There isn’t a single event at Via Umbria that I don’t look forward to but the Ivy City Smoked Salmon tasting particularly piqued my interest. I know I’m not alone that for me and my family, smoked salmon is a kind of simple luxury. We enjoy smoked salmon by itself as a snack or for breakfast in our bagels or for dinner in a salad or a pasta. Our affinity for smoked salmon can let us tell you that not all brands are created equal which made Ivy City’s appearance much more intriguing.
It was an intimate event which fostered intimate connections. I was seated next to some Via Umbria regulars, and by regulars I mean almost daily customers, whom I had been acquainted with before. As always, conversation flowed freely while we noshed samples of five of Ivy City’s smoked fish paired with a variety of spreads, my favorite of which was a creamy goat’s milk butter. An Ivy City rep explained to us the kinds of salmon we would be tasting which was an educational experience in and of itself. I did not even know there was such a thing as hot and cold smoking!
The salmon itself was divine which makes it no surprise that Via Umbria has started carrying it. Three in particular stood out to me; the traditional smoked salmon was superb and as someone who appreciates the classics, I wondered as soon as it hit my lips if there was any way I could send this to my mother who lives 2,000 miles away. This is the kind of salmon that you want on a Sunday morning when you want to feel decadent without leaving the comfort of your home. The other two surprised me, one that had hints of dill and the Ivy City signature “Salmon Candy” which carried notes of honey without being overly sweet. The savoriness of the salmon and the honey played so well together that I only wish I could have more.
If you missed the tasting and are in the neighborhood please stop by to take a look at the Ivy City products Via Umbria has started carrying. You will never regret an opportunity to let what Via Umbria has to offer meet your taste buds.
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.
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.
Ready to pack your masks and fly to Venice? No worries if you can’t make it to the other end of the world for a weekend, because we are here to give you the real Carnevale experience (without the long flight)!
To give a little bit of background, Carnevale is the final celebration before Lent starts on Ash Wednesday. During the 40 days of Lent, many Christians commit to fasting or giving up certain types of luxuries as a form of penance – hence, people have to get rid of all of their rich food and drink (and partying of course!) out of the way before then. In fact, it is often rumored that the word Carnevale itself may have derived from the Latin words “carne” and “vale”, meaning “farewell to meat”!
Although there have been some interruptions and political bans throughout years, Italians started celebrating Carnevale in the 13th century. Traditionally, the fanciest and most glamorous celebrations take place in Ivrea, Viareggio, Putignano, Acireale and -of course- in Venezia! Today, Carnevale di Venezia is celebrated for two weeks by about 3 million tourists from all over the world, and is best known for its elegant masks. Even though many events- especially the most glamorous masquerade balls- are invite only and have expensive ticket prices, many others such as the concerts and street performances are free and open to public.
Have you already started feeling upset that you are missing this exciting and trendy festival? There is no reason to! Luckily, Via Umbria is hosting a Carnevale Celebration, a raucous party featuring all-you-can-eat Carnevale foods and special Carnevale cocktails. Join us for food, fun and masquerade and cut loose as we count down the days toward Lent.
You guys. I have a serious relationship with British cheeses. This will come as no shock to those of you who have either read my blog posts or visited my counter – I’ve made my love known far and wide. Growing up with an English mother whose parents had a farm in the Yorkshire Dales, it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out where the roots of this relationship formed. Couple that with Via Umbria’s partnership with famed British cheese shop/affineur/exporter, Neal’s Yard Dairy – a partnership that has given me and my lovely customers access to the best that Britain has to offer – and my love of these curds from the UK has damn near become an obsession.
A very large portion of this love is dedicated to the one cheese that opened my eyes to the wonders of blue mold – Stilton. Creamy yet crumbly, powerful yet approachable, good on its own or incorporated into recipes, this beautiful blue cheese was my gateway blue. And no time of year makes me crave it more than holiday time.
Growing up, my family and I would celebrate Christmas with my English grandparents. My sisters and I looked forward to it for months – an hours-long feast that included caviar canapes, duck à l’orange or roasted pheasant, my granny’s famous roasted potatoes, and Christmas pudding served with copious amounts of rum butter. The meal was so lengthy and full of so many delicious things, that we’d have to play games between courses in order to make room for the next culinary delight. As with many a British Christmas, however, no Christmas meal was complete without a very large hunk of Stilton served with port. It was heaven.
So what is Stilton? Named for the town of Stilton, this quintessentially British cheese can trace its roots all the way back to the 18th century, although research shows that it was a very different product then than it is now. The first descriptions of Stilton cheese describe it as more of a cream cheese with no blue veining whatsoever. Over time, however, it evolved into the classic blue beauty that we know and love today.
Now a protected food, there are restrictions on cheeses that bear the Stilton name – it must be produced in one of three counties (either Derbyshire, Nottinghamshire, or Leicestershire), be made with local pasteurized milk, have a naturally rinded cylindrical shape, not be pressed, and of course, have blue veins. Even if a wheel meets all of these requirements, however, it still may not make the cut. Every wheel must be graded and pass a quality test before being dubbed “Stilton”. If a wheel doesn’t pass muster, it must be sold simply as “blue cheese”.
Even though about a million wheels of Stilton are made every year, there are only six dairies that are licensed to make this classic blue. At Via Umbria, our Stiltons are made by Colston Bassett Dairy in Nottinghamshire, and hand selected by our friends at Neal’s Yard Dairy. Founded in 1913, Colston Bassett has been making Stilton for over 100 years, and has only had 4 different cheesemakers during that period. As Jason Hinds, Sales Director at Neal’s Yard Dairy, puts it, “With only four cheesemakers in the last one hundred years, Colston Bassett has maintained a tradition and quality of cheesemaking that is unparalleled in the Stilton world. It is the only Stilton that Neal’s Yard Dairy has carried for the last thirty three years.” And if it’s good enough for Jason Hinds, you better believe that you have a seriously good cheese on your hands.
All of this to say: Colston Bassett Stilton is Via Umbria’s December cheese of the month! Come and join us next Wednesday at 7:30pm for our December Cheese Party, and jump into the holiday season by tasting this fantastic piece of British tradition.
So you guys, it’s official – summer is finally over. And I, for one, am THRILLED. Don’t get me wrong – I love me some 4th of July fireworks, grilled meats, and summer-only cheeses paired with some gorgeous tomatoes or cucumbers. Those are all lovely things. Add in some chilled rose, and I’m a pretty darn happy camper.
All that being said, I decidedly do not love the hot, sticky, sweaty, mosquito-y weather that DC calls summertime. Holy moly. Don’t get me wrong, I really do love living here, but this little swamp-town known as our nation’s capitol is pretty darn unbearable from June until about halfway through October. Woof.
But it’s over! It’s finally over! And with the weather graciously subsiding, not only are wardrobes changing – oh hey there sweaters, scarves, and boots! – but tastebuds are starting to change as well. When the temperature starts dropping and leaves start falling, bigger, bolder flavors that are just too darn much in the oppressive heat suddenly seem incredibly appealing.
Which leads me to one of my all-time favorite cheeses: aged gouda. For me, fall means it’s time for some butterscotchy, nutty, salty/sweet aged gouda. And no one does aged gouda better than L’Amuse.
Let me back up for a moment – what is gouda? Strictly speaking, gouda is a cow’s milk cheese made with washed curds that traditionally hails from the Netherlands. Actually, the name “Gouda” comes from a town of the same name where the cheese was originally traded. This is about as specific as gouda gets, though. The name itself is not protected, so when you see the word “gouda” on a package, it can mean many different things. It can come from different places, be aged for varying degrees of time, be made from different milks – all things that lead to very different flavor profiles and/or textures.
So how do you know if the gouda you’re buying is the right one for you? How do you know you’re not going to end up with plastic wrapped, pre-sliced, rubbery cheese that tastes like fake smoke? My answer is the same one I pretty much give in any cheesy situation: talk to your cheesemonger. It’s our job to find the best cheeses around and then pair you with the right one.
Now, some of you may be asking yourselves – but how do we find these delicious cheeses? Well, in the case of the gouda that I carry, the answer is simple: I turn to Essex St. Cheese Co. For those of you who read my blog post about feta way back in July, that name will sound familiar – this team of fantastic importers provides the Via Umbria counter with their fabulous feta, as well as manchego, and gouda. To refresh you guys on what Essex St. does, I turn to my previous post: “Rather than importing many different types of cheese, Essex finds the best of the best and brings in only a handful of cheeses, with each type only having one producer. Their bar is extremely high.”
Not only is this high bar met, but I dare say that it’s exceeded by the goudas coming out of L’Amuse Fromagerie in Santpoort-Noord. L’Amuse is owned and operated by master-cheesemonger and affineur Betty Koster – I had the privilege of meeting Betty during CMI and not only is she amazing at what she does, but she can also only be described as thoroughly warm and decidedly delightful.
But back to the cheese – for their Signature Gouda, the L’Amuse team hand-selects cheeses from the Cono cheesemaking plant in the northern Netherlands, and then ages them to perfection over the course of 2 years. Instead of aging them at cooler temperatures, as is done with most traditionally aged goudas, Betty keeps them at mid-temperature in order to develop fully rounded flavors. And oh man, what flavors develop! Butterscotch, caramel, toasted hazelnuts, and cream are all ensconced in this dense yet velvety paste.
In case you hadn’t already guessed it, L’Amuse Signature Gouda will be Via Umbria’s November cheese of the month, and I couldn’t be more excited! Please join us for our monthly Cheese Party next Wednesday, November 2nd, to not only taste this unbelievable cheese, but to also learn about it from Essex St. educational director, the wonderful and talented Rachel Juhl! It’s going to be a fantastic evening that you don’t want to miss.
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.
“Et tu Brute?” I gasp dramatically, clutching my chest and looking wistfully out as I collapse on the steps of the Roman senate, taking the fabled and famed Shakespearean line and bringing it to vivid and dramatic life. Or at least I thought so.
When I graduated from college, I took some time off to travel across Europe. One of my stops was Rome, and on a walking tour with people from my hostel, the tour guide mentioned that these were the steps where Julius Caesar was thought to have been stabbed. Now, I couldn’t very well pass up that opportunity, and so, clearly, I didn’t. Theatrical deaths had always been this English major’s personal favorite after all.
Fast forward four years and here I am, at Via Umbria, taking part in a Roman-themed murder mystery dinner party. And what a party it was! True to form, I got to play an intriguing character (I won’t name any names), who so luckily for me was that unlucky soul cruelly murdered halfway through dinner. I took my cue (the lights shutting off), and once more allowed my inner diva to take over as I fell to the floor, pausing momentarily to gasp, one hand pressed to my heart, the other reaching forward as my laurel wreath fell off my head.
My flair for the dramatic however, was more than topped by the amazing guests we had turn up to last Tuesday’s “Terror in a Toga” murder mystery dinner party. False identities, three courses of feasting and feuding, and head-to-toe Roman garb made this dinner party a night to remember. As we sat at the table, fully enthralled with the characters around us, we experienced this story come to life with each accusation, question, or declaration of love and fealty. Accompanying this plot of intrigue was a meal worthy of the Roman Senate, and the only time there was silence on this raucous evening was when the food momentarily pulled us away from the ‘whodunnit?’of it all.
Bribery (with our Roman coins), backstabbing and bardic soliloquies were strongly encouraged, and very well received. This evening thrived because the guests were toga-lly down to party ancient Roman style: with delicious food, gladiator fights and of course a healthy dose of intrigue.
So, what do you get when you mix a room full of strangers with false identities, good food and a selection of Italian wines to dazzle? Your new favorite Tuesday night activity of course! For those of you who missed it this time around, definitely keep your eye on our calendar for the next Murder Mystery Dinner Party, and sign up to get your chance to act, eat and laugh your heart out. Maybe if you’re lucky, you’ll even get a chance to one-up my delightfully dramatic dying skills. Maybe.
Hamburgers–where do I begin? I could try to define one, but I’d probably get bogged down in some long-winded debate filled with righteous anger over whether or not a hamburger is a sandwich or not (which, for the record, it is). Instead, let’s start with the fact that because of its name we know where it comes from: Hamburg, Germany… except, not really. While it is true that in Hamburg, at least at that time, ground beef patties were common, they were not typically eaten between slices of bread, or inside of a bun. Then, with German immigration into the United States, people from Hamburg (who, incidentally would be called Hamburgers in German) brought with them this patty tradition and adapted it in their new homes, by putting on bread and topping it with cheese, vegetables, and other goodies. (As an aside, this is one of my favorite methods of “American adaptations” to foreign cuisine: taking someone else’s food and putting it between slices of bread. Next time you’re chomping down on your Philly-style Italian hoagie, or your New Orleans muffaletta, think about the lovely antipasti plate your sandwich could have been!) Of course, the burger exploded in a way the muffaletta did not. From dollar menu “burgers” at McDonalds, to the late night burgers at your local brewpub, to the myriad of trendy fast casual chains with names that must have been funny to someone, you can find a hamburger anywhere, topped with anything, and at just about any level of quality imaginable.
That begs the question, what makes a burger good? An easy trap to fall into is to assume that a burger is as good as its toppings. Sure, good toppings can cover up cheap meat, and make for a decent sandwich, but for a truly balanced burger: don’t forget the meat! When it’s all said and done, the better the quality of your meat, the less you have to do to make it taste good. Go to a butcher shop that you trust and get freshly ground beef. Now, I could go on and on about the best cuts of meat to grind for a burger–for burger week this year we are using a blend of chuck, brisket, and short rib–and you should always feel free to ask your butcher what is best, but at the end of the day all of that is pretty subjective. As long as you have good quality beef and take care when making your patties you’re set. Speaking of proper patty etiquette, I only have one rule for myself when formatting the patties: keep the meat as tight as possible. That means rolling out meatballs that hold together and have composition before “smashing” them into patties. Other than that, get creative! Whether or not you season the ground meat before forming the patties, and whatever you choose to top it with is up to you; do what you like!
Our #DCBurgerWeek special this year is something we are excited about. In keeping with our own theme for the week, Südtirol/Alto Adige, we decided to top our burger with Speck, the iconic smoked and dry cured ham of the mountain region. With that, we did the excellent pairing of taleggio cheese and some caramelized onions to round it out the flavors with some sweetness. When we were experimenting with flavors and pairings, however, there was still something missing. The solution? Smoking our ground beef. Not only does this add a unique flavor punch to our burger, but it really compliments and highlights the Speck, so that no part of our burger gets lost in the composition. It’s awesome. Don’t just take our word for it though–come in and try one for yourself!
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.
As some of you may remember, I wrote a post a few weeks ago about competing in the Cheesemonger Invitational (CMI) – a cheesemonger competition held twice a year, once in New York and once in San Francisco. Well, this summer’s CMI has come and gone, and I only have one thing to say about it – it was a truly incredible, inspirational, and humbling experience that I feel so lucky to have been a part of. It was fascinating, terrifying, and I absolutely loved it.
Okay, I lied. I have way more than one thing to say about it. Let me set the stage for you: Fifty of the curd-nerdiest cheesemongers from all over the country – from Vermont to Louisiana, New Mexico to Chicago – converged upon the Larkin Cold Storage facility in Long Island City, Queens. There were people from myriad backgrounds – some who had been working in cheese for 10 or 15 years, and some who had been in the game for only a few weeks. Some work at really well known, long-standing places like Murray’s in New York, DiBruno Brothers in Philadelphia, and Neal’s Yard Dairy in London, and others work at much smaller, newer counters. Many people had competed before, and a few of us hadn’t. Regardless of our differences, the camaraderie felt between all of us was amazing – everyone there loved their job and couldn’t wait to geek out with a bunch of other passionate people who spoke their language.
The first day was an education day where we spent 8 hours in small groups talking to cheese producers – farmers, cheese makers, affineurs, importers, and everybody in between. There were people from Neal’s Yard Dairy, Jasper Hill Farm, Vermont Creamery, as well as the producers of the Manchego, Gruyere, Comte, Cravero Parmigiano-Reggiano, and many of the Swiss cheeses that Via Umbria has at our counter. There was a lot of discussion about tradition and culture, but also a ton of hard science – chemistry and biology talk about various bacterias, microbial processes, and the like. It was really incredible access to people who are generally pretty inaccessible. By the end of the day, all of our brains were full enough to burst.
The second day, Saturday, was the competition – nine preliminary challenges, followed by five final challenges for the top six competitors. Everyone was extremely nervous – I got to Larkin a full half an hour early, thinking that I would beat the crowd and settle in, but found that about half of the competitors had had the same idea. As on edge as we all were, however, the feeling in the room was nothing but supportive. For me, this was the best part of the whole event – everyone was there to cheer on their peers and help each other out. For example, the edible flowers that I brought for the Perfect Plate Challenge got soaked in ice water the night before competition, which rendered them completely useless. Another cheesemonger heard about my plight and gave me a whole bunch of extra flowers that she had brought for herself so that I could complete my plate.
The first nine challenges were hard. Really, really, REALLY hard. There was a written test, blind taste test, aroma test, cutting perfect 1/4lb pieces, wrapping in paper, wrapping in plastic, salesmanship, perfect beverage, perfect plating, and perfect bite. It was exhausting and exhilarating, and by the time the crowd of about a thousand got let in for the party and to watch the finals, I was sure that the hard part of my day was over. I was sure that I would be standing in the crowd with my mom, watching the finals. I grabbed a beer and started to relax.
Then they called my name.
I made the finals.
I had not prepared for this.
Sure, I had looked over the handout they’d given us of what the finals would entail, but I had decided to focus on the challenges I knew I was going to have to perform rather than the ones I probably wouldn’t be required to do. All I can say is that it seemed like a solid strategy at the time.
So, I winged it – I got up on stage and had discuss my favorite cheese, come up with a cheese pairing on the fly when given a random accompaniment, talk about a cheese that epitomizes a randomly assigned country or region, cut as many perfect 1/4lbs of cheese as possible off of a large wheel in 60 seconds, and wrap as many small, soft cheeses in paper as possible in 60 seconds. It was exhausting, but I have to say, by the time it was all over, my cheeks ached from how much I was laughing and smiling. It was a blast.
I ended up getting 6th place, which is an unbelievable honor. To be listed under the words “Summer 2016 Champions” on the CMI website literally gives me goosebumps. And to be the first cheesemonger from DC to ever make the finals is just icing on the cake.
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.
When you’re young, a dad can do no wrong. Somewhere along the way to adulthood, many people outgrow this feeling, finally realizing that all of the rules and decisions their parents make are just that—decisions, rules, and beliefs—rather than absolute truths. Luckily for me, my dad, Lorne, was a genuinely awesome person, and I carried that feeling of awe and admiration for him through my teens, into my 20’s and even when I hit 30. He was always my biggest supporter. He taught me from an early age that I could (and should) do anything. Unfortunately, my father passed away 17 years ago. His life ended all too soon, but it was a life lived large and one that I am very thankful to have been a part of.
While I have many reasons to be thankful for my father, one of his greatest gifts was to treat me and my siblings with respect and teach us to hold our own among in a group of adults or peers. Unlike many of my friends and relatives, we definitely were not raised to be seen and not heard (which, to be honest, for a family with as many children as ours was quite a feat). This lesson was especially important because the year I was born, my father became the youngest representative ever elected to the Iowa State Legislature – and so began our life in the spotlight. My father carried his philosophy of raising children beyond his personal life and into his professional life. Even as young children, we weren’t simply trotted out or put on display for special occasions—every day was a special occasion and the whole family was part of the team.
We were involved in his political career. From Representative to State Auditor to Insurance Commissioner, we knew from a young age that what we did and how we behaved reflected not just on us but on our family. While that added a certain responsibility, it was matched with the opportunity to travel around the state with Dad and to join him at dinners and receptions. Note to others: While it may seem like a great idea to sit through a two hour dinner eating nothing but black olives off of your fingers, at a certain point it will make you a very sick girl.
Now, Father’s Day is a day to share with my husband and kids.
I was nervous back in early 1985 when Bill and I visited my father and his wife in New Hampshire, and Lorne invited Bill into the dreaded library. I didn’t have time to warn Bill that all conversations with my family should take place in the kitchen. No good conversations had ever happened in the library – until the day my father took it upon himself to let Bill know that he approved of him as a future son-in-law. Not that Bill was asking.
Raising kids is no easy task and definitely can take its toll, but having twins as baby number three (and surprise baby number four) really put us to the test. I think we both had different impressions of what life would be like with a five year old, a three year old and two new babies: I stocked up on bathrobes and face cream, and Bill started saving stale bread to make croutons and had a new set of golf clubs delivered. Fortunately, both of us were way off the mark. Having twins gave us the freedom and ability to relax, knowing that we couldn’t keep everyone happy at once. And once we relaxed all of the kids were happier. It was a win-win.
Watching Bill’s relationship with our kids has been a great joy. When the kids were little we would wake early every morning to have a quick family breakfast together before school–a guarantee that we would have at least one family meal every day given the hectic nature of our lives. Dinnertime was an opportunity to catch up on everyone’s day, and because of that, it could and often did stretch for hours. It was never a wise move for the kids to save homework because somehow, “I ran out of time because family dinner ran too long” wasn’t considered a valid excuse by any of their teachers.
One of the legacies that Bill’s dad passed on to him was a love for the Boston Red Sox and the Miami Dolphins. Two teams that struggle for victory—but when they win there is much celebration at the Menards. As a Florida native, Dolphins games were a rite of passage for Bill, and he made a point of passing along the tradition. With a season pass that allowed three tickets a game, he would alternate and take two of the kids to the home games at least once a year. A weekend without Mom’s watchful eye would include such forbidden treats as tailgating with Popeye’s fried chicken and throwing a football in the parking lot–with moving cars. It’s a miracle they all survived.
It strikes me as I write this how many memories of my family, both the one I was born into and the one I have raised, have centered around the kitchen, the dining room table, and food in general. What we were eating—from Moms’ pot roast to pizza delivery—never mattered as much as where we were eating it, always seated around the dinner table surrounded by family. For me, that is the tradition that I thank my Father for instilling in me and I thank my husband for indulging me in recreating: making time to spend together, to reflect on the day, to learn about each other’s lives, and to create shared experiences at the table. This is the aspect of our lives that we most want to bring to Via Umbria. Beyond the actual food we serve, beyond the wine we drink, beyond the beautiful ceramics used to serve these things, Via Umbria is a place where people can come together to create their own experiences of family. The greatest compliment we have ever received came one night after dinner in the Laboratorio demonstration kitchen, when a new customer told me, “This place is so comfortable, it feels like being home.” My favorite place to be has always been in the kitchen at the table, and I want to share that place with all of you.
This Father’s day, I will be celebrating with my husband of 30 years, father to our four children, my business partner, and the love of my life, and I am sending a big thank you to my own father Lorne for being such a big part of our life and for setting a high bar for how to be a great dad.