk about food/wine pairing, in fact, a multitude of factors come into play that influence my final choice for that type of pairing: from the most technical, let’s say "academic", to the more emotional. At times I have paired wines that would not usually be suitable for a certain type of dish, but that in that situation were ideal - I'm talking about a couple in love or a celebration of some kind - these are factors that make the pairing more complex but also fun.

Do customers typically trust you completely or do they want guidance. Or rather: do you prefer to accompany them in their chosen direction or take them in your direction?
Both. Over the years, especially here at Tommasi, customers have come to build a relationship of trust with me such that they allow me to guide them in their choice. They often say to me, "Antonio, you decide." But other times it is the customer who makes specific requests and asks to explore something new, driven by their own curiosity.

The sommelier is seen as a very set character. Does the sommelier journey lead to being too "scientific" about wine?
At times I would say yes, but in a positive sense. Wine is also science and technique and must be considered with all the seriousness it deserves. It is true, however, that today the sommelier, as well as the restaurant business in general, is evolving towards something easier and less rigid. We see this even in highly rated restaurants. Certainly, one thing remains fundamental: the sommelier must understand the table and each table is a world unto itself. So it can happen, for example, a table where a smarter, simpler, friendly service is required, but also a table where you have to be impeccable, with a more cultured and formal language. Being able to modulate the manner of speaking is of incredible importance.

Are there seasonal wines?
Yes. One macrofamily are rosé and white, more suitable for hot months, and reds, more suitable for cold ones. It seems obvious and of course it is a categorization that should not be considered rigid. But as the menu changes according to the seasons, certain wines will also pair better with those dishes. A good sommelier must be able to adapt the menu to seasonal dishes.

What is the concept behind Tommasi?
The Tommasi is definitely a great restaurant. It was launched about 10 years ago as a bar and then transformed over time. Being open from morning to late evening, from breakfast through lunch, aperitif, dinner and after dinner, it is a place that varies over the course of a day along with the type of clientele. Contemporary,curated and with a great attention to the customer.

Tell us a little about Hey French.
It made an impression on me right away. Starting with the name, that says a lot already. A name that’s explicit and invokes great territorial pride of our country, but with a decidedly punk, playful, jocular note. This is a wine that makes an immediate impression. As we pour it into the glass and begin to swirl it we already somehow know that we have something great in front of us. With each rotation, more and more intense, we understand that the wine in front of us will offer something truly important. We bring it to the nose and somehow confirm what we expected. A very broad, floral bouquet that revolves around floral notes, we perceive fruit like apricot, spice, nutmeg, ripe fruit: pineapple, papaya. It is a wine that carries us to faraway places with the mind and sends us on a journey. The sip is incredible, persistent, infinite. The wine has a full-bodied, meaty mouthfeel. It is a wine of great power and depth. Then, in my opinion it has a long life ahead; it lends itself to aging. A wine that represents the great capabilities of the company that produces it. I was ecstatic, and so were my clients. I once enjoyed pairing Hey French with an eight-course seafood tasting menu for a table of friends who are sommeliers and cooks (the most demanding), only playing with the temperatures. So much fun!



Today I suggest pairing it with the new dishes the chef has added to the summer menu.
1 Homemade raviolo stuffed with clams served with zucchini, eggplant, lettuce chips. Different textures and temperatures. Concluded with an arugula emulsion which enhances the flavors.
2 Monkfish roll stuffed with red shrimp and served on top of a pachino tomato cream. Served with quinoa chips that form a crust around the roll. To complete the dish, a Valpolicella and taggiasche olive reduction.

Hey French pairs well with such different dishes because the wine itself has different characteristics. There is the structure (supports the power and explosiveness of the raviolo), the flavor and freshness (red shrimp, pachino reduction) and the body (cleans the mouth of monkfish).