In a country that is renowned for its warmth, charm and grace, Umbrians, with their authenticity, approachableness and their connectedness to each other, their land, and their culture stand out. For me, there is no place in which this authenticity stands out more than around the dinner table. When I think back on the many (many) meals that I have enjoyed in Umbria, each one is colored with the rosy glow of being surrounded by strangers turned friends and friends turned family, all sharing stories, wine, and food and all living in the moment. The food is simple yet exquisite, the company is fascinating yet unassuming, and the conversation is energetic yet relaxed; every day brings a new experience and every night is a celebration. A visit to Umbria is truly an opportunity to experience authenticity in all aspects of what it means to be Italian.
This is the feeling that drives much of what we do at Via Umbria. We have created a space for friends and neighbors to meet, to eat, and to relax. A place to showcase the work of the amazing artisans of Italy, from ceramicists to winemakers, and to introduce their products and their stories to a new community. Above all, however, we are determined to recreate the feeling of sitting around a dinner table in Umbria- sharing food, telling stories, and creating memories- and from this the Laboratorio was born.
From the communal style seating to the open kitchen format, every aspect of the Laboratorio was designed with the Umbrian experience in mind. The space was created to be open, to be flexible, and to be interactive; in short it is our Laboratory, our space to explore and to create. For those of you who have yet to join us for dinner imagine it like this: take one part dinner party, add in one part of your favorite cooking show, one part wine tasting, and combine those together with a beautiful setting and an engaged group of friends and neighbors sharing a unique and unforgettable experience and you may start to get a sense of what I’m talking about.
But as with all things, the best way to truly understand is to see it for yourself. Join us for dinner Thursday – Saturday night, or for brunch on Sunday for an unforgettable feast in our demonstration kitchen. Enjoy a Thursday night Demo and Dinner and let Chef Johanna Hellrigl teach you her favorite recipes from all over Italy before retiring to the communal table to enjoy the fruits of your labor. Visit us on a Friday night for a CYOB Dinner and let us teach you about a selection of wines from our unique cellar during a guided tasting before choosing your favorite bottle (or bottles) to accompany your meal. For the wine lovers, I encourage you to join us on a Saturday night for a Wine and Dine dinner where each of four courses is paired with a unique wine chosen and discussed by our experienced wine staff. And for those of you who crave relaxation at the end of your week, we welcome you to our Sunday Bottomless Bellini Brunch. No matter the format, no matter the day, a meal spent around our table will be one to remember.
In a country that is renowned for its warmth, charm and grace, Umbrians, with their authenticity, approachableness and their connectedness to each ...
Have you always wanted to be a Chef?
Yes and no. I was born into a family with a Chef for a father and grew up in the restaurant industry so I’ve always had a deep admiration and respect for chefs and restaurateurs. Rather than following in the footsteps of my family, however, I was determined to prove I could do my own thing and seek out other passions. For four and a half years, I worked for a democracy building organization where I focused on empowering women from around the globe to increase their political participation. Through that experience I was fortunate enough to travel to every region and meet unique individuals. This had the added bonus of exposing me to the flavors, cuisines and cultures of many different countries.
When I wasn’t traveling, I found my solace in cooking. I would come home from a long day at work, excited to walk into the kitchen and create something. Cooking allowed me to use a different part of my brain and it became a way for me to relax and express myself. I sought out opportunities to cook for other people, inviting friends over to share a meal and taking the time to find my own voice in the kitchen. Cooking for my friends and for my (now) husband allowed me the time to explore this pursuit, and helped me realize that it wasn’t just something I did, it was something I had a real gift for, and a unique perspective on. It was then that I decided that this was the passion that I should be pursuing.
How did you start cooking?
My father was a world-renowned chef from Northern Italy and one of my first gifts was a [rubber] knife. One night he was cooking at home and handed me a zucchini to play with in the meantime with my rubber knife. I apparently cut the zucchini perfectly and my father was shocked- he said to my mother, this one will end up in the kitchen. Although my father passed away when I was only four years old, my mother embodied his spirit, continued to pursue his endeavors and kept his American dream alive through his restaurant in New York City. Her perseverance, despite his absence, in such a tough industry is what makes her my role model to this day.
Through the restaurant, I was able to learn the art of cooking from those my father entrusted with his recipes and techniques. Every Saturday was the highlight of my week. My mother would bring me to the restaurant, dress me up in my chef outfit and I would be placed in the pastry section (the other sections were too dangerous and fast paced for my age). I would help in any way I could and soak up all the lessons there were to learn. The racks of apple strudel to the utilization of a blow torch for the crème brulee are images that are ingrained in my memory. Years ago, I realized that my desire to bake as much- if not more than- I cook must come from the decade-worth of Saturdays spent in the pastry section.
How would you describe your style of cooking?
I think the most important thing when you cook is having respect for food and for the ingredients. Cooking shouldn’t be about piling things on top of each other to create an end result, but rather finding ways to highlight fresh flavors and make them complement each other as well as enhance their flavors. I’m a huge proponent of community supported agriculture and because of this I find myself drawn to seasonal ingredients, which is something that is central to Via Umbria’s philosophy and mission. My favorite challenge is to create menus based on what is available and I think that is where a chef’s creativity is really seen.
While my background has exposed me to many spices and unique flavors, many of which I use and love, I find myself always drawn back to Italian cooking and the history behind it. Traditional recipes and the Italian style of cooking is not about creating things that are complex or complicated, it’s about enhancing the flavor of ingredients by focusing on simplicity, balance and freshness.
How important are ingredients to your recipes?
In Italian cooking, and in my mind, ingredients are everything. Starting with quality ingredients is what makes or breaks a dish and I am fortunate at Via Umbria to have access to the highest quality, authentic Italian ingredients. Honestly, if you can’t actually be cooking in Italy, this is the next best place.
I strongly believe that you also get out of a dish what you put into it. I would rather take the time to blanch and peel fresh tomatoes than use canned tomatoes because the flavor is completely different, and to me that flavor is worth the extra effort. That having been said, when looking at a recipe, I think sometimes people get too worried about following the directions instead of trusting their instincts. I often compare cooking with a recipe to driving with a GPS system to navigate you: Nowadays when you drive you are completely reliant on a GPS system to get you to your destination. By just following each step of the navigation, you sometimes take the longer route, but because you’re following the directions so closely you don’t even realize that there might be a better way. However, if you take a step back and start to study the directions and the roads, you become more confident in creating your own directions and navigating yourself to find the what works best for you. I view cooking in much the same way. Study the ingredients in the recipe, familiarize yourself with what they are and what they taste like, figure out why you put them together and how the combination changes or enhances their flavors, and you will be more likely to understand the amounts and purpose of each ingredient. This in turn will allow you to experiment with the recipe, become more confident in the kitchen, and create a style of cooking that works for you.
What do you always keep the ingredients on hand for?
Homemade tomato sauce. It’s one of the easiest things to make, and yet something that makes all the difference when you’re cooking. I have never bought it from a jar and never will.
How did you end up at Via Umbria?
It honestly was a “right place at the right time” scenario. I was wandering through Georgetown looking for ingredients and inspiration for recipes and I happened upon the store. As soon as I walked in I was impressed by the selection and authenticity of the products- it honestly felt just like shopping in Italy. I walked from section to section, finding unique products from all over Italy, admiring the butcher counter and the cheesemonger’s selection, but when I walked into the Wine Room I was hooked. I found bottles from small production wineries in Alto Adige and Liguria and felt instantly that I had found a little piece of home in Washington. When I started talking to (owners) Bill and Suzy Menard, it became clear that we had a similar mission and passion- I am very dedicated to bringing awareness of Italy and what authentic Italian cuisine means, rather than the Americanized Italian foods, products, and ideas you see so often, and it was clear right away that this was something we shared.
Via Umbria uses the word “simple” to describe their food – how would you describe “simple”?
Italians have a tradition of making good food and respecting flavors and I think that’s a large part of what draws me to Italian cuisine. Simple doesn’t mean basic or bland, it means food that is organic in its composition. Overcomplicated food has been done- there are so many restaurants, amazing restaurants, where you can go and have a once in a lifetime meal with all the bells and whistles, but I want my dishes and the food we bring to Via Umbria to be something that you trust to always impress yet comfort your palate. We do unique and different things compared to other Italian restaurants in DC, but our primary focus is to draw people with our ingredients, flavors and the experience of community we have at Via Umbria. Food is the the tangible part of a meal, but there is so much more that goes into the overall dining experience. For me, mealtime is about the act of eating but also about the environment, presentation, and the people with whom you enjoy a meal, and none of that should be fussy.
What role does wine play in your meals?
If you ever have a meal in Italy or with an Italian, it’s easy to see that wine is an important part of the experience. Just as coffee is an important part of your breakfast in the morning, alcohol, whether it be beer, wine, or a spritz, is an important component of your evening meal. Because of this, and this idea that what you are drinking should enhance and bring complexity to your food, a lot of Italian winemaking ties in so well with regional foods. The winemakers in particular regions are creating things that taste good, but are also creating things that pair well with the foods that they are eating. Because of this, wines are what bring in the last piece of the puzzle when it comes to building the flavors of a meal and we have worked hard at Via Umbria to build a wine list and a retail selection that spans all of Italy’s regions, not just the most popular and most well-known, and to share our expertise with our dinner guests and retail customers to ensure they pick just the right wine for their meal.
What’s it like to cook in an open kitchen?
I’m incredibly passionate about food and bringing good food to people. I want to use my cooking to raise awareness of how easy authentic Italian cooking can be if you approach it the right way, and to empower people in the kitchen. Working in Via Umbria’s open Laboratorio kitchen is the perfect format for me because it really gives me the ability to engage with people and open up these conversations. Cooking in front of people, interacting with groups when they come in to eat, and walking people through the food as it’s served allows me to bring more to the table than just food- meals in the Laboratorio become more about the experience of eating than a typical restaurant. Every night I create a different menu which allows me to engage people in a new conversation and expose them to new regions and dishes. I get to challenge myself to explore different regions of Italy and the Italian landscape while creating an evening that is unique and memorable for our guests.
Via Umbria is thrilled to announce the latest addition to our culinary team, Head Chef Johanna Hellrigl, who will be bringing her ...
When July rolls around and the heat is out of control, there’s only one thought that crosses my mind: Get me to the beach. What better way to escape the summer heat than by spending a few days soaking up the sun (rather than hiding from it) and relaxing in the water? Unfortunately, an actual escape is not always possible and so I find myself wandering the internet daydreaming of vacations that could have been and ought to be.
Enter Sardinia. With its gorgeous coastline and lush mountains it’s the perfect escape for every type of traveler–especially those who are hungry. The contrast of the expansive coastline and the treelined mountains of this region has bestowed upon it one of the most unique, and enticing food cultures in Italy. On the beaches and coast locals and travelers enjoy seafood by the boatload–everything from spiny lobster, to octopus, to sardines, all locally caught and served straight from the sea. In the mountains, the food is more typical of country cuisine, based off of what you can raise and what you can grow–there is little crossover between the two culinary realms, and yet each are distinct and delicious in their own right.
As a pasta enthusiast, I find myself drawn in particular to the Malloreddus, a Sardinian spin on Gnocchi that is so good they made it their national dish. Slightly thinner than a typical gnocchi, and with an added dash of saffron, these little pasta ‘dumplings’ are the stuff that food-dreams are made of. Add a light tomato sauce with freshly ground pork sausage, garlic, and grate some pecorino on top and it’s a wonder anyone ever eats anything else.
Speaking of pork, let’s not forget the su porcheddu, a spit roasted suckling pig that’s tender, aromatic, and packed with flavor. Just the thought of this dish has my stomach growling. Though my toes may be in the imaginary waters of the Mediterranean, my heart will always be in Umbria, and my stomach will always crave a well prepared pork.
For those of you who, like me, can’t always get away when you want to, Via Umbria is offering up the next best thing. Each week this summer we’re focusing on the cuisine from a different Italian region with the goal of touring you around Italy without the plane ticket or time commitment. Join us this week as we celebrate all things Sardinian with a Demo Dinner where you will learn to make your own malloreddus, a CYOB (Choose Your Own Bottle) Dinner and a Wine Dinner where you can taste the mouthwatering delights of su porcheddu, and a Sunday brunch with a Sardinian twist. With four distinct dining opportunities, and Sardinian wine specials all week long, Sardinia week at Via Umbria is the perfect way to turn your vacation dreams into stay-cation reality.
When July rolls around and the heat is out of control, there’s only one thought that crosses my mind: Get me to ...
There are few tasks more daunting than choosing a bottle of wine at a restaurant. Whether you’re an Everyday Enthusiast or simply a Weekend Wino, there’s always something slightly intimidating about being handed a list- or even worse, a book!- of wine names and being asked to choose the perfect bottle for your meal. In my experience, the struggle is attributable to three major factors: the pressure of picking a wine that everyone at the table (with their different tastes and food orders) will love, the impersonality of choosing a name from a page rather than a bottle from a shelf, and the price tag associated with what, nine times out of ten, boils down to simple guesswork.
Don’t get me wrong – I love wine. I love white wine, I love red wine, I love cheap wine, and (much to my bank account’s dismay) I definitely love expensive wine. The problem is, loving wine doesn’t always help matters much when set to the task of selecting wines for a particular setting. Which brings us to the question: how does one choose? What makes one vineyard’s Sagrantino different from another, and how do you know to choose between them? Silly as it sounds the answer seems to be ‘choose the one you like’.
Coming from a family that treats meal time with the same reverence as many would a church service, I have been fortunate to encounter some amazing food and wines. But as we eat and drink our way through Italy, one thing has become increasingly clear: learning the stories behind the wines, seeing where they come from, and meeting the people that created them imparts a special quality on each and every bottle. Even using the same grapes, and following all the same DOC regulations, vineyards all have a slightly different way of doing things, and it shows in their wines. While we may not remember the exact name of every bottle we’ve tried (especially after the second or third), our faces will always light up when we recognize a label, a vineyard we’ve been to, or recount the stories of an afternoon lost together in a tasting room – and this is an experience we want to share with you.
On Friday evenings, Via Umbria is serving dinners CYOB (Choose Your Own Bottle). A step up from your typical BYOB, we encourage you to come a few minutes before your meal, and talk and taste with our wine staff to pick the perfect bottle for both you and your meal (at retail prices!) We’re excited for the opportunity to show you some of our unique bottles, all of which come from small production vineyards throughout Italy, tell you the stories behind them, and help you explore our selection to pick out something that you’re going to love. With nearly 100 distinct bottles to choose from, we’re sure we’ve got something for every palate. Our selection may not be considered typical; everything that we have, we have because we enjoy drinking it and we enjoy talking about it, and it’s meant to be interesting and accessible. You don’t have to know anything about tasting notes, wine regions, or Italian grapes, to enjoy these wines – although it’s great if you do. What’s most important to us in a bottle of wine is that you like it. Plain and simple.
So come join us for dinner at our Ristorante on Fridays, choose your bottle of wine (CYOB), and let’s head upstairs to share a meal. After all, drinking wine is great, but drinking great wine with great food is even better.
There are few tasks more daunting than choosing a bottle of wine at a restaurant. Whether you’re an Everyday Enthusiast or simply ...