Tastes of Italy

Travel Tips: Drink up in Umbria!

It’s impossible to travel to Italy and not drink the wine, which flows as easily as water at some tables. And although Italian wines from all regions have an established reputation, we’re pretty partial to those that come from Umbria. And it’s hard not to be. Once you’ve traveled there and toured some of the vineyards, you’d be loyal to them as well! Here’s what Marco Palermi had to say when we asked him about what to taste in Umbria:

Ah! The wine and beer! Umbria is unique for its small family-run farms, and extensive biodynamic and organic wineries. There are many areas for wine production in Umbria, including Orvieto, Montefaclo Torniamo and Assisi, just to name a few.

The most grown type of grape is the Sangiovese, and Umbria is the center of production for this type. The Trebbiano and Grechetto grapes make delicious white wines, but when talking about wine in Umbria, one cannot miss the Sagrantino from Montefalco. This jewel in the crown of Umbria is the most delicious and prized wine in Umbria, and will change how you view red wine!

Bill and Suzy, your hosts at our vacation rental house, are both wine lovers and wine aficionados. Not only will they make sure you get to sample the full range that Umbria has to offer, but they are a wealth of information, and can answer any questions you may have about the wines – including how best to drink them!

But wine isn’t the only thing to indulge on in Umbria. Umbrian beers have grown in popularity recently, drawing from the monastic traditions of brewing that were popular in Umbrian history. San Biagio beer was one of the first breweries I’d heard of and tried, and they are definitely worth a taste. Lots of breweries thrive near Colifiorito, which is famous for its pure water springs, that enhance the taste and production of beers in the area.

In fact, actual Benedictine Monks brew beer up in the monastery in Norcia, and it is possible to buy that beer all year long, or plan a trip around August 15th, when they open the monastery to the public. Now if Norcia is too far away for authentic monk beer, definitely make a stop at Casa Norcia in Santa Maria Degli Angeli in via de Gasperi and try some a little closer to the villa. Other great breweries to try are: Birra Perugia, Khan beer, Birra Dell’Eremo (a close stop between Mt. Subasio and the villa), and Flea Beer.

The popularity of beer in Umbria has definitely gone up recently, and with good reason, the beers are truly delicious, and excellent paired with a slice of pizza or a torta al testo!

The crown jewel of Umbrian wines Read more

It's impossible to travel to Italy and not drink the wine, which flows as easily as water at some tables. And although ...

Bring on Grilling Season

I haven’t written much about my recent trip to Italy yet. There’s quite simply too much to say, if I wanted to convey how much I saw and learned on this expedition. Instead, I’ll focus on a single simple experience: watching a steak being cooked. Driving to Norcia, the walled town in southern Umbria famed for its excellent cured pork and as the home of some heady saints (Saint Benedict of Nursia and his sister Saint Scholastica), Chef Simone, informed me of a plan to stop for dinner on the way back north. But for now, we headed on to Norcia. This town was swimming in little butcher shops. Mostly selling the local cured pork and wild boar products, norcineria. The prosciutto here was so well-balanced: nutty, sweet, salty, that I was ready to write the USDA and complain about their importation requirements right then and there. And it sure didn’t help that we were trying this in a little restaurant on the main piazza in the shadow of St. Benedict and his church. I could go on and on, but we’ll save that for another time.

Hanging Sausages

After leaving the dizzying array of hanging cured meats behind us, we headed to the mountainside town where dinner was on the agenda. There certainly wasn’t much to this town, a few cafes and restaurants, with a truffle museum being the only real tourist attraction. The restaurant destination was a little osteria that felt more like a basement than a restaurant. Vaulted stone sealing, maybe ten tables, and a raging fireplace. Flanking the fireplace, a table with a whole prosciutto, sliced only by hand, made by the chef from pigs he raised himself. Above that, links of his dried sausage. This was the definition of comfortable.

For our main course, we ordered a steak, rare. To cook it, he brought out a little metal grill, placed in front of the fire and started moving the hot coals underneath it. Before too long, there was a massive steak sizzling right there in front of us. I was beside myself. Here I am, on an Italian mountainside, watching my steak being grilled right in front of me: on the floor of the restaurant. And unsurprisingly, looking at glowing hot coals, my mind wandered and I remembered all the times we grilled growing up.

Sizzling Steak

Fortunately for me, with this memory in mind, it’s starting to warm up here. What I mean to say is, it is almost time for us to start grilling too. We may not be able to cook up a steak right in our fireplaces, but we sure can cook on the open flame. At the Via Umbria meat counter, we’re ready. Having seen this steak transformed from raw meat into delicious dinner right in front of me, I think we should translate that experience to our own backyards. Whether it’s a prime cut that you’ve heard of: the ribeye, the New York strip, the fiorentina, or an off cut you may never have tried before: the hanger, the bavette, teres major, let’s throw that beef over some hot coals (or gas flame, if that’s what’s available). I’ll likely never have that experience again, coming immediately from one of the meat capitals of the world to fireplace-cooked steak; but we can make something just as delicious in our own backyards. So come on down, get a steak. Bring on grilling season!

 

Scott Weiss
Scott Weiss

Let’s throw that beef over some hot coals Read more

I haven’t written much about my recent trip to Italy yet. There’s quite simply too much to say, if I wanted to ...

Travel Tips: What to Eat in Umbria

When traveling overseas in unfamiliar places, it’s easy to seek out familiar foods rather than trying something new or unknown. This is quite a crime in Italy, a country with a distinctive culinary reputation that shines through in a wide rage of traditional dishes, cooking styles, and local ingredients. This varies from region to region, so before traveling to Italy, it’s a good idea to find out what foods are unique to the area you’re planning to stay in. Luckily for you, we have some insider knowledge from Marco Palermi, Umbrian travel expert, on what to eat while staying in Umbria:

Food is very important in Italy, and in Umbria, pork is king–both cured and fresh are fantastic, but the real treat is sliced porchetta from the porchetta trucks parked all over town. The best porchetta comes from Costano (they have a porchetta festival in mid August), but if you find the truck parked out front of the Conad Grocery store in Cannara, you won’t be disappointed.

Porchetta Truck

Most of what we eat depends on the season. In December you will see a lot of fennel, cabbage, onions, and tomatoes. Wild asparagus is abundant in spring, and mushrooms in the fall. What you will eat depends on when you are here as much as where you go. For us, seasons, traditions, and religion are often an excuse to eat–which is why you will see things like torta di pasqua (traditional easter bread), fried strufoli or frappe with honey during Carnival, and goose in August for the feast of the harvest. However, there are Umbrian delights that are always great year round.

Shopping for Seasonal Produce

Torta al testo is a staple to Umbrian gastronomy that cannot be missed. It’s a sandwich made of flat unleavened bread that is flame-cooked, and filled with the most delicious Umbrian flavors. You cannot go wrong pairing these with an Umbrian beer. And of course, after a great lunch, you must try gelato. The gelato around Cannara is all very good, but Bar Gennaro is the place to go.

Gelato

One town to know about (and visit before you leave Umbria) is Norcia. Its very well-known for its pork products (prosciutto, sausages, salamis) and also for its winter black truffles. The town is about an hour and a half drive from Canarra, but if that’s too far away for you, head to Santa Maria degli Angeli and visit Casa Norcia, a restaurant known for serving delicious meals and typical produce from the Sibillini mountains.

Another excellent experience is to visit a rosticceria, which is a kind of grocery store that has ready-to-eat meals, but unlike any ready-to-eat meal you’ve had before! It can be anything from lasagne to roast chicken, and it’s a very traditional Sunday activity. Good rosticcerias near la Fattoria del Gelso are Cucina’a in Foligno or Falaschi Gastronomia in bastia Umbra.

And no trip to Italy would be complete without sampling the cheeses available. From the Pecorino of Norcia to the Mozarella of Coliforito, there is no shortage of cheese to tempt your palate. Check out the nearby cheese stores in Santa Maria Degli Angelia, Brufani and Broccatelli, and try fresh creamy mascarpone, soft burrata caciotta, and wonderfully sharp pecorino.

Cheese and Meat Plate

There is no way to capture all the delicious foods available in Umbria, but starting here should give you a wonderful start to a true foodie experience.

Eat your way through the green heart of Italy Read more

When traveling overseas in unfamiliar places, it's easy to seek out familiar foods rather than trying something new or unknown. This is ...

A Bounty of Bacon

BACON! Okay, now that I have your attention let’s have a little chat, because bacon is a bit more complicated than you thought. One of the few cured meats that is meant to be cooked, bacon is most famous in the United States for its place on the breakfast plate. To get there, bacon goes through a multistep process that can involve curing, smoking, and pan frying (ah, the sizzling). This bacon is usually belly, and is almost always smoked. In fact, most of the unique flavors between different American bacons come from the wood used in the smoking process. The tradition of bacon for breakfast comes from the British Isles, where the most common kind of “rashers” are cut from the loin (think more like Canadian bacon). Leaner than the belly, this is a bacon that is cut a bit thicker than in the American tradition, and is chewy and meaty–not crispy. Either way, it’s tasty.

Pancetta

Here at Via Umbria, however, we also draw from the Italian bacon traditions: pancetta. Pancetta is the belly of the pig, cured into bacon just like here. The most crucial difference from the American bacon, however, is that it isn’t smoked and is sometimes rolled. In fact, most of the Italian pancetta you can find stateside is the rolled variety. Not so at Via Umbria; we primarily carry a “slab” of pancetta, that on a quick glance looks almost exactly like your typical breakfast bacon. This is not because the slab is different in any way from the rolled, just that better quality producers are mostly electing not to roll their pancettas. The use of the bacon is different too. Rather than slicing thickly and panfrying, you slice thin and eat raw. Or you dice and use as the base of an excellent sauce.

American Bacon and Jowciale

Bacon doesn’t stop there! In Umbria, and other areas of central Italy, you wouldn’t use pancetta. Instead, the choice is guanciale. Guanciale translates literally as cheek, and is produced in a fashion similar to pancetta, but using the jowl of the pig rather than the belly. It is usually fattier, and thus richer in flavor. I find that it is a superb addition to any charcuterie plate, the fat deliciously contrasts the meatiness of a prosciutto and the seasoned flavor of a salami. Also excellent for cooking, guanciale is the only real base of the carbonara and the amtriciana. American producers are catching on and making their own, sometimes putting their own American spin on it! You may have seen these on menus as “face bacon.” We carry one called jowciale, which is hickory smoked in Virginia and is fantastic when used to cook greens or pan-fried and put on a BLT or a burger.

However you like your bacon, we’re ready to meet your needs! Come have a chat with me at the butcher counter and we’ll make sure to have one that has you salivating.

 

Scott Weiss
Scott Weiss

Bacon is more complicated than you thought Read more

BACON! Okay, now that I have your attention let’s have a little chat, because bacon is a bit more complicated than you ...

Fifty Pounds of Cheese

On Wednesday March 30, passport in hand, our intrepid MELTers traveled through the raclette rivers and fondue forests to visit each of our five amazing cheese stations. First stop? The accompaniments table! A veritable cornucopia of mouthwatering treats from homemade pretzel bites to Gordy’s pickles, to a selection of our favorite charcuterie, this table featured something special for everyone (and every cheese).

Passport to Cheese

Choosing Accompaniments

Next, our fearless cheese fiends found sanctuary in a down-home Midwestern favorite: Wisconsin Cheese Curds. These ooey-gooey, deep fried pieces of heaven were an instant classic–especially when paired with Chef Johanna’s homemade marinara! Don’t just take our word for it though, stop by Spritz O’Clock soon to taste these mini marvels for yourself.

Wisconsin Cheese Curds

Further into the cafe, our daring patrons were treated to the dazzling spectacle (and mouthwatering aroma) of raclette being melted to order. When paired with Gordy’s Pickles and starchy potatoes, this station was a #MELTy indulgence beyond compare. For those of you looking to recreate this moment at home, stop by and pick up a Partyclette machine from our cheesemonger and be the host with the most at your next dinner party.

Enjoying Plates of Raclette

Before following the scent of cheesy goodness upstairs, our noshing nomads made a quick stop in the wine room for a triumphant taste of American Pub cheese. This beer based bite of bliss paired perfectly with the Port City Porter and Chef Johanna’s homemade pretzel bites. Pretzels, porter, and pub cheese? What more could a party provide?!

Dipping into American Fondue

The answer to that question lay waiting for patrons upstairs in our laboratorio where Chiara was serving an Italian Fonduta over perfectly toasted baguette. This truffle infused #MELTy masterpiece was clearly a crowd favorite, as it was the first to disappear. Fortunately, Federico came to the rescue and delighted our dauntless diners with handmade cheese ravioli. For those who missed it, he will be hosting an encore pasta performance in the Cafe every day at lunchtime.

Italian Fonduta Station

Last, but certainly not least, our gallant and engorged guests found themselves faced with a meal of mountainous proportions…or at least flavors. The Alpine Fondue station, featuring smooth, garlicky, Swiss flavors had everyone yodeling for more.

Bill at the Alpine Fondue Station

We would like to say a special Thank You to all of our courageous cheese connoisseurs for making this event such a success. We went through fifty pounds of cheese, but our cheese counter is still stocked! For those of you who weren’t able to attend (or want to relive the night), we have a special treat: visit our cheese counter and take home a fondue kit, specially curated by in-house Cheesemonger Alice Bergen Phillips and make a little #MELTed magic of your own.

Mini Fondue Kits

A MELT Retrospective Read more

On Wednesday March 30, passport in hand, our intrepid MELTers traveled through the raclette rivers and fondue forests to visit each of ...

The Art of Comfort Food

Today we sat down to chat with resident Chef and Certified Sommelier Vickie Reh. In addition to her work as Wine Director at Via Umbria, Vickie is the culinary powerhouse behind our Thursday Comfort Food dinner series. We talked about her favorite way to prepare a rare heritage grain, the place of comfort food within Italian culinary tradition, and what it means to cook with restraint.

Vickie with Stefano Marangon of Bisol Prosecco and Franceen Khang of Vias Wines. Here's they're trying out a Cuvée Rose Brut.
As Wine Director, Vickie Reh organized a sparkling wine tasting last week with Stefano Marangon of Bisol Prosecco and Franceen Khang of Vias Imports. Here, they’re trying out a Cuvée Rose Brut.

In your opinion, what is comfort food really all about? How do Italian food and comfort food intersect?

Comfort foods are the foods you dream about, the foods that warm your soul. They aren’t necessarily winter dishes. They’re dishes that evoke memories and emotions. I think that one of the basics of comfort food is that there aren’t a lot of complicated ingredients. Comfort food centers traditional combinations that make people feel happy and because you are using very few ingredients, the ingredients themselves must be perfect. That’s how Italian, and in particular, Umbrian food works.

In a way, Umbrian food is humble. Umbria is a landlocked region in Central Italy and Umbrian cuisine eschews more luxurious ingredients like lobster for grains, legumes and vegetables. You can certainly find some rich ingredients there, like gorgeous black truffles, but for the most part Umbrian cooking uses foods that can be grown or foraged in the surrounding countryside. When I travelled to Umbria, I was particularly fascinated by their use of this stunning variety of vegetables, legumes and grains.

Did anything surprise you about how they used these ingredients?

When I travelled to Umbria with Bill and Suzy, we tried grains and legumes I had never seen before. Some of the Italian chefs I later spoke to hadn’t even heard of them either. One of my favorites, which we cooked with Ernesto Panziani from Cannara, is called cicerchie. It’s sort of like a combination of a chickpea and a fava. It’s amazing but very obscure outside of Umbria.  Via Umbria is working to import it through Il Molino, an organic grain producer we visited just over the border of Umbria in Lazio.

Limited-edition C brought back from our food-buyer's tour of Italy this month!
Cicerchie bought by our food-buyer, Deborah Simon, on her food-buying tour of Italy this month. We haven’t got much left, so get some before it’s gone!

Ernesto did something very interesting with the cicerchie. Typically, cicerchie are made into soup or served cold in salads. But Ernesto cooked them until they were quite soft and then sautéed them with shallots and garlic in this beautiful olive oil. I’ve done that now five or six times at Via Umbria as a side dish for lamb. It’s so beautiful. The texture is fabulous—because the cicerchie are cooked until fairly soft, the texture when sautéed is similar to that of homemade refried beans. It’s not crunchy.  It’s got just a little chew, and this whole lovely chickpea-fava flavor mingled with the shallots and garlic. It’s such a good recipe. Although I serve it as a side dish, it could easily be a great main course for a vegetarian.

Vickie's cicerchie and lamb.
Vickie dressing cicerchie and lamb with a Sagrantino truffle reduction.

Your passion for Italian cuisine shines through in everything you do here. What makes Italian food special to you?

I love Italy and I adore Italian food.  It tends to be simple and classical. Italians have adhered to their traditions and classical roots. You’ll notice that’s how Ernesto and Simone cook. And that’s exactly how I have always cooked. I always say, I’m not trying to reinvent the wheel: I’m trying to make the perfect wheel.

For example, if I’m making Spaghetti with Cacio e Pepe, I’m not going to say, “For this new twist, I’m going to use a different type of cheese in my Cacio e Pepe!”  Instead, I will  use exactly what is traditionally used—Pecorino Romano, Parmigiano-Reggiano, and black pepper.” I want to use as few ingredients as possible because that’s how it’s made in Rome. When you’re in Italy, you’re eating amazing food that doesn’t have 5,000 different ingredients. It tastes really good and it’s not complicated.

I think it’s actually harder to cook well with fewer ingredients. It is all about restraint.  If you only have three ingredients in a dish, you have no room to hide. Each ingredient must be perfectly sourced, perfectly ripe. When I was head chef at Buck’s Fishing & Camping, I used to say, “Have the guts to buy a perfect tomato in season, add superb olive oil and the best sea salt, and call it a day.” One of my rules is to buy the best ingredients possible and get out of their way. To me, that’s what cooking is about. Letting the ingredients shine. I feel that’s very much an Italian concept.

Vickie's Comfort Food dinner last week was the perfect blend of elegance and familiar favorites.
Vickie’s Comfort Food dinner last week was the perfect blend of elegance and familiar favorites.

Join us for Vickie’s next Comfort Food dinner on Thursday, March 31st at 7:30 pm. Her beautiful meal will feature tagliatelle Bolognese, meatballs, raviole (a jam-filled tart), and more. We hope to see you there!

Get to know sommelier Vickie Reh Read more

Today we sat down to chat with resident Chef and Certified Sommelier Vickie Reh. In addition to her work as Wine Director ...

Bottomless Bellini Brunch

Brunch wasn’t until the afternoon, but the laboratorio kitchen got busy around ten o’ clock on Easter morning. Marco, Chiara, Bill, Suzy and Federico had their work cut out for them: in three hours, nearly 20 people would arrive to celebrate Easter, Italian-style. All hands were on deck, working together to create four glorious courses. Here’s a behind-the-scenes look at all the hard work and creativity that made this meal possible!

Bill skinning potatoes, which were later served as Contorni.
Bill skinned potatoes with a smile this morning.
Suzy and Chiara make an excellent team.
When they put on their aprons, Suzy and Chiara mean business.
Chiara beginning the Ciramicola, a colorful holiday cake.
Chiara starting the Ciramicola, a colorful holiday cake.
Marco mixing the dough for cherry cubotti.
Marco mixing dough for cherry cubotti.
Federico making tagliatelle from scratch.
Federico making tagliatelle from scratch.

The real fun began once all the guests arrived. Bellinis (and mimosas) flowed steadily, and families gathered around our communal table with friends new and old to celebrate.

One of our younger guests made quite a splash with her stylish bunny ears!
One of our younger guests made quite a splash with her stylish bunny ears!
Bill is a generous pour when it comes to Bellinis (and mimosas!).
Bill is a generous pour when it comes to Bellinis (and mimosas!).
Marco and Chiara's daughter, Viola, enjoying Easter salami.
Marco and Chiara’s daughter enjoying Easter salami.

We hope you’ll join us for our next holiday celebration! On April 23rd, we’ll host a Seder dinner to celebrate Passover. As always, guests of all faiths are welcome.

Buona Pasqua, and many thanks to all who shared their Easter with us today!

Easter in Via Umbria's Laboratorio kitchen Read more

Brunch wasn't until the afternoon, but the laboratorio kitchen got busy around ten o' clock on Easter morning. Marco, Chiara, Bill, Suzy and Federico ...

Torta Di Pasqua

Colombe cakes are a celebrated Easter treat throughout Italy, but did you know that Umbria has its own leavened Easter speciality? Today, chef Jennifer McIlvaine joined us to bake the region’s signature Easter bread, Torta Di Pasqua, before she returns home to Cannara. She gave us a little background on this delicious dish, as well as her own recipe. Here’s what she had to say about this beloved Torta.
Chef Jennifer McIlvaine kneading Torta di Pasqua dough.
Chef Jennifer McIlvaine kneading Torta di Pasqua dough.
Easter is the most important holiday in the Catholic church, so for Italians, Easter is the biggest holiday, even bigger than Christmas. In its earliest incarnation, Easter began as a Roman pagan tradition, which the Church turned into a Christian holiday to bring people into the fold.
During Carnevale, we make a lot of fried food because we have to use up all the fats, lard, and sugar in the house before Lent starts on Ash Wednesday, 40 days before Easter. During Lent, tradition says you’re supposed to fast from sweets and meat. But then on Easter morning, we eat Torta Di Pasqua.
Easter is the only day of the year that we eat a salty breakfast. We’ve been fasting from heavy things, but Torta Di Pasqua, or Pizza Di Pasqua, has eggs, pork fat, and lots of cheeses. Eggs were considered very expensive, so anything that has a lot of eggs was a sign of richness. In fact, we eat the Torta di Pasqua with a hard boiled egg. Eggs are another old pagan tradition. They have always been  a sign of spring, of rebirth and new beginnings. And that is why we have eggs for Easter.
Fresh organic eggs! These hens must have known Easter is right around the corner.
Fresh organic eggs! These hens must have known Easter is right around the corner.
Another traditional dish we eat on Easter morning with Torta Di Pasqua are the first salumi of the year. Today, farmers makes salumi all year long because we have refrigerators. However before refrigerators, farmers would only butcher pigs in November, December, and January, the coldest months of the year. The first salumi–smaller cuts like salami and capocollo–would age for three months and be ready to eat by Easter. So the tradition is that you eat Torta Di Pasqua, a hard boiled egg, and a slice of salumi. We always have lamb at easter, so we also eat Coratella, a lamb innerd stew, for breakfast as well. In Cannara, our town, we drink a sweet wine called Vernaccia with breakfast as well.

As far as buying Torta Di Pasqua versus making your own, in my town the split is about 50/50. In Cannara, the baker opens up his oven to the people of the town, usually on Holy Thursday or Good Friday, and lets them bake their own bread. So many people makes the dough at home and bakes it in his big oven. The best Torta Di Pasqua is made in a wood-fired oven, so you’ll see people light up their ovens a few days before Easter and then everybody brings their dough over. It’s a community thing, so people cook them together. It’s nice.

Here is Jennifer’s recipe for Torta Di Pasqua, which she made fresh for us today. Snag a mini Torta or get your very own full-sized loaf before they’re gone!

Golden mini Tortas, now available at our counter!
Golden mini Tortas, now available at our counter!

Jennifer McIlvaine’s Pizza Di Pasqua

  • 25 g brewer’s yeast
  • 1 tsp sugar
  • 100g warm water
  • 300g ’00’ flour
  • 500g ‘0’ flour + 100g for dusting
  • 5-6 eggs
  • 150g grated pecorino romano
  • 150g grated parmigiano reggiano
  • 1 tsp salt
  • 1 tsp pepper
  • 50g lard
  • 5 Tbs e.v. olive oil
  • 150g diced sharp provolone
  • 150g diced swiss cheese

In a large bowl, dissolve the yeast and sugar in the water.   Slowly add the flours, little by little, alternating with the eggs.  Mix well.  Add the grated cheeses, salt and pepper.  Mix well.  Add the lard and olive oil.  Knead well for about 10 minutes.   Add the diced provolone & swiss cheese and knead until well mixed.  Divide the dough into two equal parts and form into balls, folding the dough over itself.  Place each ball into a deep baking tin that has been greased (with lard) and floured.

Let rise for about 2 hours or until dough has reached the top of the tin.  Bake in the oven at 200°C for 20 minutes, then 180°C for another 40 minutes.  The Tortas are ready when a test stick comes out clean.

Every family has its own Torta Di Pasqua recipe. Check back later for more variations!

Umbria's Easter specialty bread Read more

Colombe cakes are a celebrated Easter treat throughout Italy, but did you know that Umbria has its own leavened Easter speciality? Today, chef ...

Deborah’s Italian Adventure

This week, we hear from Deborah, who has been combing every nook and corner of Italy for fabulous new products to stock the Via Umbria shelves.

For the past 12 days, I’ve been traveling the roads of Italy on a 19-day food buying tour. I’ve seen more of Italy then I ever expected to, and we’ve already traveled from the far northern edges to the very tip of the heel in Puglia. In a few days, we head to Sicily.

My companions on this journey have been quite interesting, and I’ve travelled with friends old and new. Scott, our butcher, joined me for the Northern leg of the journey, and I think he’s tasted more chocolate that he’s eaten in his entire life. Rissa, who has been instrumental in establishing our food program, is here with me in the South. 

This hillside view in Montepulciano, Tuscany is enough to make anybody jealous.
This hillside view in Montepulciano, Tuscany is enough to make anybody jealous.

I’ve also travelled with the Chef and owner of a restaurant in Traverse City, a restaurant owner in Nashville and his videographer, a Lithuanian with several different food-related businesses in Vilnius, and a woman from Northern Michigan who is earning her sommelier certification and working at a wine shop. Conversations in the van and around the table have covered everything from hiring to “what do you suppose is in this dish?” to “have you tried this wine?” The opportunity to spend time with everyone has been invaluable, and we’ve had a great time getting to know each other. I hope we will stay in touch.

Sampling delicious spreads by Villa Reale.
Sampling delicious spreads by Villa Reale.

From the start, Suzy and Bill have always emphasized the importance of the product. What’s in it, who made it, and ultimately, the quality. As a result, Via Umbria has shelves filled with amazing products made by people they’ve met personally, in facilities they have visited. That’s what I am doing on trip, and I’ve found it so humbling. For every producer we meet, this is very serious business. Careful thought and extreme care go into every detail of each visit and tasting. We have been feted in very small communities where restaurants and producers work together to find both creative and traditional ways of pairing their products with local, seasonal foods and wines.

Rissa gets a glimpse inside the facility at Gluti Niente, an organic, gluten-free pasta producer.
Rissa suits up for a facility tour at Gluti Niente, a gluten-free pasta producer in Salerno.

Almost every company we’ve seen is family-run, from the five generations of nougat and chocolate experts at Barbero to the brother-and sister enterprise Gluti Niente, a high-quality gluten-free pasta business entering its second year. And although it isn’t family-owned, Latteria di Cameri, which makes amazing gorgonzola dolce, is controlled by a consortium of dairy farmers who collectively set the standards for the cheese production. The stories of all of these producers are an integral part of their products, and it’s amazing to see the attention they devote to every step of the process, from the initial idea to the final packaging.

I can’t wait to share photos of the rest of my trip with you! Hopefully when you see them, you’ll feel a bit of what I do every time I step out of the van.

Ciao for now!

Deborah

Discovering the finest foods of Italy Read more

This week, we hear from Deborah, who has been combing every nook and corner of Italy for fabulous new products to stock the ...

How To Pasta The Time

Three o’ clock is a blissful hour at Via Umbria. Late afternoon sun streams through the storefront windows, bathing the shelves in soft, golden light. Since I started writing for Via Umbria last month, this has always been my favorite time to pop downstairs and taste the scrumptious samples scattered throughout the shop: perhaps a morsel of mostaccioili by the register, or a cheddar crumble at the cheese counter.  But yesterday, tantalizing aromas of bacon and freshly grated parmesan wafted from the cafe, and I had a hunch that an even greater snack lay in store.

Ernesto Parziani, chef and owner of the celebrated Umbrian restaurant Perbacco, was in the midst of a mouth-watering pasta and sauce cooking demonstration. With his week-long visit drawing to a close, I knew that this was an opportunity not to be missed.

Rolling pin in hand, Ernesto smiled and waved me over to his station, which was scattered with eggs, flour, parmesan wedges, and an array of pasta-making instruments. Water boiled next to a sizzling pan of bacon on a portable stovetop. I trotted over as Ernesto began to press a small, yellow mound of dough into the table.

I thought of the trays of delicate, ribbed tubes of Garganelli pasta that participants fashioned in his cooking class on Sunday, and wondered what was in store for this dough.

“I like to teach fresh pasta,” Ernesto told me as he rolled the mound of dough into a circle the size of a tortilla. “But you must find right consistency. If it’s too hard, it is difficult to roll. If it’s too soft, it sticks to everything.” He began to dust the dough with fine, white flour.

“My favorite dish to make is pasta. For us, in Italy, it’s like bread,” he explained, We eat it all the time, everywhere, with vegetables, with meat sauce, with fish, with eggs.” I gulped, mouth watering at the thought of such a world. Ernesto began pressing the dough into the taut steel strings of a chitarra, a guitar-like cooking instrument that Ernesto used to slice the flat yellow circle of dough into delicate strands of pasta before my eyes.

This dough will become spaghetti a la chitarra.
This dough will become spaghetti a la chitarra.

I hovered over him in awe.  “How did you learn to do this?” I asked.

“It was obvious,” he shrugged. Of course. I should have known.

“When you see your mother, your grandmother make pasta three days a week, it is obvious,” Ernesto smiled. I glanced down again at the spread of ingredients, and wondered aloud about the presence of the eggs. Wasn’t pasta just … water and flour?

“In Umbria,” Ernesto explained, “we used to make pasta without eggs. Just flour and water, or perhaps one egg white without the yolk. It’s called Strangozzi.” Ernesto pried a strand of pasta from the chittara and brought it to his neck, feigning strangulation. “We eat it simply, at home, with tomato sauce.”

“You see,” he continued, “in Umbria, we started to add eggs when we began selling eggs to make money. But in the North of Italy, they have always used a lot of eggs. For example, where my wife comes from–Parma, Bologna, places in the region of Emilia-Romagna–they use a lot of yolks … and this.” Ernesto gestured towards a large bowl of white flour.

“But in the South, like Sicily, near North Africa, they make dry pasta, with semolina.” He pointed to a smaller dish of tan, coarse flour. “They make pasta, but they make couscous too. Whereas in the North, they make pasta, but also they use corn flour to make polenta.” Ernesto arranged his raw pasta into a nest on the table.

This pasta-making instrument is called a "chitarra" (Italian for guitar) because of its strings.
This pasta-making instrument is called a “chitarra” (Italian for guitar) because of its strings.

“It’s too much for one person,” he sighed.

“I could eat it all!” I exclaimed.

Ernesto shook his head. “No. Too much for one person.”

As he dropped the pasta into the boiling pot, I remembered that in Italy, pasta is just one of many courses in a meal. But before I could finish that thought, Ernesto had tossed the pasta into a pan, where he speedily sautéed it in bacon and carbonara. Suddenly, a masterpiece lay before me. My heart fluttered–even if it was “too much for one person,” no one else was there to eat it with me! But as Ernesto grated a pile of fresh parmesan onto his creation, I heard Bill’s voice ring out from across the cafe.

“We got here just in time!” he called to us, an old friend following just behind him. I sighed as Ernesto divided the spaghetti onto four plates. My glutenous, gluttonous dreams had been dashed, but that ceased to matter as soon as I took the first bite. It was absolute heaven, and once I’d cleaned my plate, I realized that Ernesto had been right. Any more than that would have been too much. I thanked him heartily, and walked back to my desk feeling sated, but not gorged. And for that, I was grateful.

 -Lizzie

Pasta Making with Ernesto! Read more

Three o' clock is a blissful hour at Via Umbria. Late afternoon sun streams through the storefront windows, bathing the shelves in ...

Wine Tasting 101

As a sommelier, when I lead a wine tasting, I start from my passion. I began studying wine in 2008, which is also when I began to look at the journey of wine from producer to glass. That’s really how I came to understand wine. It’s important for wine lovers to know about where their wine comes from and how it’s made. Wine can taste very different when you know these things.

The first thing I tell people at a wine tasting is, “trust in your mouth.” What do you like? If a certain kind of wine agrees with your palate, explore that. If you’re just starting to seriously learn about wine, know that your tastes will change over time. Initially, I drank only simple wines, but eventually my preferences shifted. It takes time to develop a sense for all the components that make up a complex wine.

So, trust in your mouth, and your other senses, too. When tasting wine, start with your eyes. Look into your glass and observe the color of the wine. See how the light hits the wine in the glass.

First things first: Ombretta watches how the wine hits the glass.
First things first: Ombretta watches the way the wine streams into the glass.

Then, you must listen to the wine. How does it sound when the sommelier pours the wine into the glass? From this information, you’ll start to put together some ideas about the wine, which you must then confirm with your nose and, last of all, your tongue. It’s simple, but also very complex. All the senses are engaged and working together to determine what you are drinking.

As a sommelier, I’m very interested in matching wine and food. In Italy, we have lots of traditional foods to pair with traditional wines, and many different kinds of indigenous grapes from the North to the South. We are very rich, from this point of view. Umbria has an especially beautiful variety.

Grechetto, for example, is a white grape typical of Umbria. Although sometimes we may expect white wine to be thin, Grechetto is very structured, with an almond finish. In some ways, it’s similar to a red wine: it’s wonderful with beef, for example.

Trebbiano Spoletino pairs well with Umbrian cereal soups made of slightly sweet, nutty grains like barley and faro (with a little olive oil on top). They go together nicely because Trebbiano Spoletino delivers a fresh, fruity finish. Both Grechetto and Trebbiano Spoletino are white wines, but your tongue will react quite differently to each!

Ombretta and Via Umbria chef and wine director Vickie are expert sippers.
Wine is better when sipped together! Ombretta and Vickie enjoy a glass and each other’s company.

The two traditional red wines of Umbria are Montefalco Rosso and Sagrantino. Both are perfect with beef, pork, and fresh black truffle. Montefalco Rosso is a blend of about 70% Sangiovese, a widely cultivated grape in Umbria, and 15-20% Sagrantino. Each winery can choose which kind of grape makes up the last portion. Merlot or Cabernet Sauvignon are typical.

Sagrantino is somewhat astringent and robust, but it’s also long and elegant, leaving room for notes of fruit and spices. The Italian laws about production are very clear: a Sagrantino must age for 37 months. When it comes to rich, complex wines, it’s not so easy to maintain elegance, but a good Sagrantino does. Wine is like an orchestra. All the instruments have to play at the right moment, in perfect time, to create a symphony.

To learn more about Umbrian wines (and taste some yourself) join us for Ombretta’s wine tasting class on Wednesday 3/9! Test out what you’ve learned with a wine dinner afterwards.

Ci Vediamo!

Above, watch Ombretta do a quick swirl and swish in the Via Umbria wine cave.

With Sommelier Ombretta Ubaldi Read more

As a sommelier, when I lead a wine tasting, I start from my passion. I began studying wine in 2008, which is also when I ...