Marsala isn’t having a comeback. The fortified Sicilian wine hasn’t gone anywhere. It’s probably sitting in your pantry, where you left it, if you even left it there at all.
You may be aware that it’s a wine, or not. You might just as easily have taken it for a sauce, because of the dish chicken Marsala, or a person for whom that sauce was named. In January, the California-based cookbook author Nik Sharma, who is from India, tweeted about a frequent and frustrating mix-up: “Masala and Marsala are not one and the same.” This would suggest that some people have confused Marsala for an Indian spice blend.
To make matters worse, the stuff sold in American supermarkets as Marsala often isn’t Marsala at all. Labeled “cooking wine,” it has come to eclipse the real thing, even though the list of ingredients on the bottle may include corn syrup, which you’d expect to find in a can of soda, not in a wine sold at a wine shop.
What Marsala has is an image problem — a case of mistaken identity, really — and it’s everyone’s loss, because the genuine article is great for both cooking and drinking. One of the many culinary specialties of Sicily, the dessert wine (or aperitif) has a pronounced sweetness that’s distinguished by traces of dried fruit, caramel and nuts, and some less-expected savory notes.
“Marsala is still unknown in the U.S. as a ‘good wine,’” said Rolando Beramendi, a cookbook author and importer of high-quality Italian products. “It has a bad connotation. Unfortunately the name has been destroyed.”
The Sicilian food writer and restaurateur Roberta Corradin likens Marsala’s fate in America to that of olive oil, observing that the inexpensive, low-quality bottles available at supermarkets have become the standard. “This is what you will consider olive oil,” she said. “So, the same happened for Marsala. It became a dry wine to cook with.”
Marsala began its journey from Sicilian specialty to the American supermarket aisle in 1773, when the English trader John Woodhouse docked his boat in Marsala, a port town on Sicily’s western coast. There, he discovered a locally fermented wine that relied on an aging process not unlike the solera method used to make sherry in Spain.
A sherry drinker from a country full of them, Woodhouse saw Marsala’s potential. He added brandy to extend its shelf life and cooked-wine must (the unfermented juice from whole crushed grapes) to sweeten and tint it. As predicted, his compatriots took to it, and Marsala took off in England, and beyond.
By the late 1920s, its air of prestige had dissipated, and the industry built on its reputation was in decline; imitators made cheap knockoffs, and some of the legitimate producers began putting out less expensive versions of the original. This is also exactly when Marsala hit it big in the United States.
When Prohibition put the brakes on booze, Marsala was granted dispensation: It was presented as medicinal, complete with dosage instructions on the label.
Whether Americans were swigging it on legitimate doctors’ orders is indeterminate, but they were ingesting it one way or another in Italian-American restaurants, which began to develop their now-standard repertoire in the 1920s and ’30s. That included veal Marsala, and it’s where the addition of mushrooms appears to have been codified. The original scaloppine al Marsala is, simply a browned veal cutlet flavored with the wine and finished with a quick deglaze. American home cooks might have gotten their first glimpse of that recipe in 1950, when the English translation of Ada Boni’s “The Talisman Italian Cook Book,” was published.
People dined out on veal and chicken Marsala for decades afterward, as Italian-American restaurants became favored middle-class destinations. Once the Italian author Marcella Hazan published “The Classic Italian Cookbook” in 1973, people also dined in on the fast-cooking cutlets. (Hazan’s recipe, like Boni’s, is mushroom-free, as is the norm in Italy.)
But, according to the writer and historian Betty Fussell, what really got home cooks running out to buy Marsala was zabaglione, that furiously whisked three-ingredient custard, which was also included in Hazan’s book. “It sort of overnight became chic,” said Ms. Fussell.
This period of cutlets and custard secured Marsala’s place in American culture — but as a cooking product, not something to drink.
In the ’80s, as northern Italian became the latest chichi cuisine, southern Italian classics fell out of fashion at restaurants (though no one loved eating them any less). But Marsala still had a place at the table, in the form of a modern Venetian invention: tiramisù, that dessert with alternating tiers of spongy ladyfingers soaked in espresso and alcohol and a zabaglione-based cream into which mascarpone is folded.
Tiramisù is still going strong, as are various incarnations of chicken (or veal) Marsala. For a while, Olive Garden had two on its menu — a regular chicken Marsala and a newer stuffed version, which sandwiches sun-dried tomatoes and cheese between two grilled breasts and tops it with creamy Marsala sauce. A few years ago, the original dish was taken off the menu to the dismay of at least 200 customers who signed a petition to bring it back. (Should you wish to replicate the stuffed version at home, Olive Garden has published the recipe online.)
But there’s the sense that Marsala might still be taken seriously in its own right, that you might choose to drink the wine you bought to prepare your double-breasted dinner.
Today, the regional foods of Sicily and other areas of Southern Italy are being celebrated and explored by chefs, restaurateurs and diners. The fortified wines once associated with luxury because of their sweetness, and then disparaged for the same, have seen a resurgence — or rather, some of them have.
“If you go to any restaurant in Brooklyn, you’ll be able to find sherry and probably Madeira,” said Victoria James, the beverage director at Cote, in New York, and a partner in the restaurant. “Marsala is probably not that hip yet, but I think it could get there with the other fortified wines being so acceptable.”
Chefs are discovering its virtues as wine — and one that’s worthy of cooking with.
At her restaurant Centrolina in Washington, D.C., the chef Amy Brandwein incorporates it into the braised chicken ragù that sauces her buckwheat trofie pasta. Marsala shows up on the menu at Don Angie in New York as well, used to flavor the dashi for a pink snapper crudo and to pickle the trumpet mushrooms that garnish the dish.
“The logical pairing for mushrooms, in my head, was Marsala,” said Angie Rito, one of the restaurant’s chef-owners. “I think it’s a funny sort of nod to generic Italian-American dishes that people know.”
There’s another “funny nod” on the dessert menu: Ms. Rito re-envisions tiramisù as a showcase for chocolate, but you can’t miss the undercurrent of burned sugar that runs through it in two molten strata of salted, Marsala-infused caramel. (The wine spikes the cream in the dessert as well.)
Farther uptown, at Leonti, the pastry chef Corie Greenberg has been tinkering with a Marsala ice cream for summer. In the cold-weather months, she served a dessert called Marsala Pot, like crème brûlée with Marsala added. When she first tried the recipe, from the cookbook “Chez Panisse Cooking,” Ms. Greenberg couldn’t get over how the wine transformed the familiar French burnished custard.
“It has the most amazing smell when you put the Marsala in it,” she said. “It’s such a weird hearkened-back memory, but it smells like Auntie Anne’s pretzels, like the pretzel stand.”
She hasn’t been able to replicate that warm, toasted, yeasted-dough aroma in her baked goods using other wines or beer. It’s distinct to Marsala.
Were you to stick your nose in a glass, you wouldn’t pick up on it. But beat the wine into the batter for a strawberry cake and then apply heat, and you could be standing outside a French boulangerie as the morning’s croissants are being pulled out of the oven.
Or add it to a savory dish — instead of a yeasty waft, you’ll be struck by an aroma reminiscent of wild mushrooms sautéing in butter, whether you’re simmering a pot of root vegetables in the wine, or roasting chicken marinated in it. That’s not what your food will taste like once it’s done; it will simply have a kind of moreness, like a photo with an Instagram filter applied. Both the smell and imparted flavor are intoxicating, and are how you know you’re dealing with true Marsala.
So skip the supermarket. Go to a wine store and buy the real thing. Then drink it with dessert, cheese or, as the Boston chef Barbara Lynch does, freshly shucked oysters. Or drink it with whatever you cooked it into. But do cook with it.
“It has a depth to it,” Ms. Rito said. “That’s what I like about it.”
A Guide to Buying Marsala
With an alcohol content that can go as high as 20 percent, the fortified wine is categorized according to sugar concentration, color and how long it was cask-aged. It is sweet, even at its driest. If you intend to bake with it, the dolci (sweet) is generally recommended, while the seco (dry) is best for savory cooking. Either makes for a successful dessert or cheese pairing. For an all-purpose option, you may want to go with a semiseco (semi-dry).
Marsala comes in three colors: ambra (amber), oro (gold) and rubino (ruby). You aren’t likely to see the red one mentioned in recipes.