On a beautiful fall morning with crisp cool air and a deep blue sky we start our morning off with a walking tour of one of our favorite Umbrian cities, Perugia. And we love Perugia not just because it is the name of our favorite drinking game, but because of the sweep of its history, from Etruscan to the Roman to medieval
powerhouse to a center of the renaissance. And today it is so much more than a museum, it is a living breathing city, one that happens to be breathing cool, crisp autumn air with hints of chocolate. For Perugia is the home of Perugina, a historic chocolate company where we will be making chocolates later in the day. And Perugia is host of the annual Eurochocolate festival, which we enjoy after our tour has ended.
Sandwiched in between Perugia and Perugina is our visit to our friend Federico’s winery, Terre Margaritelli in nearby Torgiano. And as wonderful as is the tour of the winery, where we learn of this year’s troubles with a super hot, dry summer that caused the harvest to be advanced by several weeks, as well as Terre Margaritelli’s commitment to organic, sustainable farming, the highlight of the day is lunch in the winery prepared by Federico’s wife Jennifer.
For anyone who doesn’t know the background – Jennifer, Federico and their two children flew to the states last December before Christmas for a work vacation. Plans included catching up with family and friends in the states, promoting Federico’s wines and olive oil and for Jennifer to showcase her talent in Via Umbria’s kitchen, followed by a well deserved 10 days in the Caribbean.
For all of our Umbrian friends – cooking at Via Umbria is easy, its natural. Where many American chefs see a small, impossible kitchen to cook in – our Italian Chefs see an open space where they can create anything. Unfortunately while we are away enjoying that Caribbean vacation our Chef has decided that ours is not the right kitchen and gives her notice.
So – after 10 beautiful days in the sun, as the Bibi family is packing their bags to return to Italy I invite Jennifer out for drinks and ask the impossible. “Any chance you can come back to DC and cook for us for a couple of weeks while we find a Chef?” My powers of pursuasion must be good, or maybe Jennifer is just a good friend, but in any case she agrees to help out and we scramble to rearrange plans, call, beg and plead to find a space in school for the children, and two days later we are back in Washington with Jennifer at the helm of Via Umbria’s kitchen.
Days turn into weeks, weeks turn into a month, a month turns into months. Every week we change the return on the ticket. Facebook posts starts appearing (probably written by Federico) – Free Jennifer! Free Jennifer! T-shirts are made for the entire staff. And finally we find Chef Liam, someone we can trust to manage the kitchen at Via Umbria and Jennifer is finally paroled, returning after three months to Italy to her family.
Today’s lunch is our chance to see Jennifer back in her element. In the world she has created for herself in Umbria. We sit back and relax. Enjoying a meal – created in a tiny kitchen no bigger than the one at Via Umbria – that captures our favorite Umbrian flavors and experiences.
Cured meats and cheeses Baked stuffed zucchini flowers Rocciata stuffed with cauliflower and greens Homemade hot peppers Porchetta (of course)
All of this is washed down with a parade of Federico’s wines, making our afternoon in Torgiano not only relaxing but delicious.
We may miss Jennifer back in Washington, but on a magic day here in Italy, we’re glad we freed her to come back to her new native land.
“A truffle is the fruiting body of a subterranean Ascomycete fungus, predominantly one of the many species of the genus Tuber. Truffles are ectomycorrhizal fungi and are therefore usually found in close association with tree roots. Spore dispersal is accomplished through fungivores, animals that eat fungi”
Today we met Pippo – a truffle dog who has served his master well the last 13 years. He was a champion white truffle hunter but is getting a bit white himself around the snout and beginning to slow down. Not quite ready to retire, his owner has farmed him out as a black truffle hunter, a challenging job but not quite as physically exhausting as hunting the rarer white truffle. Pippo makes a great black truffle hunter. For Pippo hunting for truffles is an adventure, a job you can see that he enjoys. Its pretty simple, go for a walk with your master. Keep your nose to the ground constantly sniffing, searching for the scent of a truffle that is released when the truffle is ripe. Dig up the ground – gently but diligently. Dig deep until you find the truffle and then wait patiently for your reward – not the truffle but a treat from your master. For Pippo the truffle the hunt is a game.
In hunting for truffles the hunter is important but the dog is key. Without the dog you simply cannot find truffles. Truffles grow underground and while they sometimes leave clues as to their whereabouts above ground, they can’t reliably be spotted. Although they’re called tubers, they aren’t like a potato where you can see the plant above them. Truffles truly have to be sniffed out. Which is where Pippo comes in.
Returning to the home of our hosts for the day, the Bianconis, we meet their other dog – Eddie. Eddie is a high energy dog who as a puppy was always getting into trouble. A loveable naughty dog with needle-like teeth and a disposition to nip. How many times in a day can you say “Eddie, No.” Watching Eddie while enjoying our truffle feast, Gavin, sitting next to me points out that Eddie is having all of the fun while Pippo got to do all the work.
While work is fun for Pippo it still is work. He has been working his entire life and is now one step away from retiring. He gets well taken care of and he gets to eat, or at least smell truffles everyday. He is one happy dog.
Eddie has never worked a day in his life. He could have been trained as a truffle dog – but he wasn’t focused and pretty much not interested. His reward? He gets well taken care of and gets to eats truffles every day. He is one happy dog.
We had a very succesful day today – we found about €600 worth of black truffles. Or should we say Pippo found about €600 worth of truffles and we sat back and enjoyed them.
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.
I love a surprise as much as anyone (especially if its diamonds) but sometimes the best part of something is the anticipation. For our Fall Harvest tour in Umbria I love the planning, the packing, the reading and rereading of the itinerary. Imagining the sights, sounds and smells we will be enjoying. Anticipating the highs and the lows. Preparing for all types of weather – does packing an umbrella really give you a better chance of clear skies? Better not take the risk – throw it in.
Talk about anticipation – we have been talking with this week’s group for 4 years trying to get a date on the calendar for their Fall Food & Wine Tour. Bill and I have been working around the clock with Marco and Chiara putting together a week that captures all of our fall favorites. We work with each other to create a schedule that gives a full day with a little bit of flexibility to find new adventures along the way. Our challenge isn’t what to do – it’s how to do everything. So many people to meet, foods to eat and wines to discover.
This week is a reunion for us. Catching up with Italian friends who are now part of our family. Sharing stories of weeks past and planning for more adventures ahead. Every stop this week includes friends who have shared experiences with us right here but also outside of their hometown, outside of Italy. So stay tuned for new stories with old friends.
And stay right here ’cause these are the good old days.
I was fortunate to be born to two amazing people. My parents raised all of us to be confident that we could do anything and to always feel comfortable speaking up. We enjoyed dinner together every night with lively discussions around the table. As children we were meant to be seen and heard.
My parents were leaders in all they did and they passed on a strong sense of family and community to all of us. My mother came from a large family – I have 41 first cousins on her side. Whether it meant babysitting for my younger cousins for free or having family live with us in hard times – we took care of each other. We always had room for everyone My mother would throw huge elaborate parties for business and for us kids. We loved hearing a knock on the door signalling that someone was driving by and wanted to drop in. We never ran out of food at the table or space for someone who needed to crash. Sometimes as an adult it is tough staying friends with my relatives on Facebook – but the memories of playing football and cards together balances out their crazy political positions.
My father was the youngest state senator ever elected to office in Iowa and went on to hold many political positions and ran for Governor in the ‘70’s. We knew from a young age that our behavior would reflect on our parents. It was not an option for us to misbehave or get into trouble. So minor infractions like being 5 minutes late on curfew or neglecting to unload the dishwasher were the biggest trouble we got into (boy were my folks lucky). As Iowans we were used to seeing all of the presidential candidates around town – as Worthington’s we were used to seeing all the Democratic candidates around our kitchen table. Dad was pretty influential and it was important to get his early support. So while other kids would be playing video games (like Pong) I was knocking on doors collecting peanuts for Carter.
My passion for politics lead me to DC. I loved Iowa, but after visiting Georgetown as a teen-ager – I knew that DC had my heart. No longer collecting peanuts for Carter – I was part of a new, inspired Fundraising team with the audacious goal of raising $12 million for Walter Mondale. The money was raised (really does seem like peanuts today) but unfortunately was not enough and we suffered the biggest political landslide in history. It wasn’t enough to discourage me – and the upside was that I made a best friend who became my husband. The family back in Iowa had heard me talk throughout the election about my buddy Menard – they hadn’t met him but clearly liked him. Toward the end of the campaign when I started talking about my new boyfriend Bill – there was some slight hesitation and disappointment. Cleared up easily when I started referring to my new beau as Bill Menard. At least something good came out of that election
We continued to work in politics and made many friends over our wins and losses. Today it is strange to see friends we knew in their 20’s & 30’s become Top Level Advisors and Party Leaders.
After much thought we decided to start a family in Washington – we were both hooked on the city. Austin was born the summer after our big Dukakis loss (again – at least something good came out of that election!) We decided to take a break from politics – Bill started at Georgetown Law and I decided to stay home with Austin. I have always felt fortunate that I had the choice of working outside of the home or staying home. I was one happy housewife. Lindsey was born just shy of Austin’s second birthday. We had two great kids, Bill was working at a big firm downtown, we were making new friends in our neighborhood. Life was Good. Why not make it better – we had always talked about having a big family with the number of kids ever changing – but we definitely wanted to have more. We were surprised, frightened and excited when we discovered that we were expecting twins. Identical boys – Teddy and Davis.
Bringing the twins home to a house with a three year old and not quite five year old was probably the most daunting task of my life. But as always we settled into a routine that worked. With so many children running around there was no chance of just one of us raising the children – it was all hands on deck. If someone offered to help out I never said no. Bill has always been a great dad and involved in the kids lives. Its truly been a partnership raising our kids.
We have had several adventures in Italy over the years. After Bill’s first year at law school he signed up for summer school in Florence. We had a little apartment on the other side of the Arno. Bill would take the bus to Fiesole to study American Constitutional Law in the mornings and Austin and I would explore Florence. Visiting the parks and public pool, shopping and eating a lot of Gelato. Bill would finish class and we would leave Austin home with my cousing who was traveling with us and Bill and I would go out discovering Florence. Over the three months there we met several Italian friends who we are still in touch with today. Bill proudly graduated Law school with Lindsey on his shoulder a proud father and JD.
When the twins were turning 5 we took all four children to Italy. We were in the Cinque Terre and took cooking classes with a local Chef who was fabulous. It was the early stages of the internet and he was a big early believer. He promoted his courses with great success online and wanted to set up a small company where he could provide extra virgin olive oil, traditional balsamic vinegar and coffee to his clients in the states. Always looking for a challenge – we immediately agreed to work with him and went through the process of figuring out how to import food products from Italy.
When this hobby turned into more of a full time responsibility we had the option to shut down or go all in with a bricks and mortar store. Never one to walk away from a challenge we set our sights high and joined forces with good friends to open up Bella Italia in Bethesda. Now we were really learning how to import products from Italy.
Our trips to Italy became more focused and we travelled throughout Italy finding new products and meeting new families who were passionate about their craft. Eating, drinking, and shopping became my full time job. The more we travelled the more people we met and the more we became rooted in Umbria. Several of the artists we were doing business with had become part of our family. All trips to Italy had a stop in Umbria. When we decided to buy a home in Italy – there was no doubt that we would buy in Umbria. And as a result our Italian family has expanded. Zia Augusta joined us for Teddy’s graduation, our oldest son Simone calls me Mommy, and of course we practically kidnapped Jennifer and her two children last spring when we were short in the kitchen. When we visit in Italy we have friends and neighbors (our family) who will drop by with a piece of cheese they saw at the market and wanted to make sure we had an opportunity to try or stop by for a drink and stay for dinner.
Our summer dinner parties in Italy are a blast – often introducing our Italian neighbors to each other. Their talents, their commitment to their art, their promise to continuing tradition is inspiring and makes us return to DC wanting to shout from the rooftops – come and see what these amazing people have done.
I am fortunate to have met my partner in life at a young age. Hard to believe it will be 32 years in December. Raising four kids together was a challenge – running a business 24/7 is an even bigger challenge! Only possible remembering at the end of the day we love each other and we love what we do.
Anyone who knows me knows that I use a lot of inappropriate words. The only word to me that is truly inappropriate is NO. When we began the buildout of Via Umbria our vision was confusing to others. Contractors and Architects are used to cookie cutter projects – is it a Restaurant? Is it a Market? Is it a Cafe? Can you sell wine? By design we are a bit of everything – an Italian Village under one roof. It truly is the reflection of all of our many amazing experiences in Italy and a tribute to the incredible artisans, chefs, winemakers, and people we have met there. It took a lot of patience and a lot of guidance to create the feel that we wanted. And then came the permitting – DC is definitely used to cookie cutter projects and there is no permit for “Italian Village under one roof”. But we knew what we wanted to create and weren’t willing to give up until we found the permits that we needed.
Now the task of building a team to work with us who shared our vision. Finding a team who believe in what we are doing is no easy task. But over time and with a lot of on the spot learning we have created our Italian home in Georgetown. Going from Bethesda with a staff of 4-5 to Georgetown with a staff of 40 was a challenge.
Walking into the store today puts a smile on my face – I am greeted with a Buongiorno and I see people taking care of people. I love the people I work with.
Via Umbria is a family business. Our kids are all involved in some way. The boys clock in when they are in town visiting and they spent two weeks this summer travelling around Italy with Bill meeting old friends and discovering new producers. Our daughter Lindsey works with us full time. Who better to look out for the store than family? Lindsey grew up visiting Italy, she knows the families and she definitely knows the products. She is my daughter and my best friend. She is the perfect sounding board. She is my fashion consultant and my voice of reason. She is a talented young woman and I feel blessed to have her running the business alongside us.
Suzy’s Words of Wisdom:
Think outside the box
Treat people with respect
Everyone is family
Set Expectations High
Speak your mind
Always take the risk
Love with your whole heart
Never say No
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org. They speak English. Do it for yourself.
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.
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.
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!
Italians take everything chocolate very seriously – and Easter eggs are no exception. Long before Christianity adopted the egg as a part of Easter traditions, ancient Romans had already established it as the symbol of new birth. They were huge believers of “omne vivum ex ovo” – that all life comes from the egg. In order to celebrate the new birth after winter, they would decorate eggs with various vegetable dyes (made from onion skins, beets and carrots) then gift them to each other during spring festivals.
The tradition of Easter eggs continued to be an important part of the Italian culture, with increasing popularity over time. Due to the fact that neither meat nor dairy products can be eaten during Lent, as a way to minimize food waste the habit of hard boiling the eggs and painting them was adopted. Even though the original tradition was to color the hard boiled eggs in red – which symbolized the blood of Christ and His resurrection – today Italian Easter Eggs are large chocolate eggs decorated with colorful food dyes and fancy decorative items.
During the Easter season, almost every shop in Italy decorates their store fronts with colorful chocolate eggs and just about every candy brand launches their Easter chocolate eggs in various sizes, colors and prices. If you are lucky enough to be in Italy during Easter time, definitely stop by the Palazzo delle Esposizioni, Via Milano 9 to see their annual Art of Easter Eggs Exhibition full of specially crafted pieces inspired by the Italian Easter Eggs.
But there is no need to worry if you want to stay home for Easter to celebrate it with your family, relatives and friends. In fact, Italians have figured out a way to satisfy your cravings with authentic Italian chocolate even when you are thousands miles away from Italy: Kinder Surprise! Yes- unlike the general public’s assumption Kinder Surprise is in fact Italian, made by the successful family company Ferrero, and sells their Kinder Eggs all over the world as one of their best-seller item. Believe us, their chocolate recipe is approved by all the children in the world.
Want to get even fancier this Easter? Stop in the store to check out our special counter full of Italian Easter cakes, various baskets and colorful chocolate eggs to bring home! Or join us for our Chocolate Making Class to get your hands messy by making and decorating your own traditional Italian chocolate egg!
“Suzy, please don’t say thank you”. Not words I am used to hearing. When Giampaolo first says this to me, I am a bit startled. And then I think for a minute – thank you is an easy expression – I use it a dozen times a day. Giampaolo doesn’t want to be thanked – he is simply enjoying spending time together – to him this is nothing extraordinary and no reason to be thanked. “Don’t mention it – this is what we do.”
And what they do is spectacular. Over the last couple of years Giampaolo has expanded his cantina into a show stopping beauty. With high ceilings and miles of space to store his wine, a tour of the cantina is endless. And his wines are fantastic.
We arrive for lunch on a beautiful spring day straight out of central casting. The sun is shining high in the sky, a gentle breeze is blowing across the terrace and there is a beautiful, clear view. I arrive a few minutes behind the group and everyone is animatedly talking on the terrace – drinking one of Giampaolo’s collection of sparkling wines.
Today’s lunch is not about showcasing Tabarrini wines – he knows we are all big fans already. Today we are dipping into his private cellar and drinking wines that he has been given or collected over the years. We start with a beautiful Sicilian wine – only 10,000 bottles are produced each year. This one has been aging in the cellar and is extraordinary… Daniele and Teddy pop into the cellar and return with a big Primitivo from Puglia. A friend of Giampaolo’s makes this wine and it holds up perfectly with the beautiful guinea fowl we are eating.
Our visit to the winery today is also a reunion. Giampaolo’s mother Franca had made her first trip to the US in December and spent two days with us at Via Umbria cooking amazing dinners to serve with the Tabarrini wine. Franca comes out of the kitchen to say hello and to kindly let us know that whenever we are ready – her bags are packed.
So we enjoy a beautiful lunch and as we are leaving we pause on the steps to sit for just a minute to enjoy the day and of course more wine is poured and Giampaolo decides that his work in the field is done for the day. We don’t need a facebook memory for this day – the fresh air, the laughter and wine all bring back memories of people and place – of a day enjoyed two years ago that perfectly mirrors today. Two hours later we say our good byes and leave.
But it’s not really good-bye because we are meeting up on Saturday in Verona to taste wine and enjoy another meal together. Don’t mention it – this is what we do.
Looking over the week’s itinerary I realize there is a glaring gap – no time to spend in Deruta. How can this be? It takes a little creative juggling and we add in a morning at Geribi Studio without taking away from anything else.
Bill has recently taken up yoga. He really enjoys the peace and calm and the opportunity to escape and unwind. He asks me to join him and I remind him that peace and calm aren’t really my thing. Escaping and unwinding is difficult for me. I’ve done yoga in the past but found myself constantly checking my watch, using the meditative time to freak out about things undone and worst of all falling asleep on the mat. When it comes to escaping and unwinding – yoga for Bill and Gerardo’s studio for me.
This is where I can relax. My hand is not steady, my eye is not creative – but I am not here for perfection I’m here to work with my hands. To spend a couple of hours unwinding, escaping, living in the moment and watching a blank plate turn into my own creation.
Guests often panic when they sit down to paint. The Ribigini family is so talented it is hard to imagine recreating anything close to what they do. But of course this is a talent that comes from hours and hours, years and years of practice.
I’ve made the mistake before of looking at designs and thinking that they would be easy – but all the detail, the small thin lines – not as easy as they look. Today I sit down confidently. I have finally figured out the perfect balance of powdered color to water. And that is a pretty major key to painting in Deruta.
I look at the graphite dotting the page and look at the hundreds of plates surrounding me and decide where I want to make my adjustments. Of course I want to paint the peacock feather – but now I get to decide where I make straight lines and where I add scallops – where I add the pomegranate seeds or the round circles. Sticking with the familiar but wanting to try something a little bit new.
When we first met Gerardo and Asunta 20 years ago we immediately fell in love with their designs. The blues and yellows in their geometric designs and the beautiful green peacock feathers. Over the years the designs have expanded – adding a beautiful lemon design with a dark blue background evolving into an array of fruits with backgrounds of black and red and eventually lavender, burgundy and light blue. When their daughter Claudia starting working in the studio she introduced a more modern twist – bold oranges and blues and soft pastels of pink and green and lavendar. When I first saw the new colors – I was of a mind that these were not for me. But my children fell in love with them immediately. So a new color palate for a new generation. Over the years the colors have grown on me. And today I choose a pink for the first time. Who says an old dog can’t learn a new trick?
And we spend the morning painting, laughing, scraping away mistakes easily with a small knife. And we talk about what we are doing and how and where we are going to show case our pieces. Most importantly we discuss what we will do if they aren’t perfect (a likely event). And we leave Gerardo’s studio with our new life motto, “Hang it high or cover it with cheese.”