Experience Italy

Teddy’s Letters from Umbria – Part 2

Blog post 20180917 5The adventures in Umbria continue, with a new featured player experiencing the rustic countryside for the first time. My best friend Cal arrived just about two weeks ago and, after a quick acclimation in Rome to Italian time (both the time zone and also the way hours work a bit slower here), we took the scenic train ride away from the city and toward Umbria, the green heart of Italy.

Cal and I went to college together, are rock climbing partners, artistic collaborators, lived together this past year in Los Angeles and, perhaps most of all, share a similar ethic around the joys of preparing food with and for those we love. What better place to delve into this passion than in Umbria? We settled into our routine of adventure with immediacy and great delight, reveling in our early morning exercise, followed by a long and slow breakfast preparation with the eggs from our lovely birds and produce from the orto at the farmhouse. We take turns brewing coffee in the moka pot – one as we start to cook and a second batch just as we sit down to eat, making sure to steam our milk only if the clock still reads before 11am. The food scraps from the morning meal get walked over to the birds as an extra treat, then we linger at an outside table to work on the day’s crossword. As usual, any number of thoughtfully planned or curious and improvised adventures await us.

A black truffle. The official fungus of Umbria.
A black truffle. The official fungus of Umbria.

In these two weeks, Cal has ascended the ranks (i.e., supplanted me) in the kitchen at le Delizie del Borgo, our friend Simone’s restaurant in nearby Bevagna, effectively serving as sous chef and doing a damn fine job: a guest sent explicit compliments back to the chef for the Umbrian classic uovo morbido, the elevated Italian brother to our scrambled eggs – not knowing it was l’americano Cal who had executed the dish flawlessly on his first attempt! Meanwhile, I’ve ventured into the server’s world which has proved a highly encouraging environment to hone my Italian and let out my inner sprezzatura, a necessary nonchalance that all waiters in Italy are seemingly dripping with.

Outside of Simone’s kitchen, we have been spending heaps of time in … our kitchen. At the farmhouse, every meal can be envisioned just by stepping out into the backyard. We’ve strung together all manner of immediately fresh, holistically healthy (if you consider using a lot of olive oil healthy), unreasonably tasty meals in a setting that Cal has been describing as “magical” – when he has the words the express the feeling.

On our day off last week we took the bike path from Cannara to Montefalco which, given the fact that we got slightly lost, ended up taking about two hours. After having scaled some serious hills, we luxuriated in the beautiful square, walked the entire circumference of the town, sat and had coffee and some time to draw, and ran into just about every person I know with even a loose connection to Montefalco along with making some new friends at some of the local businesses. Among these happenstance visits were assorted members of the Pardi family, all of whom had eagerly been awaiting the arrival of Cal to set into motion an opportunity for us to all spend time together. We made the obligatory stop at the family winery to say hello to Albertino, the man who runs the business, and we unexpectedly left with plans for him drive a 60 gallon stainless steel fermentation tank over to the farmhouse to assist in a batch of beer we will be brewing in October, as well as talk of him contributing an oak barrel as well to age our sure-to-be spectacular beer.

Speaking of beer, the hops that I planted last year in hopes of convincing a local winemaker to help me make a beer here (thanks Albertino!) have just been harvested! The hops are now dried, vacuum sealed, and keeping fresh in the fridge, along with some green Italian figs (known as both dotato or kadota figs) being stored in the freezer that will be added to the beer after it finishes its first fermentation. Instead of buying yeast, we are going to collect a sample of local ambient yeast from the rich biodiversity of our garden at la Fattoria del Gelso, and we will use local barley and other grains as the base. After running the brewing club at my college (yes, I know, pretty sweet) and working in a brewery right after school, this situation is what I would consider the ideal. More news on that to come with the arrival of my brewing partner from college and tour guide of one of the best sour beer breweries in the US next month!

This makes me very hoppy.
This makes me very hoppy.

Not to miss out on the climbing while we’re in Italy, Cal and I managed to find one of the most unexpected experiences one could imagine. In the town of Serra San Quirico about two hours away, there is a yearly climbing festival that takes rope climbers onto the high cliff walls that surround the town. However, the locals also curate much shorter routes throughout the medieval architecture of the town, climbing on the old tower, in a brick archway tunnel from maybe the 1300s, or up the face of the town fortress wall to a window that was once used to shoot arrows at approaching enemies. We spent the day touring this unbelievable historic town while also climbing all over it. For many climbers, there is a challenging balance between spending time in the city and getting to climb outdoors – we got both at the same time!

We spent another day harvesting grapes, this time for our friends the Pardis. Seemingly, the crew didn’t account for what naturals Cal and I would be because all together we finished a supposedly 5 hour job in just under 3 hours. Thanks to a very early start, this left us with pretty much a whole day ahead and no real plans. With time to kill, one of our fellow harvesters, a friend of Albertino’s named Kwan, whom I had met last year at a lunch party in the winery offered to give us a ride to his parents’ property just on the outskirts of town. Although it was only a few minutes away, the ride transported us to a different place. We arrived to the gates of a reasonably sizable but very humble property and were greeted by a horde of dogs. Looking to the right, there were three comically obese Thai pigs that were very sweet and devoured whole apples with their hairy snouts. Out from the garden ambled an older man with a pronounced back hunch, leathered and weathered fingers, jet black heavy eyebrows and a frayed baseball hat with the bill torn off to fit as a skull cap. He looked like the idyllic Italian garden in late summer, in fact, much like the one from which he was just exiting. We proceeded to be inundated with generosity, sharing thoughtful and slow conversation across three languages, being taught how to crack a walnut with one hand (as evidenced by Kwan’s older father being much more capable than us two strapping young climbers, strength is not so much a matter in the equation as finesse), sampling and eventually being sent home with a bag of the best figs either Cal or I has ever tasted, and convening with all sorts of animals besides the pigs. Kwan’s father, it seems, spends every waking hour tending to one aspect of another of his farm, which includes the aforementioned pigs, figs, and walnuts, as well as a vibrant and active orto for produce, about two dozen goats, 100 or more birds, including turkeys, geese, ducks, and chickens of varieties I never knew existed, and three donkeys. Sharing that space, that time, and that company was a true lesson to me in the ethic of sharing – it was the kind of experience that keeps your breath stuck somewhere between your lungs and your mouth, a distinctive warmth that has your sensations fully tingling but your mind at complete ease and drawing out every moment. It really was hard to leave, but sure enough, we ended up back there the next day.

Blog post 20180917
Farm living is the life for me . . .

The routine adventure continues, and we continue to learn from getting lost, improve our finesse when ordering caffe at the bar, and make more genuine and generous conversation with the people we come by. Next week we set off on a climbing adventure in Croatia, taking off up the sea summiting cliffs of Split and Hvar and hoping to ascend to the top or face the humiliating splash of failure in the late summer ocean. Until then,

Buon viaggio!

The adventures in Umbria continue, with a new featured player experiencing the rustic countryside for the first time. My best friend Cal ...

Teddy in Umbria

Teddy here, writing from the farmhouse in Cannara. I am two weeks into my three and a half month stay in Umbria and have quickly been reminded why I couldn’t wait to get back. I wake up to the light activity of our 18 birds (mostly hens, as well as a couple of geese, ducks, and guinea fowl) and say hello to these healthy ladies (and their bountiful eggs!) as I give them their morning meal, along with all of my leftover food scraps as a special treat.

In very un-Italian fashion I prepare a big breakfast – how else can I get through these eggs fast enough? – and a caffe to wash it all down. And now, in the words of caretaker Marco, I commence on the day’s “program”, and this is where things get really exciting. Every day feels like a choose your own adventure, depending on who I’ve seen recently or who has heard that I am in town.

One day I am accompanying Jennifer McIlvaine and one of her groups on a summer tour of Montefalco – visiting a dairy farmer who makes cheese, yogurt, and gelato, followed by a walk through town, then lunch at another farm, this one biologico (essentially the Italian version of organic certification) and dotted with all manner of fruit-bearing trees, an apiary, grape and olive production, and an assortment of animals. Lastly, a requisite wine tasting of one of Umbria’s crown products, Montefalco Sagrantino at Cantina Fratelli Pardi.

And from having seen the Pardi family, I get a late afternoon invite the following week to accompany them for dinner. Patriarch Alberto – who is one of the most engaging, excited, and kind people I’ve ever met (despite not speaking much if any English!) – arrives to pick me up in the early evening. He asks if it’s okay to make a quick stop and I watch him collect the season’s finest harvest from an azienda agricola that is no more than 5 minutes from the farmhouse but I doubt I will ever find again amidst these labyrinthine roads. Onward to Montefalco, and when I ask where we will be going he laughs confusedly to tell me that of course we are eating at the family home. Another stop at a gas station that also serves as a macelleria (meat and cheese counter) to pick up the evening’s secondo: stinco, a very Umbrian pork dish. Another stop at the winery to pick up assorted members of the family and finally I arrive at their incredibly lovely home, right in the heart of the town. What followed was one of the finest examples of family care I’ve ever witnessed, and by the end of the evening it truly felt as if I was not just a witness but a member. We drank late into the night discussing cousin Marco’s love life, the moments and laughter in the house warming brightly as the light outside faded.

Another day, I resend an email that I discover had not gone through the previous week. A response is returned within the hour – an invitation to meet and discuss work opportunities the following day with Roberto di Filippo of his eponymous, biodynamic winery. This is the driving force behind my return to Umbria: I have a fairly compelling fascination with the relationships between soil, seed, plant, and food and beverage products, and I’ve endeavored to learn deeply but also broadly about the elements that comprise these processes. These expeditions have led me to an interest in fermentation, which has been marked mostly by working with beer, some hard cider making, a lot of sourdough bread-baking, and some vegetable lacto-fermentation projects. But the grail of fermentation is wine, and there are few opportunities that exist for me to not only learn about wine and its production, but to examine wine through the holistic lens that drives my curiosity. Roberto’s philosophy on farming is so rich and deep, to the point that the wine seems almost a happy bi-product of the balanced, interwoven relationships between organisms microscopic (in the soil) and fairly large (the draught horses he uses for tilling) on his property. It doesn’t hurt that he happens to make exceptional wines though! Upon receiving my interest in learning any and all things related to his wine production, Roberto kindly extended the offer for me to help out. The only requirement he dictated, though, was that it could not be work for just one day. His justification was loosely as follows: “To understand, you need to touch and feel as much as you can. And you have to share the labor with your peers – there is a unity between the land and the animals and the grapes and the workers, and you must share.” I was truly taken by the quality of his words, and replied simply, “Roberto – `e una bella filisofia.”

My first day of work I helped on a couple of horse-drawn carriage tours through several of Roberto’s plots, serving as a translator for a couple from Canada and trying to actually learn Italian on the following tour of ten locals. Lunch for the employees in the main room of the cantina, and new friend Giovanni was excited to share an oregano digestivo he had made with everybody. It was a delicious way to prolong our midday break! In the afternoon I helped bottle last year’s white wine blend before taking my leave for the evening.

The following morning I joined a ragtag group of helpers to harvest the season’s first grechetto grapes, to be used in a spumante wine that I believe will be new to Roberto’s arsenal. The group was old and young, hailing from France, Senegal, Romania, or just five minutes up the road. All the other foreigners, however, actually speak Italian. I became Los Angeles! to them, or Lau-rence of A-raab-iah because of the bandana I wore draped from the back of my hat to cover my neck (Teddy is a very difficult name for Italians to pronounce). We made it by thanks to some very friendly and patient Italian and also French speakers, which sadly has become even worse than my Italian, but the composite of options helped make most things pretty clear. The other benefit was that the work is really straightforward – you cut clusters of beautiful grapes, put them in a basket, and trade out your basket when it’s full for a new one. Lots of heat, lots of singing, lots of laughs, lots of words I didn’t understand, and lots of grape-juice-sticky gloves. Overall, a truly memorable day!

Any given morning, I can expect a text message on my phone saying, “hi baby, could you come in this afternoon?” It’s a message from my extra sibling, chef Simone Proietti Pesci. In ten minutes I can be at the restaurant where I may be enlisted to de-stem rosemary picked on a walk earlier that morning, prepare a soffrito (the Italian mirepoix of carrot, celery, and onion), or wait tables, the latter of which displaying the deep trust Simone has in me and my very insufficient Italian. No matter the task, work with Simone is always easy – not that I don’t work hard, but Simone runs the most calm, organized, and efficient kitchen I’ve ever witnessed. He is a true master within his space, and just being around him  suffuses me with skills that have improved my own abilities in the kitchen. Already in these few weeks I’ve been a helping hand in some truly impressive dining events – a 60 guest, seven course fixed menu inspired by Argentina with live tango performances between courses, and another 60 guest baptism celebration with a lavish buffet spread and many bottles of regional wine. It’s hard to count the times a guest walks directly into the kitchen to say, “complimenti a chef!” and then stay to chat for another ten minutes or so, Simone carrying on the conversation while plating the next course.

In less than a week, I will be joined by my dearest friend and former housemate, who will stay along throughout the remainder of my adventures in Umbria. I find myself constantly grinning with excitement, not only for the value of having someone I love to share with these people, places, and experiences that I’ve known, but at the thought that, despite the head start of my experience here,  there are countless new opportunities and moments that await us.

Ciao!
Teddy

Teddy here, writing from the farmhouse in Cannara. I am two weeks into my three and a half month stay in Umbria ...

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 ...

Panettone aPlenty

This past April on a trip to VinItaly, Suzy and I snuck off for a day to indulge our sweet tooths with a tour with two of our favorite Panettone producers—Loison and Filippi. One step (or really one sniff) inside the baking facility at Loison and we knew we had made the right choice. Even during their off season, a time when there are no ovens on, no cakes baking, and no ingredients in sight, the entire factory smelled like sugar, butter, and fluffy, decadent cake. We wandered around the production line—looking at the giant (seriously huge) stand mixers where they carefully mix the panettone dough, coaxing the ingredients to combine together in just the right way to create the light, airy cakes, the enormous ovens that bake hundreds of carefully handcrafted cakes at a time, and the inventive machines that flip those cakes upside-down straight from the oven to keep their shape. If you’ve never seen the process I definitely encourage you to take a look—it’s pretty incredible. And for those of you who have ever had any doubts about whether or not the Italians are some of the most thoughtful, patient, and purposeful people on the planet take my word for it- one bite of a perfectly baked Panettone is all you need to change your mind.

In addition to the attention to detail during the baking process two other aspects of the production of the Panettone really stood out to me. The first being the pride that emanated from the bakers at both facilities as they walked us through each flavor of Panettone they were preparing to make for this holiday season (between 20-35 each) and exactly where every single ingredient in each of those cakes was sourced. Single origin chocolate drops from Domori, untreated Madagascar vanilla beans (and never any artificial flavors), free range eggs, figs from Calabria, Lemons from Sicily and fresh milk delivered every day during the baking season; each ingredient is carefully selected for it’s quality of production and taste to create the perfect marriage of flavors for each cake. As the Pastry Chefs at Filippi say “Just as in an orchestra, to create a symphony, every instrument has to be in harmony with the whole, so it does not suffice that every ingredient is good on its own. Each ingredient has to amalgamate well with all the others…” Each year they revisit the flavors of the year prior, sampling dozens of varieties of fruits, nuts, and honeys, ensuring that their cakes are always created using the just the ideal balance of flavors and ingredients.

The second aspect that the Pastry Chefs at both Loison and Filippi were quick and proud to point out is that each one of their cakes is hand wrapped in paper and tied with a bow. Out of context that may not seem like a big deal but when you think about the thousands of cakes being produced every Christmas and the intricate and precise wrapping each of these cakes is adorned with you really start to get a sense of the magnitude of this process. And the result is spectacular—3as they said at Loison “The result is a product that is more than just a baked good: it’s also a gift, a furnishing item and a piece of art.” It’s clear in speaking with them that there is no detail of the panettone making process that is overlooked and the result of all of that effort and attention to detail is the essential (and most delicious) emblem of the Christmas holiday.

Don’t just take my word for it though- come see and sample for yourself! On July 25th we’ll be celebrating Christmas in July- we’re so looking forward to the holiday season that we can’t possibly wait any longer. Stop by our market and taste samples of this year’s spectacular concoctions, see that intricate and delicate paperwork and ribbons adorning these beautiful parcels and pre-order some of your favorites.

This past April on a trip to VinItaly, Suzy and I snuck off for a day to indulge our sweet tooths with ...

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.

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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 ...

Spring Green

What a fierce winter this has been.  The extremes between odd 60 degree days have not been enough to balance the fierce cold, snow and winds that have crept along the east coast.  We often joke about how frequently we shut down the government for the promise of snow—this year was an all time first for me when we shut down for the promise of wind.

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We departed a snow covered New York City for Umbria where we have been greeted by sunny skies and fields of green.  

We are often asked, “What is the best time to visit Italy?”  Of course our answer is always, “Whenever you can make it to Italy.”  There is always a good reason to visit Italy. For me, the best reason to visit Italy in the spring is the promise of what is to come.

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When we visit during the summer—the farmers discuss the heat and the wind—how they are affecting the fields.  When we visit during the fall—the farmers discuss the impact of the flies and the rains. When we visit during the spring the farmers discuss the possibilities of what is to come.  The promise of a perfect harvest. The potential of a particular grape. The buds on the trees. The gentle rain that just passed through. In spring—everything is possible.

Our tours always involve food and wine—in the spring we are drinking the most recent releases.  We are eating wild asparagus, artichokes and favas. As our friend Emiliano pointed out to us on day one, “The green has returned”—and we are here to enjoy it.

—Suzy

What a fierce winter this has been.  The extremes between odd 60 degree days have not been enough to balance the fierce ...

Chef Simone Reflections

Chef Simone Proietti-Pesci is a beloved and respected ambassador of Umbrian cuisine and lifestyle.  He is the Chef and Owner of the acclaimed Le Delizie del Borgo restaurant in Bevagna, Italy. Le Delizie del Borgo is nestled in a quaint corner of the medieval Bevagna’s main piazza, and serves as a magnet for gastronomes, attracting diners from afar with his menu of traditional and modern dishes and a wine list that draws from multiple Italian regions, including Umbria, Tuscany, and Piedmont. On top of this, Simone and his restaurant are a featured host and attraction of our Umbrian Food & Wine Tours.

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We are sad to see Simone leave but we know he will be back! Before he departed, we were able to sit down and hear his reflections about his time at Via Umbria:

What does it mean for you to be able to come to Via Umbria and cook?

It is an honor to be able to cook true “la vera cucina italiana” in the United States, and especially here at Via Umbria.

What are your thoughts on Italian food culture in the US?

I have found that there some restaurants that are gems like Via Umbria that create what I believe to be true Italian food, and they teach the American people how the should should really be and taste.  This is in comparison to traditional Italian-American cuisine which is a different thing and includes classics like Spaghetti and Meatballs, Chicken Parmesan and Chicken Alfredo.

What is your favorite aspect of Via Umbria?

My favorite aspects of Via Umbria are the true authenticity that is apparent throughout the store, restaurant and cafe. Also the people!

What is your favorite part of Washington DC?

Definitely 14th Street and Georgetown. I think those two are my favorites!

What do you miss most about Italy when you are in the US?

I miss the simplicity of getting around and of daily life, everything in Bevagna is 5 minutes away.  I also miss the overall quality of life in Umbria, it is just different there.

Do you miss anything about the US when you return to Italy?

When I am in Italy, I miss the city itself, Washington DC and also my American family, the Menards!

Chef Simone Proietti-Pesci is a beloved and respected ambassador of Umbrian cuisine and lifestyle.  He is the Chef and Owner of the ...