Georgetown is home to Umbria’s very own embassy, Via Umbria.
Unofficial ambassadors of the famed central Italian region, Bill and Suzy Menard have taken it upon themselves to introduce and share the experience of sitting around a table for hours while drinking a bit of wine and enjoying delicious Umbrian fare.
From taste to décor, Via Umbria is a genuine Italian market and restaurant,providing authentic Italian experiences to DC diners. A market and café lie on the first floor, and on the second, a kitchen, dining room and gallery.
The large communal table in the dining room seats up to 20 people and serves as the perfect space for mingling with friends and strangers alike for a few hours, drinking exquisite wine and eating delicious Italian meals.
“Our tagline is discover, savor, share”, says Bill.
The couple are lovers of Italian cuisine and the Italian tradition of enjoying long meals with good wine and conversation. Their idea was to create ‘a place where people could have Italian experiences and group experiences like that’. When asked about their strengths, they say: “We are good at creating community and a place where people can easily meet others and connect with them.”
“What we’ve discovered over in Italy is that if you’re open to people and warm and don’t rush through things, you can make some great friendships. We don’t consider this just a restaurant, because the experience of doing something with a larger group of people that you don’t know is one that you don’t get in a lot of other places.”
“People tell us that we should retire and move to Italy, but even if we didn’t have this, I don’t think that we would move there full time. This whole business has given us an appreciation for all the great things that we like to bring over here. The lifestyle, approach to life… They have beautiful things but they don’t buy as many of them as is the culture here. At the same time we are learning to appreciate more of what we like about being Americans.”
At first, they started a small online business as a hobby, importing gourmet food products from Italy. Their sole purpose was to have an excuse to keep in touch with a chef with whom they’d fallen in love after taking cooking classes with him.
“We kept going back and kept meeting with him, meeting new producers, learning more about things like balsamic traditionale and these specialty products.”
They then branched out to selling ceramics handmade by Italian artists. These goods were the product of a friendship formed between Bill & Suzy and an Italian family who owned a studio in Deruta.
“We knew that Deruta was a famous town for ceramics so we drove over. We were walking there and we saw this particular company’s stock and thought it was interesting so we went in and met the mother who only speaks Italian, no English!
We bought things from her and we kept going back there over the years and got to be very good friends with them. We are their biggest customer and they are our best friends now. Their son just left us yesterday, he had spent three months over here studying English and hanging out!”
What makes the authentic Italian experience come to life?
“This farm truck is called an Ape, which means bee, because it goes zzz and sounds like one. You’ll see this farm vehicle all over Italy, and old farmers and their wives will drive it down the streets… They’re so iconic and we just said that it would set a great mood if we had one of these in the shop..”
With all renovations in place, Via Umbria was fully equipped to provide diners with an authentic Italian experience, boasting only the finest and freshest ingredients from Italy. The origins of the ingredients were of the utmost importance to Bill and Suzy. They were against buying from big corporations and only bought from producers they knew and trusted.
Take their olive oil for example, as Bill explains:
Source: Via Umbria
“You cannot believe a word you see on a bottle of olive oil. They’ve written the rules so that you can buy a bottle of olive oil from Italy and it doesn’t have any Italian olives in it.”
Suzy chimed in: “We’ve been fortunate to go over in the fall to be with the home growers, and going over to their fields, watching them pick the olives then going back to watch the whole crushing process. They basically give us a spoon and we catch the oil as it’s coming out. The new olive oil that is bitter and green is just magical…”
“… and then we import that olive oil and have it on our shelves”, Bill ends off.
In addition to the finest Italian ingredients, they also ‘import’ the finest Italian chefs.
“We find the chefs. We’re over in Italy about three times a year, over a month at a time, and about half that time we are organizing and running wine tours. We take people out to truffle hunts, dinners and cooking classes. We sort of joke that through all this, all of our friends in Italy are either winemakers or chefs, and it’s true.
We’ve made friends with all these chefs just by going to their restaurants and talking to them. I think after a few visits, you build a little credibility and recognition from them. And one thing leads to another. Business happens slowly in Italy and it depends on relationships. You build a relationship and then you start doing business.”
On experiencing a communal dinner:
S: “The best thing about our dinners is that we’re the only restaurant in town where you can buy wine downstairs at retail and you drink it upstairs. So it’s a great way to try new wines. Before dinner we go down to the wine room. The chef makes some recommendations that we offer and bring up. If they don’t finish the bottle, then we can cork it and they can take it home. So you can get that experience of trying new things with the food that it was designed to go with.”
B: “Sometimes the chef comes out to talk about the dish and how it’s prepared, where it comes from, why it’s this way, and what’s unique about it.” It augments the experience. It’s interactive. We’ve designed this to look like you’re in a kitchen and you’re having a dinner party. We tell you everything. No secrets.”
Setting up Via Umbria was no easy feat.
B: “The biggest challenge is that everybody tells you no, all of the time. Everyone. Not just your lawyers, but your employees, your customers, contractors. Nothing is possible. They’re wrong though, because we see a lot of this stuff over in Italy. And true, they are a different country and have a different way of doing things, but you can get to yes.
You just need to be really persistent about it. And we’re very persistent. It’s because we know where we want to go.
We’ve always had to tailor the business and adapt, but over time, persistence and finding the right people who actually believe in us and what we’re doing is who we want onboard if we’re going to succeed in this at all.”
S: “ The hardest thing is having everything working at the same time. Because there’s so many moving parts, having nothing completely derail. There’s always that one little gear that isn’t working. But, we have such a great group of people working for us that the show goes on.”
B: “Suzy is here all the time. She really is”.
Finally, we asked the couple to pick only one dish that they would make for people respectively.
“I particularly like a pasta dish called pasta a la norcina and it’s simple and hearty. It’s a pasta noodle with sausage and cream sauce that is the simplest thing in the world. Maybe some truffle on it. It just reminds me of Umbria.”
“Everything is affected by the season. One of my favorite dishes ever made is Umbrian sausage with grapes. It’s so simple.”