Need an idea for your next dinner party? Look no further than the “green heart of Italy.” Halfway between Florence and Rome, Umbria is the country’s only region without a coastline. But what it lacks in beaches it more than makes up for in natural dishes, stellar wines and a philosophy of entertaining that involves endlessly lingering at the table over cuisine. Bill Menard, who co-owns Via Umbria, a market, pantry, cafe, enoteca and restaurant that re-launched last fall on Wisconsin Avenue, dishes on everything you need to know for a congenial evening inspired by La Bella Italia.
Choose your company carefully
More important to Umbrians than the food or drinks on the table are the interactions taking place around it, Menard says. “To dine in Umbria is to relax...to get lost in and totally enjoy the moment,” he muses. “In a country renowned for its warmth, charm, and grace, Umbrians, with their authenticity, approachableness and connectedness to each other, their land, their traditions and their culture, stand out.”
Plan the menu
“It should be plentiful and it should be constant,” he says. “But many courses doesn’t and shouldn’t mean the host is spending the entire evening in the kitchen.” Umbrians like to savor a multitude of courses: antipasti, primo, secondi, contorno, and dolce--but they should all be simple and manageable.
Start with cured meats
Pork butchery was perfected in the Umbrian town of Norcia, and the word “Norcian” refers both to the local inhabitants and the Italian word for pork butcher. Let guests pick at salumi along with a selection of cheeses, bowls of pickled vegetables (giardiniera) and platters of mixed bruschetta.
Serve a pasta course
Simmer the sauce (homemade or purchased from Via Umbria) while guests are enjoying the antipasti, then cook and drain the pasta, toss with sauce and bring it to the table in a large ceramic bowl.
Above all, don’t rush
“Make them linger over an empty plate,” he advises. “You may see them lose control and take one more serving or salami or another bruschetta.”
Prep a do-ahead main course
Marinate a leg of lamb in olive oil, rosemary, salt and pepper before roasting it in the oven. Slather zucchini, broccoli, and asparagus with good olive oil and salt, then roast ahead of time on a baking sheet. Warm the lamb and vegetables when ready to serve, slice and serve family style on an attractive platter. “Your main course does not have to be too fancy or too much,” says Menard. “By this time your guests will appreciate you dialing back the quantities.”
Serve authentic, simple dessert
Set out glasses of sgroppino, a refreshing libation of vodka mixed with sorbet, or serve biscotti with dessert wine.
Cozy up to the wines of the region
Montefalco and Torgiano D.O.C. produce the highest quality wines in Umbria. Grapes Grechetto and Trebbiano Spoletino both produce crisp white wines; Menard says the former is heavier and a little more rustic, while the latter is elegant and complex.
Montefalco Rosso blends Sangiovese with native Sagrantino, resulting in a multi-layered yet very approachable red, while Sagrantino is the region’s most important and most extraordinary red wine. “This powerful, full-bodied, rich, complex wine is aged for three years in oak which allows the tannins to mature..resulting in an elegant wine that perfectly accompanies roasted meats.”