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.

Ernesto’s Torta d’Autunno

One of the special treats of our Food & Wine Tours is our small group cooking class at our friend Ernesto Parziani’s restaurant Perbacco.  Cooking with Ernesto, as many a guest will attest, is an all day affair, preparing course after course followed by a long, leisurely meal (accompanied by numerous wines).  The icing on the cake is often a karaoke session led by Ernesto.

 

And speaking of icing, last week’s cooking marathon with Ernesto introduced us to a new seasonal dessert, an autumn cake that highlights apples and raisins.  This dessert couldn’t be easier or more delicious.  Give it a try and let us know how it came out!

 

ERNESTO’S TORTA D’AUTUNNO
INGREDIENTS

3 eggs beaten
1 cup sugar
3/4 cup butter softened
1 ½ cups walnuts
½ cup raisins
zest of 1 lemon
2 cups flour
1 pk.  pane delgi angeli (baking powder)
1 apple peeled and sliced

     DIRECTIONS

In a mixing bowl add butter and sugar and mix together. Add eggs, raisins, walnuts, lemon zest, pane degli angeli and flour and beat together.

Pour into a buttered cake pan. Press apples lengthwise into the batter.

Bake at 350° for 30 minutes or until done.

 

One of the special treats of our Food & Wine Tours is our small group cooking class at our friend Ernesto Parziani's restaurant Perbacco. ...

Let There Be Music

Violin virtuoso Luca Ciarla, our new friend from Italy, performs a very special solo violin concert on Thursday, September 27 at 7:30 in Via Umbria’s Galleria.  Tickets are $40 but the experience, as I hope you will agree if you read below, is priceless.  You can purchase your tickets here.

Four weeks ago my newest Italian friends arrived at Dulles Airport direct from Rome.  On that flight were the artist Keziat and violin virtuoso Luca Ciarla together with their precious cargo of artwork, violin and other musical instruments and an even more precious article, their six year old son Milo.  How they came to join us at Via Umbria for the opening of Keziat’s art exhibition Introspective and a dinner and violin performance by Luca the following night, and how we forged our new friendship is pretty much the story of Via Umbria.  And it serves as reminder of why we love doing the things we do.

lucaConcert-4Luca Ciarla was introduced to me by a customer friend of ours, Maria, who saw him perform a concert at the Italian Embassy in Washington a few years back.  Maria raved about Luca’s virtuosity and avant garde, multidisciplinary musical style.  She offered to put us in touch with each other by email so I did a little investigative work, using my best Googling skills.  The first hit was a YouTube video of Luca performing Bella Ciao at the Rhino Jazz Festival in 2014.  I watched, and listened to, and was subsumed by the six minute video of the soloist bobbing and contorting as if in the throes of ectasy, bowing and picking and drumming to electronic tracks he had recorded live in front of the audience, the musical texture building and thickening with each added loop.  The piece itself, a workers’ solidarity anthem meant to inspire patriotic zeal among the proletariat was, in Luca’s hands, a haunting release of the most sublime emotional connective tissue between instrument and performer and audience, mesmerizing and immobilizing me like the cartoon hound who smells the fresh baked pie sitting on the window sill, levitated and gently wafted toward the source in a trancelike state of pure contentment.  As Luca built the layer of sound atop layer, the emotional power of the music began to crest like a wave until he reached a final, virtuoso climax.  In six short minutes, I was hooked.  This man was going to become my friend.

When I responded to Maria’s email introducing Luca and me, I instinctively knew where this was heading.  Luca and I began negotiating an agreement that would bring him to Via Umbria, an agreement that pretty much said, you come, we’ll figure out what we’ll do and who will get what.  We had a complete meeting of the minds.  All that was missing were all the details.

lucaConcert-3One crucial detail was Luca’s partner, Keziat.  As I was to discover, there was another piece to this relationship, an immensely talented artist in Keziat, a woman who creates a world of fantasy on canvass, using only ballpoint pen.  She would be, I thought – and I was exactly right – a perfect addition to Via Umbria’s art gallery space.  Her show Introspective is on display in the Galleria through the end of the week.  It has been a pleasure to surround ourselves with her brilliant work.

lucaConcert-2

The Tuesday before the Gallery opening Luca and Keziat arrived in Washington, pulling up in front of Via Umbria a little before dinner time.  Over the previous couple of months I had invested so much psychic energy in organizing the art exhibition, the special dinner with the artists (complete with violin performance) and a closing concert that it was hard to believe we had never actually met one another.  So there we were, face to face for the first time.  Luca, Keziat, Milo and me.  Although I was awed by their immense talent, in an instant I knew this was a relationship that was going to work.

lucaConcert-1Over the next days, as they installed Keziat’s exhibition, practiced and did sound and equipment checks and played with their irascible six year old in our cafe, they seemed less like new friends than old friends.  The opening reception came and went, with a shy Keziat quietly impressing the dozens of guests who came to see her work and to listen to Luca play.  The phenomenal Dinner with the Artists allowed us to see how opening and inviting the couple was, and how much they loved the cooking of our Chef Liam!  And so, after our few intense days together they departed Washington, Keziat and Milo bound for Rome and Luca to parts west, where he has spent the past weeks performing with his quartet in the US, Canada and Central America.

Luca returns to Washington on Thursday evening for a special concert at Via Umbria.  Our front window loudly proclaims “First we eat.  Then we do everything else” because we have discovered the Italians’ secret of using food as a way to build bonds of friendship and community.  What I have found from my whirlwind friendship with Luca, Keziat and Milo, is that art that is personal, that is from the heart and shared for the simple sake of sharing can build the same kinds of lasting bonds that we have discovered through our travels to Italy and in our building of Via Umbria.

I invite you to join me on Thursday for a special live, solo concert by Luca Ciarla and discover this for yourself.

Ci vediamo giovedì,
Bill and Suzy

lucaConcert-7

Violin virtuoso Luca Ciarla, our new friend from Italy, performs a very special solo violin concert on Thursday, September 27 at 7:30 ...

Bill’s Whole Snapper with Garlic and Ginger

This Asian recipe may seem out of place in an Italian recipe blog, but it shares a lot with Italian preparations.  First, the fish should be fresh, which in our case was beyond doubt, having purchased it from Robert, our local fishmonger at the daily harbor fish market in Georgetown, Grand Cayman.  Robert cleans and filets all manner of fresh catch with an uber sharp machete right in front of your eyes.  Second, the accompanying flavors are understated and elevate rather than overwhelm the fresh fish.

This is a favorite of Suzy and mine when we, like we are now, spend time at our vacation home in the Caymans (no money laundering jokes, please).  After a grueling day under the sun, there’s nothing quite like this flavorful fish dish and a little (or a lot of) white wine to wash it down.

[recipe courtesy of taste.com.au] 

Whole Snapper with Garlic and Ginger
INGREDIENTS

1 whole snapper, gutted and scaled

3 cloves garlic, thinly sliced

Ginger, cut into thin strips

1/4 cup soy sauce

1 Tbsp fish sauce

2 Tbsp rice wine

2 tsp sesame oil

2 scallions, sliced

2 or 3 dried chili peppers crushed

 1 bunch coriander

     DIRECTIONS

Preheat oven to 400 deg.

Rinse and pat dry 1 whole red snapper.  Line baking dish with aluminum foil (you may have lay 2 sheets side by side) and place wax or parchment paper on top.  Lay snapper on paper and liberally salt and pepper.  Sprinkle garlic and ginger over entire surface.

In a small bowl, mix well soy, fish sauce, rice wine and sesame oil.  Pour over snapper allowing it to penetrate the skin.  Baste several times.

Close aluminum/parchment paper to form an airtight pouch with snapper inside.  Place in oven (in baking dish) and bake for 30-45 minutes.  The snapper is cooked when the flesh flakes and displays no opacity.

Unwrap fish and transfer to a serving plate or bowl being sure to pour the liquid over the fish.  Garnish with a liberal amount of sliced scallions and some sprigs of coriander.

Serve with lots of white wine, preferrably a crisp, acidic wine such as Falanghina, Greco di Tufo or anything from Campania.

Buon appetito!

red snapper 1

This Asian recipe may seem out of place in an Italian recipe blog, but it shares a lot with Italian preparations.  First, ...

A Note from Bill and Suzy

I am constantly amazed by Suzy’s and my absolute good fortune in being able to devote our time and energies to developing relationships with incredible Italian artisans in sectors that span food, wine, Italian culture and beyond.  And I often remark that “I don’t deserve this” – meaning that I’m not particularly distinguished or expert in anything having to do with Italy yet I constantly fall into situations where I get to rub elbows with some truly remarkable Italians  – and am able to share them with our friends and customers.

I am truly overwhelmed by an opportunity that came my way recently that I want to share with you.  Recently a friend and customer of ours asked if I had heard of an Italian violin virtuoso named Luca Ciarla, whom she had come across at some point during her travels.  I confessed I had not and she suggested I contact him, believing we would hit it off.  I did a little googling and found some videos of Luca in concert.  I was hooked, literally overwhelmed by his talent and creativity and so I immediately reached out to him by email.  A few emails and phone calls later, he and I were finalizing plans for an art exhibition for late August in our Galleria that would feature the works of a contemporary Italian artist named Keziat, with whom Luca often collaborates in a multimedia, interdisciplinary way.  Luca offered to give a brief performance – “Music for the Eyes” – at Keziat’s opening reception and he suggested that we organize a dinner where he and Keziat would be our special guests and Luca would perform a private mini-concert for our dinner guests.  To say I was blown away by the thought of such a one-of-a-kind experience would be a gross understatement.

I brought this opportunity to our executive chef Liam LaCivita who was intrigued by the idea of preparing a special menu for an “Artists at the Chef’s Table” dinner.  Liam checked out Luca’s concert performances online but was even more moved when he visited Keziat’s website and saw her hauntingly beautiful work.  He then set out to create not just a dinner, but to use the table as a canvas, painting a seven course menu that was inspired by Keziat’s art.  The result is our Artists at the Chef’s Table dinner on Friday, August 30.  As with all of our Chef’s Table dinners, seating is limited.

I want you to be there.

Yes, I want you to join me at this dinner.  I know it’s not cheap.  Tickets are $125 and non-refundable, but this is the type of “I don’t deserve this” experience that I want to share with you.  This sort of thing – an incredible art exhibit, the chance to spend time with the artist in the gallery and over dinner, a private performance by Luca and an inspired menu from Liam – is what makes what Suzy and I do truly special.

You can purchase your tickets online or call the store (202.333.3904).  Or just reply to me by email.  If you can’t make it I would still appreciate it if you would not only spread the word, but urge your friends not to miss this opportunity.  Let them know, too, that Keziat and Luca will be at a special reception for the opening of Keziat’s Introspective exhibition on Thursday (August 30).   Admission is free but tickets are required for any of the three separate hour-long timed receptions at 6:00pm, 7:15pm and 8:30pm.  Light hors d’oeuvres will be served.

I thank you for taking the time to hear me out and look forward to seeing you on Friday.

Best regards,
Bill and Suzy

I am constantly amazed by Suzy's and my absolute good fortune in being able to devote our time and energies to developing ...

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

This holiday season we reprise the following post which we filed after our visit to Franciacorta in April 2018. On that trip we fell in love with franciacorta, Italy’s emphatic answer to champagne, and dedicated ourselves to spreading the word about what we consider to be the most delicious sparking wine available anywhere. Whether you’re celebrating Christmas, Hanukkah or New Years, we can’t imagine a better way than by popping the cork on a bottle (or more) of franciacorta. If you are curious, stop by Via Umbria. We have the largest selection of reasonably priced bubbles in the DC metro area.

— Bill and Suzy

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

This holiday season we reprise the following post which we filed after our visit to Franciacorta in April 2018. On that trip ...

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

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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

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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.  

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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 ...