Our Authors

Meet Bill

Bill
Chef + Traveler
Bill Menard is a recovering attorney who left private practice in Washington, DC over a decade ago to pursue his passion for all things Italian. With his wife, Suzy, they founded Bella Italia in 2003, a retail store in Bethesda, Maryland that specialized in artisinal products from Italy, including gourmet foods, hand painted ceramics and luxury housewares. In 2014, they relocated and rebranded, and are now Via Umbria in Georgetown, D.C. Bill and Suzy travel to Italy frequently to find new products to import and to broaden their understanding and appreciation for the Italian culture and lifestyle. In 2008 they purchased a villa in Umbria, just outside the village of Cannara, as a rental property. Those in search of la dolce vita should visit Via Umbria at 1525 Wisconsin Ave NW, or www.viaumbria.com.

Carriage and Feeding

The highlight of Day 1, on which eight of our group, including Suzy and me arrived in country, had to be the carriage ride with Roberto. It’s not easy picking just one favorite on a day that included lunch in Santa Maria degli Angeli, a walking tour of Assisi, a visit and winetasting at Roberto’s winery and a marathon welcome meal prepared by Chiara. But when you get to spend a half hour with Roberto DiFilippo, the inspirational owner of DiFilippo and Plani Arche wineries, being transported in a carriage drawn by the horses that work his fields, listening to his philosophy of organic and biodynamic farming while you clip clop through rolling fields that are home to his vines, licked by the cool, crisp, late afternoon autumn air, how could that not be the highlight?

It’s that sort of experience, making the acquaintance of one of the area’s top winemakers and immediately boarding his ten person carriage, entering his world at his invitation, becoming his guest and his friend, that makes these food and wine tours so special. Half an hour later, our group of eight guests find themselves sitting in Roberto’s tasting room enjoying his wine as he and his colleague Valeria introduce them to grechetto, trebbiano spoletino, sangiovese and sagrantino, not to mention Roberto’s special Vernaccia di Cannara.

Some of the couples on this tour arrived in our little corner of heaven knowing one another, but by the end of that first day, a day on which all shared and experienced so much together, everyone – those who had already been friends and those that became friends today – had become part of the same family. And so it goes here in the tiny village of Cannara, where Suzy and I have brought part of our family, our oldest son Austin to help manage the group, that we bid a late goodnight, bellies filled and souls sated, to our new family with whom we will share much this week.

Ci vediamo!
Bill and Suzy

Horsing Around in Umbria Read more

The highlight of Day 1, on which eight of our group, including Suzy and me arrived in country, had to be the ...

Running on Fumes

Suzy and I arrived in Italy on Thursday. We were originally scheduled to arrive on Saturday, but had been away since April, so when a couple of cheap business class seats opened up on a flight to Rome’s Fiumicino airport we pounced and left two days ahead of our original schedule.

So what to do with two found days in Italy? The farmhouse was occupied, so we had to come up with a Plan B. Somewhere we could relax, overcome jet lag and have an adventure. Where should we set up camp, in a country that has so much to chose from?  A nearly thousand mile long peninsula, expanses of coastline, mountains, volcanic islands, forests, medieval fortresses?

So we decided to spend our two day vacation within a vacation ten minutes down the road from the Rome airport, in the village of Fiumicino for which the airport is named.  Perhaps that doesn’t sound so adventurous but it promised everything we were looking for. A reasonably priced hotel with wifi so we could stay up with work, good food and some new surroundings.

So join us for 48 hours in Fiumicino.

Ci vediamo!
Bill and Suzy

 

What to do with two days in Italy? Read more

Suzy and I arrived in Italy on Thursday. We were originally scheduled to arrive on Saturday, but had been away since April, so when ...

Excellent Adventures

One of the things Suzy and I love about traveling in Italy is that there is almost always an unexpected adventure around the corner.   But we welcome and even encourage the unexpected, which is part of the reason we decided to spend our two bonus days in Italy in Fiumicino, a place we had visited a couple of times before for a good meal, but a place of which we had not really scratched the surface.

Our two day sojourn was certainly not an action-packed adventure ride. We spent a lot of the time catching up on work, catching up on sleep and eating the fresh catch from the village’s fishing fleet. Along the way we managed to create our own adventures, most notably stinking up our hotel with a bag of festering fish that we had stored in our mini fridge. We had planned to visit the impressive Roman ruins at Ostia Antica, the ancient port town of the Eternal City, but time got the better of us. But it’s always good to leave an adventure for your next trip, so stay tuned.

Wanting to mix things up a bit, our final night we opted against another seafood dinner. Earlier that day I had taken a walk around the town, along the strip of privately managed beaches that run south from Fiumicino’s center, in an area called the Isola Sacra. This “island” was created by the Emperor Trajan in the first century A.D. by building the canal that runs through Fiumicino, but enough lessons in history. Along my stroll I came across a restaurant that held promise for our final night’s dinner, a large, modern structure called Provalo (which means “try it”). Underneath the name is what caught my attention – spiedficio or skewer restaurant. What could be  better than eating dinner served on spears. Why you can eat and pick your teeth at the same time!

Try it. You’ll like it.

Provalo certain proved to be worth a try. With a menu that featured skewers of sausages, skewers of cheeses, fried potatoes cut into a continuous spiral on a skewer and a whole section of arrosticini, grilled meats including lamb, veal, angus and chicken, roasted in a special contraption that allows one to cook a whole slew of skewers at once. Provalo is definitely the place to go when you’re all seafooded out.

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But adventure takes many forms, not just eating, and our biggest adventure that evening was our chance encounter with the restaurant’s manager and chef. No promises, but perhaps you’ll be seeing a visit to Via Umbria in the not-too-distant-future by this duo to do a little guest chef stint and to introduce Washington, DC to spiedini and arrosticini.

*                 *                  *

The final adventure of our brief stay in Fiumicino was our visit to the beach. For those who have not visited an Italian beach, particularly a crowded public beach like the ones in Fiumicino, which is, after all less than an hour from Rome – think the Rehoboth of the Eternal City – it is an experience worth, well, experiencing. Just be sure to bring plenty of sunscreen and a pair of sandals, because the sand can be hot as lava. Don’t be afraid to give it a try.  Each beach is run by a private management, typically a family affair, and rents chairs and umbrellas. You pay an admission fee and rental fee for the chair/umbrella and an attendant will set up your space for you. Most beaches have a private restaurant or snack bar although many beachgoers seem to bring their own picnic lunches.

The beach around Fiumicino is nothing to write home about (and who writes letters nowadays anyway), but the experience can be a memorable one, with families and friends playing, sunning, eating and drinking and laughing with one another, generally in very little clothing. It’s a way to see another side of Italy that we highly recommend. Particularly for those who call landlocked Umbria home, a trip to the beach is another excellent adventure.

Ci vediamo!
Bill and Suzy

 

visiting the coast of Italy Read more

One of the things Suzy and I love about traveling in Italy is that there is almost always an unexpected adventure around ...

See Food

A ten minute cab ride from Rome’s Leonardo da Vinci Airport is the seaside town of Fiumicino, for which the airport is also named (Rome Fiumicino or FCO to the seasoned traveller). As most flights to the US depart from FCO in the morning, overnighting in Fiumicino the night before one’s return flight can be a good alternative to a pricy hotel room in Rome. And given this fishing village’s impressive roster of restaurants, it can be an excellent way to celebrate your send off with a memorable meal.

But Fiumicino can be more than just a place to kill time and have a good meal. With Ostia Antica, the main port of Imperial Rome just a few minutes away and the town itself steeped in history, beaches and an impressive commercial fishing fleet, those seeking to escape from the bustle of Rome for a day or two would be well served to encamp in this delightful, if overlooked area.

Suzy and I took this message to heart this week, starting our Italy adventure with two days in Fiumicino to decompress and get over jet lag. We had visited the town on previous trips, but only for dinners, opting on those previous visits to stay at the airport’s Hilton hotel and taking a short taxi ride to the Via della Torre Clementine, the road that runs along the town’s wharf, from which the fishing fleet daily heads to sea. Across from the wharf stretches seafood restaurant after seafood restaurant.

Over our two day visit to Fiumicino we had three excellent seafood meals. Two were at restaurants along the main drag – the Ristorante Fronte del Porto and la Perla Ristorante. There we ate deliciously fried fritto misto, an assortment of small fried fish, shrimps and calamari, as well as some exquisitely fresh crudo, or Italian style sushi, thinly sliced raw fish, typically marinated with light extra virgin olive oil and seasoned with subtle sea salt. Needless to say, the fish served in these restaurants is about as fresh as it gets. Talk about zero kilometers – it literally has to travel a hundred feet from the boat to the table.

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Frittura di paranza, or fried seafood from the fishing boat, is found all over Italy and is not to be missed.

But for a special treat, for great seafood in a beautiful setting and with top notch service, hop over to Bastianelli al Molo. Housed in a whitewashed modern constructed building at the very end of the pier, al Molo (at the pier) is the cream of the crop. We enjoyed a leisurely (four hour) lunch there our second day, a fresh, gentle breeze rolling off the sea and cooling the ferocious heat of the summer.

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We started our seafood odyssey with a half dozen oysters from France, disobeying the “months with an r” rule that proclaims that you should not eat oysters in hot weather months. We had been disabused of this notion on a previous trip to France and besides, this is Italy, where you’re not being a good citizen if you don’t break most of the rules.

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We followed the oysters, which we enjoyed with a bottle of Lis Neris “Lis” wine from Friuli (pinot grigio-chardonnay-sauvignon blanc) with the only real disappointment of the day, a tartare of ricciola (variously translated as amberjack or yellow tail – we struggle greatly translating Italian fish words to English, as we really are not that familiar with the English words to begin with). The ricciola was served with a dollop of oyster gelato, a concept that sounds more interesting than it is in reality. We honestly preferred the more subtle, thinly sliced crudo of the Fronte del Porto and la Perla and could have skipped the milky, briny, gelato.

Now about an hour into our meal, with the breeze picking up and the Lis having its desired effect we were served what turned out to be the highlight of the meal, a ravioli filled with fresh fish, served in an unlikely sauce of asparagus and pancetta and garnished with slivers of asparagus. We’ve been schooled in not combining sea and land food (no cheese on that seafood pasta, please), but this combination was simply magical, worth the price of admission.

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A bowl of magic.

Our main course was not so much a let down as it was superfluous. By the time our whole spigola or sea bass baked in a salt crust arrived, we were ready to head back to the hotel and bask in the glow of our ravioli and take a nap. Baking a fish or any meat in a salt crust, however, is a technique that you simply must try. The fresh bass, baked in its salty sarcophagus, came out incredibly moist and flavorful, asking to be drenched in the light extravirgin olive oil from Lake Garda that adorned the table. We probably should have brought back to our hotel the uneaten portion, but our mini fridge had other plans, which we’ll tell you about later.

There are so many excellent restaurants to choose from in Fiumicino, ranging from the simple to the memorable.  Along with Pascucci al Porticciolo (Viale Traiano 85, Fiumicino, tel. 06 6502 9204), Bastianelli al Molo defines memorable. So next time you are at Fiumicino take a detour and enjoy a treasure that is hidden right under your nose.

Ci vediamo!
Bill and Suzy

Bastianelli al Molo is located at Via della Torre Clementina, 312 in Fiumicino.  The telephone number is  06 650 5378 or you can email them at info.almolo@gmail.com. They speak English.  Do it for yourself.

 

The Seafood Odyssey Read more

A ten minute cab ride from Rome's Leonardo da Vinci Airport is the seaside town of Fiumicino, for which the airport is ...

Fume-acino

I would describe our hotel in Fiumicino, the Hotel Tiber, as “perfectly adequate.” The staff was nice and accommodating, the rooms quite spacious and modern. The air-conditioning and wifi worked well, a particularly important feature (at least with respect to the former) given the hellish heat the country is currently experiencing. I really can’t think of anything in particular to complain about about the Tiber. Except, perhaps that their rooftop pool which had no umbrellas, rendering any poolside lounging either impossible or an exercise in how to get melanoma in one easy step. But come on, complaining about a rooftop pool in Italy? First world problems.

The hotel is well located just across the canal where the village’s fishing fleet ties up. In the morning the boats rig their nets and head out to sea. In the afternoon they return and set up an ad hoc seafood market, where local restaurant owners shop for fresh fish and good deals.

Customers - of the two legged and four legged variety - seeking good deals at Fiumicino's seafood market.
Customers – of the two legged and four legged variety – seeking good deals at Fiumicino’s seafood market.

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With our two day sojourn coming to an end, we decided to pay a visit to the market with an eye to bring some fresh catch with us to Umbria the following day. The timing was perfect as we came stumbling up the quay from our four hour seafood extravaganza lunch at Bastianelli al Molo. Much of the fleet had just returned for the day and each boat was displaying their catch on ice in styrofoam boxes lined up along the pier.

Now seeing the selection, we were determined to make a purchase, but where to store our treasures overnight? I ran across the street to our hotel and asked the front desk if we could store a flat of seafood overnight in the hotel restaurant’s refrigerator, to take with us when we checked out the following day. The reception promised to get an answer and phone me back. So back out to the market I went, optimistic that the answer would be yes.

After speaking with one of the captains and learning that the price of a flat was only €5, I went ahead and consummated the deal. The following night, I imagined, Suzy and I were going to enjoy a heaping platter of fritto di paranza, or mixed fried fishes, which are not normally found in Umbria, Italy’s only landlocked, coast-less region.

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Just moments after the transaction was finalized and the dozens of tiny fish put into a bag with ice, my phone rang.Buona sera, signor. Unfortunately the kitchen cannot accept . . .

Not to worry, we thought. This very nice, modern hotel has a mini fridge with lots of space. So we headed back into the hotel, bag of fish hidden from view of the front desk and headed up to our room. There we discovered that the mini fridge did indeed have plenty of space for our bag of swag. Our plan was proceeding perfectly.

The next morning we arose without incident and headed to the Tiber’s breakfast room, a light filled room on the top floor of the hotel with views of Fiumicino town, the beaches and the sea. We enjoyed a very nice breakfast before heading downstairs to our room where we planned to pack up, pick up our rental car and arrange to spend the day at one of Fiumicino’s beaches before driving up to Umbria.

When the elevator stopped on our floor, even before the door fully opened, we were hit by it. The powerful stench of rotting fish that was clearly emanating from our room, located just across from the elevator. When we opened the door to our room one glance and one sniff confirmed our suspicions. The fresh catch from the afternoon before had turned fetid in a mini fridge designed to keep small cans of Coca Cola tepid, rather than for preserving in fresh condition the fruits of the sea. A sickening slick of goo trailed under the refrigerator door and onto the floor. And a powerful smell filled the entire room when I opened the small glass door of the mini fridge. Apparently overnight the fish gradually went bad, the odor slowly accumulating so that we slept through it and our senses acclimated to it. Fortunately our breakfast break allowed us to escape the room for a half hour, enabling our olfactory machinery to reset, or we may have never been aware of what everyone else who used the third floor elevator must have been thinking. Where is that smell coming from?

Our first order of business – or oder of business – was to remove the source of rankness and to do what we could to eradicate the smell. Thoughts ran through my mind of nicotine addicted guests being charged €250 for smoking in their rooms. What would the Tiber charge us if we didn’t fix this problem pronto?

I quickly found every plastic bag and trash can liner I could assemble and dumped our former treasure into this container, hoping against hope that I would not leak a trail of liquified fish from our room through the lobby and to its final resting place. Fortunately, the bags held and I was able to make a dash through the lobby without arousing too much suspicion. I was on the street. Now where to dispose of Nemo and company?

Typically Italian towns have plenty of public trash cans but the ones close to the hotel  were all jammed full of refuse and I wasn’t about to leave a bag of rotting fish on the ground. There were plenty of privately owned bins but too many witnesses. So after about ten minutes, spying a cluster of cans that looked promising I veered off the main street into a residential neighborhood. I made one pass past the bins, aborting my attempt as a neighbor eyed me suspiciously. But after she went back inside her apartment I made an about face and, pulling the offending package from our plastic tote bag was able to subtly open and deposit it in the can, not even breaking stride as I did so. A whiff of the tote bag turned up no noxious residue, so it was back to the hotel for a final site cleanup. Things were looking up.

When I stepped off the elevator on the third floor I was again greeted by the strong odor of fish, even though we had started to air out the room a half hour earlier. I grabbed a couple of hand towels and started scrubbing and cleaning the slick of sickening fishiness that was still in the bottom of the mini fridge and after about 10 minutes it was all gone, the towels rinsed and soaking in the bath tub. A bit of fishiness lingered in the air, but nothing that late checkout during our visit to the beach wouldn’t take care of.

Later that day we returned to the Tiber after our trip to the beach. When we returned to the room to close up our suitcases and check out, only the tiniest wisp of fishiness remained. We visited the front desk to check out, receiving no lecture about storing fish in the mini fridge or finding an extra room cleaning charge. It appeared that we had survived Salt Watergate unscathed, although I’ll keep monitoring our American Express bill for additional charges in the future.

Talk about a fish story. And so, it’s onward to Umbria!

Ci vediamo!
Bill and Suzy

 

A very fishy story Read more

I would describe our hotel in Fiumicino, the Hotel Tiber, as "perfectly adequate." The staff was nice and accommodating, the rooms quite ...

Via Umbria’s Very Older Brother

It is difficult to overstate just how well regarded the name Roscioli is in Rome and throughout Italy.  A complex of food businesses (described by Anthony Bourdain as “an empire”), Roscioli is a family affair built over 4 generations that started with a renowned bakery, and now includes a wildly popular salumeria, ristorante, caffe/pasticceria and more recently the Rimessa and wine club.  Roscioli built its reputation on unrivaled quality and the breadth of their offerings.  They have been recognized through features in the New York Times, Conde Nast Traveller and even garnered a visit by Anthony Bourdain on his show No Reservations.

 

For the past several years they have sought to meet the customer where he is through a program of curated tastings they call Rimessa Roscioli.  Sommelier Alessandro Pepe and a team of top rated food and wine experts lead small groups on food and wine tastings in a relaxed, casual setting that they describe as “an educational and convivial lab.”  We think it describes perfectly Via Umbria.
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Rimessa Roscioli tasting dinner on left; Via Umbria Laboratorio on right.
When we first met the acquaintance of Alessandro and his partner, American born ex-pat Lindsay Gabbard, we were immediately struck by just how similar our passions were.  They, like us, love food and wine because they can create connections between strangers.  And they strongly believe that food and particularly wine, can and should be “democratic.”  Although an expert sommelier, Alessandro scoffs at wine tastings where the conversation focuses on arcane trivia such as malolactic fermentation.  Enjoying wine and getting in touch with your own tastes and sharing that with others is the what sommelier should strive to teach and it is precisely what Alessandro and Lindsay have been doing for the past decade.

 

Rimessa Roscioli is taking their show on the road and coming to Washington, DC and for one night Via Umbria is honored to be hosting them, preparing a special evening of food and wine tasting in the company of these fascinating and engaging people.  Limited seating is available on Wednesday, March 8 at 7pm for an evening that promises to be unforgettable – a small group tasting around a communal table featuring eight hand selected wines paired with a dozen small tastes, including a pasta dish and a dessert and lots of conversation and enjoyment.  This is a rare one-of-a-kind opportunity to experience and savor true, authentic flavors imported directly from Italy by one of Rome’s most respected sommeliers.  Tickets, which are non-refundable must be purchased in advance and can be bought online or at Via Umbria.

Located in Rome Read more

It is difficult to overstate just how well regarded the name Roscioli is in Rome and throughout Italy.  A complex of food businesses (described ...

Checking Out – Checking In

cvs-self-checkout-stationJust got back from the CVS. Had to run a quick errand and it’s just a couple of blocks from the store. But it is a world away from what I think is important in life.

Wanted to get a nice Christmas card to write a holiday message to the staff and post in their “office.” What I found at CVS were the usual row of Hallmark and Shoebox cards. Awful puns, schmaltzy sentiments. The usual.

So instead I headed cattycornered across the street to Just Paper and Tea, a locally owned Georgetown boutique that has it. That gets it. Quality. Comfort. Hominess. I’m a small business owner so I know this has to be a challenging business to run, especially when the big guys are just cattycornered across the street. But I got some great cards and left with a smile. That matters.

After another aborted errand I decided to stop back at CVS to pick up some pens to write the staff message. I found my pens and skipped the staffed checkout – the line was pretty long – and opted for the self checkout. Something I rarely do. It was quick, efficient, I had the exact coin change and the machine spit out crisp one dollar bills in return. As I dropped my pens into my Just Paper shopping bag I realized I had just shopped without interacting with one person.

Efficiency is great. But efficiency is not the pole star. We love not wasting time, but often obsess about it even when that time is pretty inconsequential. It’s not that standing in line deprives you from visiting the Louvre. But feeling like your time is not being wasted, that there’s a reason for you standing in line keeps you sane and provides that little bit of justification you need to stand in line.

I think that waiting your turn so that you hand a human being your cash, look into his eyes and he into yours is more than enough justification for standing in line. That the efficiency of checking out quickly, but completely anonymously, is a travesty.

We have made so many advances in efficiency, economic security, health over the past century. But we have squandered so many of those gains on needless things. Our measure of success today is how big a house we can seclude ourselves in. What model of iPhone we can shut ourselves off behind. How quickly and efficiently we can check out of the CVS.

I believe our efficiency dividends should be spent and invested in spending more, not less time with people. People you know and complete strangers. I believe that our retreat into selfishness – the creation of a walled off, isolated self – is not driven by worthy impulses, but from a fear of failure, fear of embarrassment, fear of the unknown. What many don’t realize is that you can jump in and the water is going to be just fine. And that’s what we’ve been trying to create at Via Umbria, a place where people can jump in and laugh and splash around with their friends, their family, with complete strangers and come away with a smile and a feeling that this is how the world ought to be. It’s a lot for a small business to take on. But what’s the use of dreaming if you don’t dream big?

As Christmas nears, our hope is that all of you find happiness, joy and love with your families, as we will with ours. And join us again in the new year. We promise the water will be warm.

Un abbraccio,
Bill and Suzy

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Quick, efficient and anonymous Read more

Just got back from the CVS. Had to run a quick errand and it’s just a couple of blocks from the store. ...

Bridging the Divide

stranger-things-finale-netflix-featureI recently started watching the Netflix series Stranger Things and I really like it. The show, which is set in rural Indiana in the 1980s follows a group of kids seeking to find their missing friend, and involves a secret government program that punches a hole through parallel universes in order to engage in some cold war spying, only to unexpectedly unleash an incredibly evil monster. Some great acting, especially from the kids, some creative writing and some compelling story lines. I would definitely say it is worth a watch.

I mention this because Via Umbria has been engaged in its own project to bridge parallel universes. And far from unleashing monsters, we have only spread deliciousness and joy.

Those two universes are, of course, Italy and America and we are engaged in an experiment to connect the two. We do that by creating an authentic Italian experience in Georgetown. And we do that by hosting American guests on semi annual food and wine tours at our farm house in Umbria, immersing them in the authentic Umbria that we have come to know and love.

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img_1787-1On Saturday, we arrived in Umbria with nine guests in tow to kick off our fall Food and Wine tours, and less than 36 hours later, I dare say that they have already begun to understand and share our love of Umbria. Yesterday we introduced them to the wines of Umbria, the same Grechettos and Montefalco rossos and Sagrantinos we import and sell at Via Umbria. They met Elena DiFilippo at her organic and biodynamic cantina and drank wine with her, and will welcome Elena’s husband Roberto when he visits Via Umbria this spring. They dined on a homecooked dinner by Chiara Cicogna and heard her speak of her family’s cashmere business, and will join Chiara and us in Washington on November 16 when Chiara exhibits a selection of cashmere treasures at a special holiday trunk show at Via Umbria. This morning they experienced truffle hunting under glorious blue skies near Citta di Castello with our dear friends Saverio and Gabriella Bianconi, who are readying to ship the day’s spoils back to Via Umbria to take center stage at a pair of special truffle dinners coming up next week.

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Nearly a year after reopening our doors as an Italian market, café, restaurant, enoteca and retail store, we are realizing our dream of truly connecting the worlds we inhabit in Washington and in Umbria. This week our food and wine tour group will dine at le Delizie del Borgo, a restaurant lovingly operated by our friends Simone Proietti-Pesci and Ombretta Ubaldi in Bevagna and next month Ombretta, a certified sommelier with an unmatched appreciation for Umbrian wines will return with us to Washington to host a series of special wine dinners at Via Umbria. Later in the month Simone will join us in Georgetown to cook alongside our outstanding executive chef Johanna Heilrigl. We can’t wait for these two to renew their acquaintance and to dazzle us with what they think up and cook up next. A tasting at the Tabarrini winery on Thursday will no doubt be a highlight for our guests, but a command performance in Washington is in the cards, with a special visit by the winery’s owners Giampaolo Tabarrini and his wife Federica Pietrolati for some memorable dinners and maybe a glass of wine or two.

Connecting our guests and our customers to the incredibly rich experiences that we have found in Umbria is what we do, regardless of place. Whether it takes place sotto il sole or under the sun, in Cannara or in Washington, these are the experiences that make up a life and we are proud to offer them to you.

Ci vediamo!
Bill and Suzy

Connecting Italy and America in Georgetown Read more

I recently started watching the Netflix series Stranger Things and I really like it. The show, which is set in rural Indiana ...

A Personal Appeal!

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Download your free ticket by clicking on the image. And be sure to forward it to all your friends!

 

Tuesday night you can show your support for our friends and neighbors in central Italy that were devastated by last month’s powerful earthquake.  Via Umbria is hosting a benefit gala and auction to raise funds for relief and rebuilding efforts.  There will be tons of food donated by and showcasing a number of local chefs, Italian wines and a silent and live auction of some pretty fabulous items, including a week at our Umbrian farmhouse (and a hot air balloon ride and champagne brunch), restaurant gift certificates, artwork, jewelry and more!

Admission is free, but we’re hoping most will make a donation (suggested level is $100 but we’ll take any donation).  We really are hoping to see a lot of people who love Italy and want to show their support for the victims in Amatrice, Accumoli and the other villages that face years of rebuilding.  So plan to come out on Tuesday night (7:00-10:00), bring your checkbook and let’s have some fun (and food and wine)!

You can download your ticket here.  Please RSVP by clicking on the link.  And please, pleasePLEASE forward the ticket to as many friends as you can, personally urging them to attend to show their support.

Suzy and I are looking forward to seeing you tomorrow (Tuesday) night!

Bill and Suzy

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Supporting the victims of Italy's earthquake Read more

  Tuesday night you can show your support for our friends and neighbors in central Italy that were devastated by last month's powerful ...

The Day the Earth Shook

_90899492_hi034935345Mother Nature — a term that is such a complete contradiction.

Nature, the most powerful force in the universe is indifferent to those it impacts.  When nature provides us its bounty – sustenance, panoramic vistas, long, rich, rewarding lives – we marvel at its power and project benign intentions to it, honoring nature as we would our mothers.  When it shows us its awesomeness but spares us the impact – a distant lightning storm or an erupting volcano – we stand in awe of it.  But those powerful forces can also be arbitrary, random and deadly.  And when they are unleashed against us or count us as innocent bystanders, we simply tuck away those experiences in a compartment, refusing to challenge our notions of a benign “mother nature” and see it as a “one off” phenomenon.  Nature neither loves us or hates us.  It simply is.

A week ago, in the early morning hours of August 24, the people of central Italy, including our friends and neighbors in Umbria, the other place we call home, were awakened by the terror of what the Italians call a terremoto.  A magnitude 6.2 earthquake leveled buildings, buried under rubble hundreds of inhabitants that had no chance to escape their homes and obliterated whole villages.  In the week since the earth shook, the death toll has climbed above two hundred and those left homeless and hopeless has reached the thousands.

Early reports placed the epicenter of the quake near Norcia, a town known throughout Italy as the capital of cured meats, the place where pork butchery was invented and where early medieval surgeons were trained and sent out into the world.  Like many of the other towns making the news, Norcia is a place with which we are intimately familiar, for it is literally in our back yard.  Those reports also mentioned Perugia and other towns that make up our Italian world, but the real destruction was felt further south, along the border between Umbria and Lazio, an ancient region originally populated by the Sabines.  We are familiar, too with this area, which though rarely visited by tourists is a place we have traversed and explored often.  It is a rugged, sparsely populated area dotted with small, rough, isolated villages.  Many of those villages, happily existing alone and cut off from the modern world have been decimated, their remoteness and isolation making rescue and recovery operations that much more difficult.

The impact on our property and our orbit was minimal.  Guests staying at our farmhouse in the village of Cannara reported no damage or injury, although the movement of the ground, a side to side rather than up and down motion, apparently sloshed a great deal of water from our pool.  Thankfully our friends and acquaintances who hail from the other nearby ancient towns that dot this region – Perugia, Deruta, Montefalco, Bevagna, Spoleto – came through relatively unscathed.

Not so the inhabitants from Amatrice and the neighboring town of Accumoli.  The devastation there was so great it led the mayor to exclaim “half the town no longer exists.”  Images of the destruction are gut wrenching, collapsed buildings covered in a thin monochromatic gray coating of dust, looking like the setting of a post-apocalyptic film.

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The rebuilding and recovery efforts have already started but experience tells us the work will never truly be done.  Worse than the death and destruction of properties and historic landmarks, if there is such a thing as worse in this regard, is the complete devastation of the social fabric that holds people together, that gives their lives purpose and meaning, that defines their lives as theirs. Suzy and I have witnessed firsthand this complete wiping away of the social structure, this destruction of lives and a way of life.  We did so several years ago when we visited a friend in l’Aquila, the site of the last major earthquake in Italy. There we saw a town that was more maintaining itself than rebuilding itself, its buildings standing but empty, like a Hollywood set.  Even though a couple of years had passed since the big quake, life there was different, with a palpably gaping emptiness, a hollowness in the routines of life brought about not by the terror of being shaken awake in the middle of the night or having to deal with the death of neighbors and family, but rather by the loss of place and routine – the lively piazzas and the nightly passagiata through the street.  Restaurants had reopened, not in the the city centro, but in makeshift FEMA-type trailers that ringed the city.  Makeshift attempts to rebuild the past social life that were still makeshift when we visited l’Aquila years later.  Attempts that seemed not to be gaining traction.  The l’Aquila we visited was as raw, fragile, damaged and hopeless as it had been the day after the quake.

A town or a village, we learned then, is much more than just its buildings or just its people. It is the intersection of the two that animates the place and the people and it is that intersection that was shaken and torn and damaged in certain corners of Italy last week.  The buildings can be reconstructed or replaced.  The victims can be mourned and eulogized.  But the survivors must be cared for too, for their lives – not just their immediate surroundings but the entire social network that had previously connected them to something bigger and better and more meaningful than themselves – has been reduced to rubble no less than their homes and places of work have been destroyed.

 

And it is only by feeling its absence that we can truly appreciate the power that this connectedness wields over our lives.  Indeed it is this connectedness – to our families, to our communities, to nature and its rhythms, to simple, elegant beauty, to our past, our traditions and our history – that animates our lives.  It is the duality of us being individuals and at the same time being part of a whole that in the end defines our lives and gives meaning and purpose to it.  Independence and interdependence coexisting and existing in the same space and time.  At this moment it is essential that we restore the quake victims’ independence – rebuilding their homes, caring for their injured, and mourning their lost.  But restoring their interdependence – rebuilding a social structure that developed organically over centuries in a place and because of the nature of that place, is a much more difficult but no less important part of our work as well.

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Planning is underway at Via Umbria for a series of events to raise funds for earthquake relief efforts. Please watch this space for further details.  We hope you will join us in providing support for relief efforts and funds to assist the residents of this devastated area rebuild the lives and way of life that were literally shaken apart in the middle of the night a week ago.  And we hope you will remain afterwards, to help rebuild and support communities that have been no less ruptured than the people.

The after effects of an earthquake in Italy Read more

Mother Nature -- a term that is such a complete contradiction. Nature, the most powerful force in the universe is indifferent to those ...

Umbria in Mongolfiera

Mongolfiera 015If you’ll hold my hand we’ll chase your dream across the sky
For we can fly we can fly up, up and away
Up, Up and Away, The Fifth Dimension

Early to bed, early to rise is not our typical modus operandi during our visits to Umbria and our Saturday night activity – dinner for 25 in our farmhouse, highlighted by an outdoor fireworks display to celebrate one of our guests’ birthdays – did not presage well our ability to rise early for our Sunday activity.

Mongolfiera 001But rise early we did. Both from bed and from the ground.

Arriving at the Cantina Dionigi at 6:24am, a full minute before the drop dead deadline of 6:25, we were greeted warmly by our good friend Roberto Dionigi, one of the family owners of this venerable Montefalco winery. We were also introduced to Eleonora Lolli, marketing director for Balloon Adventures Italy, Umbria’s new hot air balloon tour company. In just a short while we would slip the surly bonds of earth and float peacefully above the val d’umbria.

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Balloon Adventures Italy is owned, operated and piloted by Peter Kollar, a recent emigrant to Umbria who had the good fortune to purchase a property next door to the Cantina Dionigi. Peter chose the property because it featured a good sized open, flat piece of land ideal for launching and landing his 18 passenger balloon. That he became fast friends and associates with the Dionigi family, whose name is emblazoned prominently on Peter’s balloon, which he boasted is the largest in Italy, is just the sort of good fortune that seems to happen often in Umbria.

Mongolfiera 003Peter’s Germanic roots were apparent from the moment we met him in the field where our balloon was being prepared for its flight. Against a backdrop of the enormous mongolfiera, he barked commands to our group of 16, barking at us to stand here, to stay away from that, to get ready to board the basket and how we would brace for landing. His bark turned out to be much worse than his bite, however, as he punctuated his necessary commands with humor and grace. By the time the balloon was fully inflated and we had scrambled aboard the basket, it was clear to all that our pilot was in control of the balloon, its passengers and the situation. He admonished us not to worry about anything. Unless he seemed worried.

Mongolfiera 006And with a few revs of the engine – well, rather a few bursts of flames from the ignitors that Peter constantly used to replenish the balloon with hot air – we rose, slowly, gently and peacefully from the field. Until we could look down directly on Peter’s hangar, his house and Roberto’s expansive fields of sagrantino, merlot and grechetto. Until we were a thousand feet high and were able to see across the valley to the beautiful glimmering cities of stone that dot the mountainside – Assisi, Spello, Trevi, Spoleto. Until we reached two thousand feet, floating languorously in the cool morning air, the golden yellow sunlight bathing the hills as a patchwork of vineyards unfolded below us, giving way to the hilltop Etruscan beauty that is Perugia and the small shimmering outline of Lago Trasimeno in the distance. We topped out at three thousand feet on a day that Peter described as “too perfect,” a morning so completely windless that steering the balloon through the usual air streams that pilots ride to bring them to their landing spot did not exist. And so our pilot cut short our adventure, expertly guiding us into a field just below another of our friends’ wineries, coming to rest among a grove of olive trees. The property owners, startled to see an enormous balloon descending into their grove came running to give us assistance, but the only help Peter needed was for them to show him a route that his Land Rover and trailer could take into the grove so we could pack the balloon and basket and take our group back to the Cantina.

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Cantina Dionigi from above
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The Etruscan hilltop town of Perugia, regional capital of Umbria
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Medieval borgo of Torre del Colle in Umbria as seen from above

After deflating and packing the balloon we were transported back to Roberto’s winery, where our group was treated to a fabulous breakfast of fruits, sliced meats and cheese and Roberto’s Grechetto, Montefalco Rosso and Sagrantino wines, served, of course, after the obligatory glass of champagne or prosecco that marks every successful return to earth of the balloon and its passengers. In the gleaming, new Dionigi tasting room, with its unmatched view of the val d’umbria and Assisi and Spello, we bonded with our fellow passengers, shared our reactions to the unforgettable views and the experience of seeing this land, which we have seen so many times from ground level, from a new and truly wondrous vantage point.

Mongolfiera 016Umbria is known as “the green heart of Italy” and its majesty is well apparent to all who wind along its wandering lanes, who hike its gentle slopes, who explore its jewel like hill towns. To take all of this in from above, however, to drink in its panorama a full three hundred and sixty degrees, floating along on the soft morning breeze like a feather in the wind, is a truly unforgettable experience.

I seriously doubt whether any members of the Fifth Dimension ever experienced the thrill of a balloon ride. But they certainly nailed it in their 19xx hit, Up, Up and Away

The world’s a nicer place in my beautiful balloon
It wears a nicer face in my beautiful balloon

Ci vediamo!
Bill and Suzy

 

For more information on Balloon Adventures Italy or to book your own aerial adventure, contact Eleonora at +39 366 314 0558 or email info@ballonadventures.it.  Visit their website at www.balloonadventures.it.

 

Floating above the the green heart of Italy Read more

If you'll hold my hand we'll chase your dream across the sky For we can fly we can fly up, up and away --Up, ...

Say “Cheese”

Ruzzolone 012I have been vaguely aware of the existence of an Italian game from the countryside called ruzzolone for some time. I don’t know where I first heard of it, but I wish I had heard about it sooner.

Giovanni - ruzzoloneLucky me!  About a year or so ago, while doing a google search on a particular winemaker we wanted to learn more about I came across his image in front of his winery. In the picture Giovanni Dubini was launching a huge wheel of cheese down a dirt path. With a few admirers cheering him on. This was Giovanni playing ruzzolone. The image of this sophisticated winemaker joyously playing farmers’ game captured my imagination and made me want to learn more about the game.

For the past year or so I have been joking with Albertino Pardi that I wanted to learn all about ruzzolone and transport the sport to America. Albertino, whose family owns and operates the Cantina Fratelli Pardi winery and who is a friend and colleague of Giovanni started my ruzzolone education on the spot, teaching me all that he knew about the sport, an ancient game that by some accounts traces its roots back to Umbria’s Etruscan forebears. Despite its origins, though, it is a game that was made for the country, for rustic folks, for Umbria.

 

Ruzzolone antica

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Ruzzolone 009Ruzzolone is the answer to the question, “how can I entertain myself if all I have is a wheel of cheese, a belt and a country road.” The sort of question that no doubt comes up often in rural Umbria. Today’s modern game has substituted a standardized wooden disk for a wheel of cheese (which no doubt was too valuable to waste on sport), but still uses just a cloth strap and a country road. Players wind the cord around the disk and rock back and forth several times in a stylized, ritualistic windup before heaving ho in a motion not unlike a professional bowler, but putting all manner of English on the delivery of their disk to enable it to curve around corners, hug the edge of the road and, as is the object of the game, travel the farthest distance possible. And how it does travel! On a good throw for hundreds of yards, wending its way around curves, ricocheting off of hillsides, rolling ever forward for upwards of 20 to 30 seconds.

There seems to be no dress code for participants, save dark clothing and caps. Shaving seems to be optional as well. Grunting, so loud and baying that it would put Maria Sharapova to shame is looked upon favorably as is the occasional uncontrolled spewing of obscenities and invective as the disk deviates from its flight plan and launches itself into a nearby field or up a bank into a thicket of trees.

Ruzzolone 008

But what a way to pass an afternoon. Especially on a beautiful spring afternoon as Albertino, his wife Jessica, his brother Gianluca and father Alberto and I did recently along a quiet country road outside the ancient borgo of Castel Ritaldi. Grunting aside, the only sound was the occasional disk clacking along the rough asphalt, eventually coming to a halt with a bang when colliding with the makeshift barriers erected along the course or with a wobble as it lost momentum and simply rolled over. If the sport of golf is sometimes described as “a good walk spoiled,” ruzzolone is a good walk made even better.

Ruzzolone 010No wonder country farmers live to be 100. They drink lots of red wine, eat pork fat and walk along country roads with their friends, playing a game that Seinfeld could have invented. After watching (and even trying my own hand at it) I am convinced my instincts were right a year ago when I vowed to Albertino that I was going to bring ruzzolone to America. Ruzzolone may be just what we need.

Ci vediamo!
Bill and Suzy

The Italian countryside game called ruzzolone Read more

I have been vaguely aware of the existence of an Italian game from the countryside called ruzzolone for some time. I don’t ...