People

Via Umbria’s Very Older Brother

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

 

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

 

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

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

Bridging the Divide

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ci vediamo!
Bill and Suzy

Connecting Italy and America in Georgetown Read more

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

A Personal Appeal!

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

 

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

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

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

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

Bill and Suzy

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Supporting the victims of Italy's earthquake Read more

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

The Day the Earth Shook

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

The after effects of an earthquake in Italy Read more

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

108 Hours in Cannara

108 Hours in Cannara 006Nothing says summer to me like spending a few weeks in Umbria, visiting friends, finding new and interesting products for the store, enjoying Umbria jazz, and, of course, relaxing by the pool. Unfortunately, life doesn’t always work out as planned- a lesson we learned last week during a whirlwind visit to to Cannara. I warn you now, the details of this trip are not for the faint of heart, the easily tired, or the weak of liver- read along at your own risk

Thursday, July 14, 2016

After many days of postponing and rescheduling our trip, we finally made it to the airport, bags in hand, happily seated at our gate, ready for a short but amazing trip to our favorite place only to find out that the flight was delayed. Not just delayed, extremely delayed. By the time we finally (rather crankily) boarded the plane six more hours were gone from our already truncated vacation but we were determined to make the most of it.

Friday, July 15, 2016

108 Hours in Cannara 0056:30pm With our original scheduled arrival time in Rome of 7:24 am we had planned to have lunch with Simone in Bevagna. With the flight delay, however, lunchtime was long gone by the time we left Rome but we beelined for Simone’s anyway (after making a quick stop at Lufra to pick up fresh mozzarella di bufala of course).  We arrived at  le Delizie del Borgo just in time for Spritz O’Clock and spent an hour catching up with our fourth (and favorite) ‘son’ Simone over a platter of salamis and cheese.  

7:30pm When we finally made our way to the Farmhouse, Jennifer McIlvaine and Federico Bibi pulled up behind us with their adorable children, and after a few minutes of excited greetings in the driveway we opted for drinks in the living room.  For those of you suffering through the current east coast heatwave you will find it impossible to believe, but despite being the dead of summer, it was way too cold to sit outside!  

108 Hours in Cannara 002Inside we found Marco and Orusia firing up the pizza oven, and friends of ours from Washington who were staying with us at the Farmhouse soon returned from a day of touring. Not far behind them were our son and his girlfriend whom we picked up at the Foligno train station- the last piece of our group.

Marco outdid himself, as always, and our raucous group enjoyed pie after pie with a bit of spicy bomba and Birra Perugia.  A small taste of Nutella pizza to end the meal.

12:00am No idea what time it was when bedtime finally rolled around but it was definitely  a long day.

 

 

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Saturday, July 16

1:00pm After catching up on our zzzzzs our intrepid group headed to Bevagna for a “light” lunch with Simone.  It was another beautiful day and we happily enjoyed our meal outside in the park.

5:00pm I finally had to give in and take a quick nap while Bill took a group to Foligno on a hunt for a Sicilian pastry shop to satiate a craving for cassata, and a visit to the Granarium (our nearby zero kilometer granary, mill and bakery) for a tour and to buy flour, bread and cookies.

 

7:30pm – It’s a birthday celebration and we have invited several (see below) of our Italian friends to join us.  We were hoping to eat outside, but again it is too cold and the Italians want nothing to do with the chilly, fresh air.  We have Spritz by the pool and then head indoors where Marco has rearranged the dining room to accommodate our small party of 25.  In addition to the group staying with us we are happy to have Gerardo and Assunta Ribigini, Jennifer and Federico (tonight they are senza children), Albertino and Jessica Pardi, Zia Augusta, Alberto, Linda and GianLuca Pardi and Linda’s mother, Federico and Claudia Ribigini and Daniele Sassi.

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108 Hours in Cannara 0018:15pm Everyone has brought wine so we have a selection from Terre Margaritelli, Pardi and Tabarrini to pair with a favorite summer meal – fried sage leaves, onions, zucchini and zucchini blossoms followed by pasta with arugula and walnuts, mixed grill and vegetables from the garden.

10:00pm We have sparklers in the Birthday cake but the real fireworks are outside.  Marco has picked up a fabulous pyrotechnic display and Bill has it matched perfectly to Whitney Houston’s Star Spangled Banner.

Sunday, July 17

6:00am – early departure to Cantina Dionigi for a Hot Air Balloon Ride.  You can read about it here.

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1:00 pm – Lunch in Bevagna with Simone, Marco, Francesco Rustici and his wife Elisa, plus the group at the house.

An opportunity to introduce our guests to our favorite Italian Tradition – Sunday Lunch.  Our children have bravely endured lunches lasting anywhere from 3-7 hours and despite their protests as children they have come to love and expect them.  This is a meal where the food is slowly paced, no electronics are on hand and everyone is engaged in conversation.  

6:00 pm – Not a Menard record – but still an excellent leisurely lunch.

Back to the house with Ombretta’s children Silvia and Tomaso for a quick swim before the sun sets.

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7:00pm – Albertino and Jessica stop by to visit and we make plans for dinner on Tuesday night.

8:00pm – All plans of attending a local wine festival get scratched in favor of setting up the big screen outside and picking up pizza.  Another chilly night so we bundle up and hunker down to watch a movie.

Monday, July 18

108 Hours in Cannara 0099:00am – Up by 9:00 to play cards with Tomaso and Silvia (who have opted to spend the night) and say goodbye to our guests.  

11:00am – The sun is shining and we take a break to sit by the pool and swim with Tomaso and Silvia.

1:00pm – Off to Cantina Tabarrini to see the new renovation – it’s breathtaking.  Giampaolo’s plans and ideas are exhausting but the result is going to be amazing.  We are treated to an excellent meal prepared by Franca and Federica – food fresh from their garden and an introduction to a new label and the latest release of Montefalco Rosso.

6:00pm – Back to the house for a couple of quick business calls and emails – it’s a work day after all.

108 Hours in Cannara 0117:30pm – Dinner at Cantina DiFilippo

Roberto is just back from his winery in Romania but he has the horses all set up for a sunset carriage ride through the vineyard. Elena and Bianca Maria are fantastic hosts and we enjoy a flight of Asiago cheeses and plenty of wines.

Enjoying a beautiful night with friends with Assisi lit up and sparkling in the distance.

Tuesday, July 19

8:00am – Up early to pack and return emails.

1:00pm – Off to lunch at the home of Marco’s parents, Anna and Lodovico Palermi where we are joined by Chiara, Carlo Alberto and Viola and Chiara’s mother Mariella.

3:30pm – Back to the house to Visit with Augusta.

6:00pm – Time to pack up.

108 Hours in Cannara 0127:00pm – Off to Cantina Pardi for a farewell dinner of Jessica’s Korean specialities.  It’s not easy to find all the staples for a Korean feast in the heart of Italy but Jessica makes it all seem simple and delicious.

10:30pm – Quick stop in Bevagna to say goodbye to Simone.  The circle is complete.  We have seen everyone and enjoyed our brief visit.  It’s time to go home and share our experiences, stories and hopefully a few new tastes at Via Umbria.

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Wednesday, July 20

6:00am – Early morning and departure for Rome FCO and back to DC.  Bill gets the honor of captaining the early morning drive.  I sleep.

Not the most relaxing summer vacation – but it’s easy to trade in relaxation for good friends, good wine, and good fun. Italy is such a magical place, but the most special thing about it for me has always been the people and it’s trips like these that remind me how lucky I am to have found such a great community in Umbria. For those of you who were not able to come with us on this trip, we encourage you to keep apprised of the goings on in the store.  Rumor has it a few of these friendly faces may be popping up in Georgetown in the next few months. And for those of you looking to book your own vacations in Italy, give us a call! We are happy to share our experience, and our farmhouse with you.

Traveling with Bill and Suzy Menard Read more

Nothing says summer to me like spending a few weeks in Umbria, visiting friends, finding new and interesting products for the store, ...

Umbria in Mongolfiera

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ci vediamo!
Bill and Suzy

 

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

 

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

Say “Cheese”

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

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

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

 

Ruzzolone antica

Ruzzolone antica3 Ruzzolone antica2

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

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

Ruzzolone 008

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

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

Ci vediamo!
Bill and Suzy

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

A Walk in the Woods

Asparagus 002Italy has afforded us countless memorable experiences. Unique snapshots of time and place that simply don’t exist for us at home. A memorable meal under a moonlit sky with friends and family in tow. A stroll through the woods in pursuit of a truffle sniffing dog to locate and retrieve from its earthy hiding spot musty, aromatic truffles. Donning a protective suit and gloves to liberate a hive full of honey from our honeybees.

Italy is not so different from America. But it is different enough that each day brings the possibility of doing something, experiencing something that is truly unique. And so it was with my day of asparagus hunting in the woods of central Umbria.

I don’t believe asparagus hunting exists in America, unless you count pushing your shopping cart through the produce aisle in the supermarket and “discovering” bundles of green stalks, rubber banded together and standing upright, ready to be taken by the urban hunter. But for several weeks each spring the Italian landscape is dotted with Fiat Pandas parked on little country lanes, their owners combing every possible hillside for these delicacies that define the term “fresh.” We’ve buzzed by as families methodically scour roadside shoulders and we have been amazed to see groups of friends strolling through town centers with enormous armfuls of asparagus, showing off the bundles of their handiwork like it is just in a day’s work. And so I was not particularly surprised when the first words out of my mouth when I ran into Amadeo, husband of le Delizie del Borgo co-owner Ombretta Ubaldi, and someone known to me to be an avid asparagus hunter, “when are you going to take me out asparagus hunting?”

Asparagus 005Without much of a thought, Amadeo replied, “domani. Partiamo da qui alle otto e un quarto.” The die was cast. We were to depart from the restaurant at 8:15 the next morning. The only word of advice he gave me was to wear boots. To protect against the deadly poisonous vipers.

The next morning I was at the restaurant. At 8:10. And I had my boots, borrowed from Marco’s brother in law Alberto. It didn’t matter that they were a size too small and painful to wear. They were less painful than a viper bite would be.

Amadeo arrived on time and we had the obligatory morning espresso before taking off in his Panda to a secluded wood about 15 minutes from the center of Bevagna. Conversation was not exactly easy, as Amadeo speaks no English. I fumbled my way through Italian, asking questions about whatever popped into my head. It was a beautiful, sunny day with mild temperatures. It promised to be a great day whether we spoke or not.

And so it was. Amadeo lent me a snipper, a sort of pair of scissors on a long stick that allows you to cut the asparagus stalk without reaching into the thicket because, as we now know, vipers may lurk there. The snipper cuts the asparagus stalk and grabs it, allowing you to bring the stalk to you and to add it to your bundle.

 

The difficulty in asparagus hunting is not the snipping, the harvesting. It is the locating. The seeing. For four hours Amadeo and I trudged through thicket, along hillsides and stream beds. I climbed over fallen trees, untangled myself (and my anti-viper boots) from vines and took a nasty direct hit in the eye from a branch that left me in pain and partially blinded for a day. But even before losing half my sight I realized that finding asparagus is not simply a visual exercise, it is an exercise in context. In that overgrown thicket there are simply too many things that look like stalks of asparagus – other plants, branches, vines. You have to know where to look, the particular sides of hills, along the edges of vegetation. You have to feel where to look. Then you have to find the telltale asparaghia, the thicket of spindly, spiny ground cover that is part of the plant and from which the stalks grow. But even then it is next to impossible to see the individual stalks that reach skyward. On occasion after occasion Amadeo would call for me and point and bark out a number. “Tre,” he would say, indicating that there were three stalks in a particular location. I would look, seeing none. Hinting at the location with his snipper I would still see none until he was touching the first one. “Va bene” I would exclaim, snipping the prize and taking it for my bundle. This would be repeated two more times as my mentor pointed out each individual asparago.

Asparagus 003But after a couple of hours your asparagus sense begins to sharpen and even the most unskilled americano becomes attuned to the woods and to where these delicious stalks of green freshness are hiding. I would not say that I ended the hunt at even the advanced beginner level, but my two large bundles of wild asparagus – the first I have ever cultivated in my life – left me looking forward to next spring, when I intend to follow Amadeo once again into the woods and into one of those adventures that makes the Italian experience so unforgettable.

Ci vediamo!
Bill and Suzy

 

 

While we can’t offer you wild asparagus, Via Umbria is currently featuring fresh, local asparagus from Tuscarora Farms for sale.  Pick up a bunch today, while they’re still in season and try roasting them wrapped in pancetta or prosciutto.  Be sure to blanch the asparagus first and roast in an oven preheated to 425 degrees for four to six minutes (or until crispy).  And enjoy!  It’s one of the true treats of the season.

Buon apetito!

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Asparagus hunting in the woods of central Umbria Read more

Italy has afforded us countless memorable experiences. Unique snapshots of time and place that simply don’t exist for us at home. A ...

Opera Wine

OW2016_gruppo_02We came to Verona on this visit to experience VinItaly, Italy’s biggest and most important wine expo that takes place annually in this northern Italian gem of a city. Housed under many roofs, thousands of exhibitors show off their wines to importers, distributors and retailers. Until this year the show was open to the public for at least one day but the incredible crush of the mass public on those open days caused VinItaly’s organizers to rethink this policy and this year it was open only to “trade” members. Thank you Via Umbria for giving us this modicum of credibility in order to snag a credential and an entry ticket.

IMG_0595But if VinItaly is becoming more exclusive, even more exclusive yet is Opera Wine, which we had the honor of attending on the eve of VinItaly’s opening. Organized by VinItaly in conjunction with the Wine Spectator, Opera Wine is an exhibition within an exhibition, showcasing what Wine Spectator has deemed to be Italy’s “best 100 wines.” Our good friends Giampaolo Tabarrini and Daniele Sassi from Giampaolo’s Tabarrini winery were honorees this year and our meal ticket. When Daniele offered us an entry ticket some months ago, we couldn’t miss the opportunity to sample these A List wines and meet their charismatic proprietors, even if it meant having to don a coat and tie.

Catching a glimpse of Giampaolo Tabarrini in formal dress is about as common as seeing Bigfoot at the Met. But upon entering the Palazzo della Gran Guardia we headed to the Tabarrini table so we could see it for ourselves. And Giampaolo did not disappoint. Among a sea of short, tight fitting fashionable blue jackets with narrow lapels, elegant silk neckties and stylish shoes, Giampaolo stood out in his garish red blazer and Italian tricolore flag bowtie.   But it wasn’t just his attire that made him stand out. The man’s gas tank is filled with nitro while others are running on unleaded. A blur of activity with a perpetual smile and a twinkle in his eye that is visible from the next galaxy, Giampaolo tirelessly worked the room after room of producers, buyers and press, laughing, hugging and befriending everyone he could lay eyes or hands on. The secret to his ability to connect? It’s genuine.

IMG_0742After exchanging our hugs with Giampaolo and Daniele the former gave us some great advice that we took to heart for the next two hours. “Don’t miss out on drinking the wines from Piemonte. They are beautiful!” And indeed they were. Barolos mostly, from the biggest names in the business. We tasted and savored, met some of the owners and reacquainted ourselves with some we had met before. We recognized a few labels that we carry at Via Umbria and introduced ourselves, only to find, in the case of Bisol, that their rep had already spent an afternoon in our Georgetown store.

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TV cameras lit up, interviews flowed like wine and wine flowed like wine. And for two hours we truly were in another world, one inhabited by what Wine Spectator believes are the 100 best wines in Italy. Some may take issue with their particular list, but one thing is undeniable. To enter Opera Wine is to enter a truly special world, inhabited by truly special winemakers and their truly special wines. And it is a place that one truly does not want to leave.

Ci vediamo!
Bill and Suzy

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An exhibition showcasing Italy’s best wines Read more

We came to Verona on this visit to experience VinItaly, Italy’s biggest and most important wine expo that takes place annually in ...

A Matter of Factory

The Matilde Vicenzi factory in San Giovanni Lupatoto, on the outskirts of Verona.
The Matilde Vicenzi factory in San Giovanni Lupatoto, on the outskirts of Verona.

It wasn’t until Suzy and I began importing and selling Italian products that I even came across the word artisanal.   But over the years it has proven to be the best way to describe the special quality of so many of the products we are privileged to carry and the artisans whom we have been privileged to get to know. Whether it is a bottle of extravirgin olive oil produced from lovingly tended trees or Gerardo’s ceramic works of art, artisanal denotes something handcrafted, produced by someone (an artisan) who doesn’t just clock in for his or her shift, but who invests and leaves a little piece of him or herself in every piece produced.

Such is the case with the artisans we met at the Matilde Vicenzi dolciaria. Our first stop in Italy (after checking into our hotel in Verona and grabbing lunch) was to this beloved producer of cookies, located in the outskirts of Verona. Arriving in the factory’s parking lot late on a Friday afternoon, we were prepared for anything but an artisanal experience. But that is precisely what we got.

Giuseppe Vicenzi, president and chief cookie baker.
Giuseppe Vicenzi, president and chief cookie baker.

Upon arrival we were greeted by Anna DeBattisti, the company’s general counsel who escorted us into the office of Giuseppe Vicenzi, president of the company and grandson of the founder Matilde Vicenzi. Now in his 80’s we did not have the fortune to meet Giuseppe, who was busy in meetings. That meeting must wait until our next visit. But for half an hour Anna regaled us with stories about the Matilde Vicenzi, who founded the company in 1905, her grandson Giuseppe, the history of the company, its four factories, their incredible line of cookies, puff pastries and ladyfingers and the company’s domestic and global reach.

Then, for the next hour Anna, joined by her colleagues Monica and Giulia who manage production and export duties, escorted us through the sprawling cookie factory. And what a sight and experience it was. Enormous conveyor belts slathered with dough snaked through ovens thirty meters long, where puff pastry was baked at four hundred degrees, resulting in delicate, crispy layers of lightly sweet goodness. Savoiardi or ladyfingers, the company’s signature product, were produced by the hundreds in the most important production line, dough squirted into molds, molds assembled together, the whole armada baked to golden deliciousness before being removed from the molds and packaged in a symphony of moving arms, boxes, labels and shrink wrapping.

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Dressed for factory tour success!
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Breaking into a box of Grisbi, chocolate filled wafers given as a sample.

But lest you think this is simply automation run amok, think again. Joined by the floor supervisor we were witness to the thousands of acts of human intervention, the testing of dough, the calibration of timing of machinery and, most of all, the testing of quality control. Each biscuit, cookie and ladyfinger is examined for flaws before being handed back to the machines for packaging, with boxes of rejects leaving us longing to take them home. Once packaged, automated hoists hauled the boxes hundreds of feet into the air onto shelves where they would be warehoused until shipped to the fortunate and hungry were to receive them.

To call it a cookie factory would be to do a disservice to Vicenzi. In our two hours with a handful of employees of this €100 million/year company we witnessed the same passion and attention to detail that we see when Gerardo paints a peacock feather on a dish or Carlo awaits for the season’s first extravirgin olive oil to trickle from his mill. It’s what we’ve learned to call artisanal. And it is well deserved for the people of Matilde Vicenzi.

Ci vediamo!
Bill and Suzy

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Visiting an artisanal cookie factory in Italy Read more

It wasn’t until Suzy and I began importing and selling Italian products that I even came across the word artisanal.   But over ...

Camera Oscura

Greetings from Italy, where today we offer a brief lesson in physics. Today’s subject is the so called observer effect, which posits that the act of observation itself will necessarily effect a change on a phenomenon being observed. Suzy’s version of this principal is that attempting to record an Italian experience, to photograph it, to video it, rather than simply enjoying the moment, inevitably alters one’s experience. And always for the negative.  She’s right, as usual.

Despite knowing that by snapping photos or videos of a unique experience I remove myself from the experience itself, I repeatedly make this same, bonehead mistake. Experiencing Italy takes some discipline, to put away the camera or the GoPro, to actually relax and take it all in. It is a lesson worth learning.

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Nothing like being in the moment!

And so we arrived in Italy nearly a week ago, primed to blog and share our experiences with you. But also commited to truly living those experiences, rather than simply rebroadcasting them in diretta (live). It has been a good lesson, well learned.

We arrived on the peninsula on Friday morning after an overnight flight from New York. Milan greeted us with a little bit of overcast skies but cool, spring temperatures that promised to warm as the land of dolce vita shook off its winter slumber. There is a wonderful cool freshness you feel when you visit Italy in the spring and we felt it as we began our journey eastward to Verona. It was good to be back home.

Verona Arena

There in Verona we spent three days enjoying this remarkable Roman city in the company of three friends from America. Our hotel, located in the city center, boasted as its neighbor the hauntingly beautiful Roman arena, which was the first building we would see in the morning and the last one we would see at night, thus ensuring our dreams were appropriately Romanized. It is impossible to describe the sheer delight of being in Verona – its beauty, its history and its culture are so easy to absorb, to savor – that you simply don’t want to leave. But we were in Verona on a mission, to attend the 50th edition of VinItaly, the country’s most important wine expo. We did that and more, including a visit to meet the people behind the Matilde Vicenzi biscotteria, one of the newer additions to Via Umbria’s lineup of cookies, cakes and confections. And we had a special invitation to Opera Wine, a kind of expo within an expo, showcasing the 100 best wines of Italy. But most of all we were able to catch up with old friends who had come to Verona to show off their wares. We did that against the backdrop of Verona, one of the loveliest cities in the Italian north, before heading to our more familiar Umbria.

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Now nearly a week into our visit we’ll look back and share some of the memorable moments that we have enjoyed. Just don’t expect much real time accounts. We’re planning to savor these experiences as they come. Pull up a chair and pour yourself a nice glass of wine. And enjoy those experiences with us.

Ci vediamo!
Bill and Suzy

Sharing memorable moments from Italy Read more

Greetings from Italy, where today we offer a brief lesson in physics. Today’s subject is the so called observer effect, which posits ...