Wednesday, April 18, 2012 | Category: Travel Stories, Travel Tips, Travel Writing
Let’s face it, there’s something special about Italy . . . Suzy & Bill Menard
When I’m missing Italy (which is whenever I’m not there), it helps to surround myself with Italian things. Food, ceramics, music, wine, movies. . . you name it, it all helps. A fresh fig can keep me happy for days. Well, I recently found a source for all the things that make me smile, and I want you to know about it, too.
I’d first heard of Bill and Suzy Menard when I signed up for Kathy McCabe’s Dream of Italy Umbrian Harvest Tour back in 2010. The villa that we stayed in, La Fattoria del Gelso, is owned by the Menards and it provided us with a truly comfortable and stress-free Italian experience in a small town in a small valley in the shadow of Assisi. The more I learned about them, the more I wanted to know.
Fast forward two years and I’ve signed up for a cooking class to be given by the only American licensed tour guide in Umbria, Anne Robichaud (more about Anne in another post), and it’s in Bethesda, Maryland. Right where the Menards have their store, Bella Italia. So I write to Suzy and tell her that as long as I’m going to be in town, I’d like to stop by and see the store, take some pictures, etc. Well, alas, Bill and Suzy are in Italy on their annual buying trip (boo-hoo) but Suzy wrote right back and told me that two of the fellows who work with her in the store, Brett and Marc, were also planning to attend the class and of course they’d show me around the next day. So off I went.
The day I walked into the store, the front table was piled high with the famous Colomba of L’Acquila — the dove-shaped
cake that appears for Easter, harkening to the coming of spring and a wish for peace. Their Colomba, from Sorelle Nurzia, was wrapped magnificently in blue paper and blue ribbon, some even boxed for special presentation. I took one home and served it for Easter dessert; I’ll get it again and again, and will absolutely try their Panettone for Christmas. But I was still only five feet into the store!
As I looked around, I saw masks and puppets from Venezia, marbled Florentine papers, Umbrian textiles from Montefalco, foods from throughout Italy and ceramics from Deruta. There were books — I wanted all of them — and gorgeous knives that came from the Tuscan village of Scarperia that I had visited a dozen years ago and even Pinocchio dolls from Collodi. There was jewelry on the counter and soaps and decorative glass from Murano and much more that I’m sure I’m forgetting. In addition to the Colomba, I bought an assortment of pasta integrale (whole grain) and a balsamic jelly in the most beautiful glass container ever that I can’t wait to slather on a pungent cheese crostini.
The centerpiece of the store, for me, is the collection of ceramics from Deruta. The Menards have chosen three lines to import — Geribi, D’Arna and Ricceri — and feature a fine collection in the store. If you know someone who loves Italy and has a wedding or a special occasion coming up, this is the place to go. I’d register for a whole set if I were getting married again! Best thing about it is that you can order online; also, Suzy will be happy to talk with you about special orders if you can’t find exactly what you’re looking for. My personal favorites are from the Geribi studio — the ones with the animals in the center and the peacock feather/chicken feet motif. I bought one when I was there in 2010 and it makes me smile every time I see it.
Bill and Suzy opened Bella Italia in 2003 to bring some of what they love about Italy to the States. Their love affair with Italy began nearly two decades ago, when Bill was a student in the Georgetown University Law Center summer program in Fiesole (near Florence). They went back to Italy frequently after that and, after attending a cooking class on the Italian Riviera in 1995, they partnered with the chef to create an internet-based Italian import business that supplied gourmet food products from family run Italian suppliers. And so Bella Italia was born. Of course, now they had to travel back to Italy frequently to source products and artisans for their shop, and eventually they got the idea to bring Americans to Italy, just as they had been bringing a taste of Italy to Americans.
In 2008 Bill and Suzy established Experience Umbria and purchased their beautiful villa, La Fattoria del Gelso, a
historic stone farmhouse situated on a 40-hectare working farm in one of Italy’s most fertile regions. They offer tours (food/music/photography) several times a year, but even on your own, this is a fantastic base from which to visit the Umbrian cities. And seeing it with the Dream of Italy tour is, well, dreamy.
But back to the shop. If you’re anywhere near the Washington, D.C. area, I urge you to drive to Bethesda and check out Bella Italia. The staff is friendly and helpful and the products are wonderful. Be sure to check out the store events — everything from book groups to ceramic painting to olive oil tastings and opera nights. If you can’t get there in person, keep the website on your Bookmarks Bar. Whenever the “missing Italy blues” hits you can order something and get your smile back.