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.
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.
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.
In a country that is renowned for its warmth, charm and grace, Umbrians, with their authenticity, approachableness and their connectedness to each other, their land, and their culture stand out. For me, there is no place in which this authenticity stands out more than around the dinner table. When I think back on the many (many) meals that I have enjoyed in Umbria, each one is colored with the rosy glow of being surrounded by strangers turned friends and friends turned family, all sharing stories, wine, and food and all living in the moment. The food is simple yet exquisite, the company is fascinating yet unassuming, and the conversation is energetic yet relaxed; every day brings a new experience and every night is a celebration. A visit to Umbria is truly an opportunity to experience authenticity in all aspects of what it means to be Italian.
This is the feeling that drives much of what we do at Via Umbria. We have created a space for friends and neighbors to meet, to eat, and to relax. A place to showcase the work of the amazing artisans of Italy, from ceramicists to winemakers, and to introduce their products and their stories to a new community. Above all, however, we are determined to recreate the feeling of sitting around a dinner table in Umbria- sharing food, telling stories, and creating memories- and from this the Laboratorio was born.
From the communal style seating to the open kitchen format, every aspect of the Laboratorio was designed with the Umbrian experience in mind. The space was created to be open, to be flexible, and to be interactive; in short it is our Laboratory, our space to explore and to create. For those of you who have yet to join us for dinner imagine it like this: take one part dinner party, add in one part of your favorite cooking show, one part wine tasting, and combine those together with a beautiful setting and an engaged group of friends and neighbors sharing a unique and unforgettable experience and you may start to get a sense of what I’m talking about.
But as with all things, the best way to truly understand is to see it for yourself. Join us for dinner Thursday – Saturday night, or for brunch on Sunday for an unforgettable feast in our demonstration kitchen. Enjoy a Thursday night Demo and Dinner and let Chef Johanna Hellrigl teach you her favorite recipes from all over Italy before retiring to the communal table to enjoy the fruits of your labor. Visit us on a Friday night for a CYOB Dinner and let us teach you about a selection of wines from our unique cellar during a guided tasting before choosing your favorite bottle (or bottles) to accompany your meal. For the wine lovers, I encourage you to join us on a Saturday night for a Wine and Dine dinner where each of four courses is paired with a unique wine chosen and discussed by our experienced wine staff. And for those of you who crave relaxation at the end of your week, we welcome you to our Sunday Bottomless Bellini Brunch. No matter the format, no matter the day, a meal spent around our table will be one to remember.
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 my steak grilling – right in front of me.. 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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
Where to dine? After a long day of travel fiercely resisting all of that yummy airport and airplane food I arrive back in Washington tired and hungry. I always think of DC as being a vibrant, late night city – but the reality is that Washington has many small town characteristics. Primarily being that most restaurants close by 10:00pm. In Italy dinner would just be starting – and here in the nation’s capitol – we are shut down. Even pizza delivery is cut off by 10:00. Having travelled for the last four weeks there isn’t a bite to be had at home. Funny how our two sub-zeros used to be full to bursting and now they just store a Brita water filter and a collection of mustard.
Thank God for Bistro du Coin. The one restaurant in town that still knows how to make a mean steak frites and make sure everyone has a good time. This is our usual go to spot for that last bottle of champagne after everyone else has closed up. We stroll in around 10:30 and the place is packed. Apparently we are not the only Washingtonians who want a late night dinner that doesn’t come from a drive thru window. We settle in to our steaks and fries and order up a bottle of bubbly. Welcome home.