Our Authors

Meet Bill

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

Mozza-bella!

This is an excerpt from one of Bill’s previous blog posts during a Food & Wine Tour and the impromptu mozzarella class that ensued.


Today’s installment is all about the food. Such is life in Puglia, a bountiful region with hundreds of miles of coastline and an abundance of seafood, olive oil, grapes, regional pastas, cheeses and meats. For travelers such as we, it is both a blessing and a curse. A visit here awakens the culinary imagination and quickens the gastronomic pulse… though it also threatens to expand the corporeal waistline.

We awake to the gentle lapping of the ocean against the cliffs below our window, but today the sun is not so bright. The skies are gray and rain clouds dart in and out. But the temperature is mild, perhaps 50 degrees, a veritable heat wave compared to the freezing, snowy weather we encountered here last February.

We drive to Gioia del Colle to meet Angelo, who will be our guide for the entire day, retracing the route by which we left him the night before. Together, we drive toward Santeramo where we will meet the aunt of Filippo Mancino, our supplier of extra-virgin olive oil. Filippo and Angelo have been kind enough to arrange for us to watch fresh mozzarella being made—Filippo’s aunt, who runs a farm just outside of Santeramo, has been making this signature cheese her entire lifetime. The drive is beautiful, with olive trees stretching into infinity and small stone fences lining the road. As we descend from the Murge, the plateau on which Gioia del Colle is situated, onto the plain that stretches into neighboring Basilicata, the terrain becomes rocky and then lush. The rain has given up and bits of sun occasionally stream through the gray sky.

We are greeted warmly by Filippo’s aunt and her spritely eighty-year-old mother (it must be the mozzarella!). We are led into their kitchen which is connected to the cheese making area, a small sanitary area with some sterile metal cans and other devices for making various cheeses. Our mozzarella today, however, is a decidedly low-tech affair. A simple plastic tub, filled with briny water is sitting on a stool and next to it, on a wooden table is a thick white mass the consistency of cottage cheese but smooth rather than lumpy. This mass will in a few moments become mozzarella, and has been made from a mixture of the previous evening’s milk and this morning’s milk from the farm’s cows.

The milks have been heated to a temperature of 40 degrees celsius and rennet has been added. (When we ask about rennet we are told it is not a very “nice” ingredient. It comes only from the stomach of baby calves who are still drinking their mother’s milk. We are not quite clear how it is extracted from the cow, but we really don’t want to know.) The heated milk has been left to drain and has now settled into the light paste that is before us. The Aunt uses a knife to cut through the paste, mixing it up by cutting it (we are told that the word mozzarella comes from the old Italian mozzare, which means to cut) and then placing it in a large bowl where her mother pours hot water over it. Using a long, flat, wooden paddle the cheese is rolled and pressed, moving it in and out of the water and over the paddle. The texture begins to change from a paste and becomes light and elastic, like a bright white wad of Silly Putty. The aunt shapes the cheese into a long flattened tube, tying a knot and using a knife to cut off the little tied pieces which she puts into a bowl of cold water. Alternately she rolls the mass into a small ball the size of an egg, gathering the edges together and tucking them away from view inside the ball. Asked if we want salted or unsalted cheese the mozzarella is transferred to a bowl of salted water and then we are each served a plate of cheese. A small glass of red wine and a piece of bread accompany the most delicious (and definitely the freshest) cheese we have ever had. The cheese has a mild taste, slightly salty but creamy and smooth. We finish our plates and are rewarded with another knot of cheese—I consume six balls and braids of mozzarella (so as not to be rude!)

We are told that the family raises cows only for the production of milk and also have a small stable of a special breed of donkeys. As we are preparing to leave, two donkeys are brought out for milking. The milk of these donkeys is very close to mother’s milk, we are told, and the family sells it to families whose children cannot drink cow’s milk.

When we say goodbye to our new friends, we are comfortably full of farm-fresh mozzarella and good company. We promise not to return until we have recovered from the food coma, but we make many plans for joint travel, business and, of course, eating.

This is an excerpt from one of Bill's previous blog posts during a Food & Wine Tour and the impromptu mozzarella class that ...

Better Bubbles

It’s franciacorta.
It’s not champagne. It’s franciacorta.

And it’s definitely not prosecco.

Franciacorta 19

If we learned one thing during our visit last month to Franciacorta, the sparkling wine producing district in Lombardia, about an hour east of Milan it is that franciacorta is not Italian champagne. It is tasty, elegant and refined. It’s a sparkling wine that deserves its own name, free from the shadow of champagne

What is franciacorta? In a word, franciacorta is delicious.

Franciacorta 22Following four memorable days in Verona last month, we spent four glorious days in Franciacorta, unpacking our bags at the lovely Hotel Rivalago located, as the name suggests, on the shores of Lake Iseo. One of the lesser known lakes in this, Italy’s lake district, Iseo is a stunning backdrop that forms the northern boundary of Franciacorta. The mountains that surround the lake create a unique microclimate that, paired with the area’s poor rocky soil render the area unfit for growing much of anything. Execpt, to our good fortune, grapes and olives.

Franciacorta 15Until 1961 Franciacorta labored under relative obscurity, known mostly as a lovely weekend escape for wealthy Milanese and an area of good but unremarkable white wines. But in 1961 one of those wealthy residents, Guido Berlucchi, seeking a way to improve upon his modest local white wines decided to reach out to winemaker Franco Ziliani who posed a fateful question to his new partner. “What if we were to make a sparkling wine as the French do?” What was born from that question was franciacorta, and today nearly 200 producers annually riddle by hand and machine 17 million bottles of Italy’s best sparkling wine.

Franciacorta 6

Franciacorta 9Compared with the over 300 million bottles of champagne produced in the eponymous region in France, the growth of franciacorta (the name has nothing to do with France but instead was the name given to this middle ages tax free trading zone) has been remarkable, establishing itself as one of the world’s premiere sparking wines in just fifty years. Much of that no doubt has to do with the fact that it was championed and promoted from its beginnings by some of Italy’s most influential, fashionable and cosmopolitan families. Today people love drinking franciacorta as much for its silky, seductive taste as for its elegant packaging and branding.

Franciacorta 11Franciacorta 3Franciacorta 20On our visit to the region we got to experience first hand just how elegant and personal the winemakers’ hospitality can be. We were treated to a tour of the Berlucchi winery, where franciacorta was invented, by none other than Cristina Ziliani, daughter of the original winemaker, enjoying Berluchi’s 61 franciacorta brut and saten in the ancestral home of Guido Berlucchi.  Ca’ del Bosco, one of the most recognized names in Franciacorta introduced us to the area with a tour of their winery and treated us to a memorable lunch at the spectacular il Priore restaurant overlooking the vast and stunning Franciacorta landscape. At Bellavista we were not only treated to a visit to a winery that could just as easily double as an art museum and a private tasting that was among the most elegant we’ve ever enjoyed, we experienced a homecoming of sorts for our lunch at l’Albereta, a relais et chateaux property one of the finest Italian resorts we’ve ever stayed at. If you haven’t read of our memorable visits there, check out our blog post.

Franciacorta 16

By now you should be getting the picture. Franciacorta is a region and a type of wine. But no matter what you mean when you utter this magical word, it is elegance and beauty personified, offering a sense of wellbeing that we find so often when we travel to Italy, but which comes so easily and automatically in this unmatched corner of our favorite country. We look forward to experiencing it over and over on future visits to Franciacorta and to sharing it with our customers through special dinners and wine tastings. Come join us and enjoy franciacorta with us. Just be sure to not call it champagne.

Ci vediamo!
Bill and Suzy

It’s franciacorta. It’s not champagne. It’s franciacorta. And it’s definitely not prosecco. If we learned one thing during our visit last month to Franciacorta, the ...

Wine-Wine Situation

How’s this for a win-win (or wine-wine) situation:  join us at one of our upcoming winemaker dinners—we’ve got three scheduled over the next month and a half—and in addition to a delicious four-course dinner paired with incredible wines hand-selected by the winemaker him/herself, you might just end up the lucky winner who joins Bill and Suzy on their Spring 2019 Food and Wine Tour!

Here’s how it works: (1) Join us for one of our three Winemaker’s Dinners featuring the wines from Umbria, Veneto and Friuli, (2) enjoy an evening of fine food and curated wines, all inspired by our favorite wineries in each region and (3) take home a case of that evening’s featured wine. That’s it!

With each case purchased, you’ll be entered to  win a space on our 2019 Spring Food and Wine Tour. The hardest part will be deciding which of our three fantastic Winemaker’s Dinners to join:

1. June 7: Wines of Friuli featuring Giorgio Colutta
If you haven’t heard of or tried the wines of Friuli, you haven’t drunk wine.  Revered throughout Italy, particularly for their white wines, this evening with Giorgio is not to be missed. LEARN MORE

2. June 15: Wines of Puglia featuring Conti Zecca
Back by popular demand. As interest in Puglia increases, its culinary legacy (and spectacular wines!) are getting more attention in international circles. If you can’t make it to Italy’s gorgeous coastal region for a quick visit, at least you can wine and dine in the Pugliese fashion. LEARN MORE

3. June 19: Wines of Piemonte featuring Coppo Winery
Both a celebration of Piemonte and the Barbera grape, this dinner focuses on the wines of Coppo Winery and the delicate flavors of the region. LEARN MORE

Talk about a no-brainer.  Join us for an evening of great food and wine and a chance to spend time with the winemaker and you might end up joining us in Italy next spring.  And just to whet your appetite, check out the highlights of our recently completed food and wine tour.

See you around our chef’s table.  And see you in Umbria!

Ci vediamo!
Bill and Suzy

How's this for a win-win (or wine-wine) situation:  join us at one of our upcoming winemaker dinners—we've got three scheduled over the next ...

My Verona

VinItaly 1It has been just a week since Suzy and I returned from our annual spring pilgrimage to Italy and we’re already counting the days until our return. The two and a half week trip flew by and is now a just a memory. But oh, what memories!

Our April visits are always a joy, if only because they give us the opportunity to enjoy springtime in Italy, which really is, in a word . . . magical. This year was no exception, with perfect weather during our week in Umbria and even perfecter weather throughout the week we traveled up north.

Pavilion for the Veneto region at VinItaly. This is a building, not a landscape!
Pavilion for the Veneto region at VinItaly. This is a building, not a landscape!

That second week’s itinerary took us to Verona, site of the VinItaly, the Italian wine expo that is held annually there. This was Suzy and my fifth visit to VinItaly and even after all those visits, it remains simply breathtaking in its scope. Nearly five thousand exhibitors displaying tens of thousands of Italian wines in a dozen airplane hangar-like pavilions covering a million square feet. That’s an awful lot of wine for two people to drink.

Our new best friend. And Marta Poli, the export manager at Mirabella winery.
Our new best friend. Also pictured, Marta Poli, the export manager at Mirabella winery.
Meet the family.
Meet the family.

That’s why we brought Lindsey and Scott from Via Umbria to join us and help us navigate this ocean of wine. For four days we spread out and made new discoveries and friendships and renewed old ones. We drank bubbles – lots of bubbles – from spumante to prosecco to franciacorta. We drank white wines. We drank red wines. We learned about particular grapes, about soil, about terroir, about traditions. We met winemakers and met their sons and daughters, their mothers and fathers. We saw our friends and neighbors from Umbria and made new friends in Piemonte, Lombardia, Veneto and Puglia.

For us, wine tastes better, leaves a deeper impression and is just plain more enjoyable when we don’t just taste it, but understand it. Not a clinical academic understanding, but an appreciation and a showing of respect that comes from knowing the grapes (of which there are thousands in Italy), of knowing where it comes from (the zone, the soil, the history and traditions of the area) and of getting a sense of the mindboggling number of decisions the winemaker makes every day that impact the final result. As big and crowded and frenetic as Verona is during VinItaly, it is still possible to find quiet moments with winemakers where they can share their passion with you and help you understand their wines. And along the way you may drink a glass or two.

We had a number of those moments with winemakers over our days in Verona. We drank through Giorgio Colutta’s entire lineup while comparing notes with him and his winemaker about the winemaker dinner he is hosting at Via Umbria on June 7. We met Marianna Annio from Pietraventosa in Puglia, who is also hosting a winemaker dinner here (on May 4) and made some last minute changes to the menu for her dinner. We were given VIP treatment by Cristina Renda, brand ambassador for Ca’ del Bosco, one of the leading producers of Franciacorta, which some call Italian champagne.   Cristina prefers to call champagne French Franciacorta. And while visiting Cristina’s private VIP room we ate prociutto and drank bubbles with the owner of the parent company. We tracked down Valentina Frignani, who will be hosting our Veneto winemaker dinner (May 22) and wrangled an invite into her boss’ private tasting room, where we got to meet the boss – Remo Farina – himself. We tasted out of this world Barolo from a small family-operated estate as the owner, Giorgio Viberti, passes on leadership of his winery to his young sons. And on a daytrip outside Verona for another tasting event we were treated to a spirited debate over the relative merits of Tuscany and Umbria by Simone Santini (Tenuta di Calcinaie in Tuscany) and our dear friend Albertino Pardi (Cantina Fratelli Pardi of Umbria).

This is how to learn about wine. This is how to taste wine. This is how to enjoy wine. With all your senses and your mind and spirit engaged. Learning from the people who make it because they are all to happy to share their stories with you.

And this is what we’re trying to bring to Via Umbria. Interesting wines that are expertly made and enjoyable to drink. Add to that the opportunity to learn a little more about them and great food to eat with them. Our upcoming calendar is full of these extraordinary opportunities.   We hope you’ll join us at one of our upcoming winemaker dinners, four and five course menus that were designed to highlight and showcase the wines of these outstanding winemakers. You’ll eat well, drink well, make friends with the winemakers and taste and understand what these wines are and why these wines are. Who knew learing could be so much fun!

Ci vediamo!
Bill and Suzy

Terre Margaritelli manager Federico Bibi and Suzy execute a Vulcan Hair Meld.
Terre Margaritelli manager Federico Bibi and Suzy execute a Vulcan Hair Meld.

It has been just a week since Suzy and I returned from our annual spring pilgrimage to Italy and we’re already counting ...

Mad About Florence

The popular song proclaims “I love Paris in the springtime.”  You’ll get no arguments from me for I, too, love Paris in the springtime.  But I reallyreally love Italy in the spring.  And not just Italy—Florence.

Thankfully, our yearly travel schedule takes us to Italy each spring.  This is the time when Suzy and I host week-long Umbrian Food and Wine tours, each one an opportunity for eight lucky foodies to experience the special world we have discovered and nurtured in Italy.  Our guests join a community of food and wine producers who are eager to share their passion. For the past several years we’ve concluded our spring trips in Verona to participate in VinItaly, the largest annual expo of Italian wine producers. There, we sip, spit and schmooze, learning about Italy’s hundreds (if not thousands!) of indigenous grapes and meeting the incredible producers who work with them.

And so each spring—on the way from Umbria to Verona, or Verona to Umbria—we stop in Florence. It was where we got our first taste of Italy, and it was here that we fell helplessly in love with her. Now, it’s where we renew our vows with Italy. Short as they are, our Florentine pilgrimages remind us of so many aspects of this incredible country that we originally fell in love with as we stroll the historic streets of this birthplace of humanism, bathed in golden sunshine and cooled by the soft, crisp springtime air that wraps itself around us like a cool down comforter on a chilly winter night. In this birthplace of the renaissance, where civilization was reborn six centuries ago we are lifted by a different kind of rebirth, the annual rebirth of life as the languorous rhythm of spring softly delivers us from the cold, bleak winter and reminds us of the joys and beauty of nature.  We taste it in the fresh, spring peas that play the starring role in a spaghetti ai piselli we always enjoy at lunch at Buca dell’Orafo upon our arrival in Florence.  Florence 1

We feel it against our skin as we meander along ancient vias, oblivious to the crowds of tourists that do not hear the voices that are speaking to us. We experience it from a rooftop bar in the late afternoon, enjoying an aperol spritz as we take in roman, medieval and renaissance Florence.

Florence 3

It’s there as we seat ourselves at a table set atop the ruins of an ancient amphitheatre, where we tuck into an enormous bistecca alla fiorentina and wash it down with a wine that proves that the whole can indeed be greater than the sum of its parts.Florence 9

Florence 8

It was in Florence where we were first overcome by all the beauty and contentment that Italy has to offer. And what a place to start, because all of Italy can be found there.  Art. Food.  Weather.  Pace of life. Warmth.  Style.  Humanity.

Those on a mission can charge right past it, oblivious to all.  Not see the marker halfway up the exterior wall of a palazzo announcing “here is where the waters arrived during the great flood of 1966.  Yes, here!”  Not hear the opera music drifting from an apartment window, echoing off the walls of the medieval streets.  Not smell the baking of bread or roasting of meat.

Florence 2

It was here that we learned not just how to taste but how to enjoy the act of tasting.  What we have tasted, and what we taste every time we visit Italy is not just food and wine, but life.  For Italy is comfort food for the soul, engaging not just the senses but satisfying all of our basic human urges—aesthetic, artistic and intellectual—as well as those of sight, sound, smell, hearing and taste.  To enjoy it fully you must slow down, you must breathe deeply and allow Italy to come to you.  When you do, you will feel her wrap herself around you, envelope you, become you, as you become it.  Transforming you and transporting you, protecting you and providing for you just as Daphne was when she was transformed into a tree.

images-3

On our earliest trips to Florence we always made a stop at the Madova glove store, a tiny hole-in-the-wall shop at the end of the Ponte Vecchio.  There, animal hides have been being transformed into works of art and style for generations and we always felt the urge to bring home some pairs for us and to give as gifts.  On this spring return visit, this pilgrimage, it felt only right to cross the bridge and to take another look at this icon of Florence.  Not to buy anything, but just to look and say thank you.  For just as Madova gloves transform the quotidian and create something that wraps itself around you with beauty, comfort and style, making your life momentarily better, so does Florence.  So does Italy.  During our brief visit to Florence we slipped on Italy and the fit was perfect.

Florence 6

Ci vediamo!
Bill and Suzy

The popular song proclaims “I love Paris in the springtime.”  You’ll get no arguments from me for I, too, love Paris in ...

The Proof is in the Bottle

This is the story of four men.  Farmers. Winemakers.  Community builders.  Umbrians.

This is the story of Roberto DiFilippo, Federico Bibi, Giampaolo Tabarrini and Albertino Pardi. Umbrian winemakers, colleagues and friends.  But we could have just as easily told this story with different names – Roberto Dionigi, Duccio Pompili, Peter Heilbron or a host of others.   The love of the land, of the region’s traditions, of the wine that Umbria’s winemakers make is universal amongst them.  To them, it is simply what they do.  To us it is unique.  To us it is inspiring.

Over the course of this weeklong food and wine tour our winemaker friends have shared their passions, their stories, their love of what they do.  Each one practices their craft differently but at the end of the day, they do it all the same because each in his own way has discovered the universality that connects what they do.  Some are organic.  Some are biodynamic.  Others practice traditional farming methods.  But regardless of the label we apply or the strictness of the practices they follow they all value sustainability.  Above all they seek to sustain the patrimony that is their land. To nurture it, to make it healthier every day.  So they can grow the best grapes.  So they can pass on this patrimony to their children and their children’s children.

Each respects others’ differences, but they all share the same universal belief.  Each looked us in the eye and said that good wine is made in the fields, not in the cantina.  That in order to make good wine you must grow good grapes.  Healthy grapes that reflect the soil in which they grow.

The proof is in the bottle.

One of them told us of an experience he had in Turkey, where a certain winemaker extolled his practice of adding this and that in the cantina to make up for grapes that spent days in the sun before fermenting.  This, our friend opined, perhaps a bit too generously, is just a different approach.  The wine, he told us, was “technically good.”  It had been corrected in the winery.

Our winemakers prefer not to correct mistakes in the winery.  Because you can make bad grapes “technically good.”  But the excitement in wine is not in being technically correct, the excitement is in feeling something alive in your mouth.  Something that vibrates with the rhythms of the fields and the sun from where it came.  You can correct flaws and make something “technically good” but you can’t give it life.  You can’t give it personality.  Only the land and the sun can do that.  And that is what these four men have spent their lives learning.

Their wines are simple in the very best sense of the word.  They are made from healthy grapes grown in well-tended fields.  They are transformed from juice to wine with knowledge and experience that does not rush, that does not cut corners.  Because while technology can minimize risks and defects, only time can produce great wine.

This week we have enjoyed many wines at many good meals and have created many pleasant memories around the table.  But the lessons of these humble, passionate, patient, giving and caring winemakers – farmers, community builders, Umbrians – will stay with us long after that glorious taste has faded away.  And it will leave a taste as sweet and as satisfying as the wine itself.

Ci vediamo!
Bill and Suzy

This is the story of four men.  Farmers. Winemakers.  Community builders.  Umbrians. This is the story of Roberto DiFilippo, Federico Bibi, Giampaolo Tabarrini and ...

Merry Christmas from Our Family to Yours

Screen Shot 2017-12-25 at 8.32.08 AM

To me, Christmas is about family.   Sure, there is a certain religious aspect that we often tend to forget about in our rush to buy the perfect gift, decorate the house and hang the stockings, prepare a great meal.  But when it’s done right those other distractions aren’t expressions of selfishness, but rather a deep seated selflessness.  Rather than being materialistic narcissists who want the most expensive gift for ourselves, as we are often caricatured at Christmas time, our true motivation is that we want one day to be perfect for all of the people we love.  A thoughtful gift that doesn’t say “I just spent a lot of money on you” but rather “I’ve been thinking of you.”  A special touch around the house, like a corner decorated with grandma’s carved Santa collection sends a signal that this is indeed a special time, at the same time subtly connecting us to our past.  The dinner table, overflowing with bounty says that everything I have I share with you.  And even more it says pull up a chair and be prepared to sit with me for a long, long time.

Every iconic Christmas cartoon or movie is a story about family.  Close your eyes and you will see  images of people – families, friends and strangers – holding hands, coming together, enjoying the day and by extension, the gift of life.  The Whos in Whoville holding hands, singing “Fah who foraze.”  Kevin McCallister hugging the homeless pigeon lady in Central Park in Home Alone 2.  Ralphie and the rest of the Parker family bonding over the decapitation of a goose at Christmas dinner in a Chinese restaurant a day after little brother Randy enjoys mashed potatoes in modo di maiale.  

bird-lady-home-alone 
randy2 

Family. Friends. Food.  Connecting.  Living in and fully appreciating the moment while unconsciously paying thanks for all that came before.  That is what Christmas means to me.

And that is what inspired us to create Via Umbria.  A place where food and friends can get lost in each other.  Where time slows down and enjoyment is more than a momentary flash in the pan.

We set about to create a community at Via Umbria.  An extended family.  And to share the joys of family with that community every day, just like we all do with our own families on Christmas day.  We thank all of you for being part of the Via Umbria family, and we look forward to sharing the joys that life offers up daily with each of you in the new year.

From all of us at Via Umbria, we wish a merry Christmas to all and in the words of the Whos in Whoville

Welcome, Christmas! Fah who rahmus!
Welcome, Christmas! Dah who dahmus
Christmas Day will always be
Just as long as we have we.

Fah who foraze! Dah who doraze!
Welcome Christmas! Bring your cheer.
Fah who foraze! Dah who doraze!
Welcome all who’s far and near.

 

To me, Christmas is about family.   Sure, there is a certain religious aspect that we often tend to forget about in ...

Carriage and Feeding

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

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

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

Ci vediamo!
Bill and Suzy

Horsing Around in Umbria Read more

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

Running on Fumes

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

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

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

So join us for 48 hours in Fiumicino.

Ci vediamo!
Bill and Suzy

 

What to do with two days in Italy? Read more

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

Excellent Adventures

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

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

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

Try it. You’ll like it.

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

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

*                 *                  *

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

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

Ci vediamo!
Bill and Suzy

 

visiting the coast of Italy Read more

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

See Food

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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A bowl of magic.

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

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

Ci vediamo!
Bill and Suzy

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

 

The Seafood Odyssey Read more

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

Fume-acino

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ci vediamo!
Bill and Suzy

 

A very fishy story Read more

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