This year marks the 40th anniversary for VIETRI, the Italian ceramic dinnerware line founded by Susan Gravely. Below she shares an excerpt from her new book, “Italy on a Plate,” that is part memoir, part cookbook, and releases on March 14.
By Susan Gravely | Photography by Infraordinario Photo
Fellow North Carolinians who also feel at home in Italy, Frances Mayes and Ed Mayes are kindred spirits to me. Our paths first crossed professionally with a commissioned dinnerware collection in honor of Frances’s bestselling book “Under the Tuscan Sun,” and that project was the start of a rich, decades-long friendship. Momma, Frances and I have had the joy of Frances and Ed’s company in their homes in Hillsborough, North Carolina, and in Cortona, Italy, and no matter where we are geographically, we have always felt inspired, welcomed and at ease in their warm company.
Frances and Ed are passionate and skilled cooks whose enthusiasm for good food is contagious. They are curious about culinary traditions, and they produce their own delicious, award-winning olive oil from their olive groves in Cortona. They also grow their own herbs, vegetables and fruits so they can use the freshest produce in their kitchen, following the Italian tenet that food tastes best when it is simply prepared with high-quality ingredients. I have been lucky enough to dine with them in their beautiful Italian home, Bramasole, many times, and I am grateful to be the beneficiary of their gracious hospitality and culinary interests and talents.
Bramasole is perched on a knoll above a winding road. It’s an incredible 250-year-old Italian farmhouse with terra cotta walls and light green shutters. A descending, tiered garden unfolds in front of the house with flowering plants, stone walls and walkways along which to amble. The home looks out on five acres of rolling green hills, cypress trees and an expansive, brilliant sky. The Mayeses have kept the interior faithful to Italian tradition; the original walls are painted with soft, dreamy frescos, large stone fireplaces bring warmth and texture, exposed ceiling beams showcase the home’s history and craftsmanship, ornate crystal chandeliers glimmer overhead, and rustic, wide-tiled floors are layered with beautiful rugs. The fabrics are both comfortable and rich, inviting one to sit down and stay a while.
While Bramasole is full of beautiful Italian antiques and has formal touches, it is Frances and Ed who inspire me by creating an inclusive, unpretentious, yet very special atmosphere for their guests. They have collected a diverse and rich group of friends over many years, and I always look forward to seeing who else might be invited to dinner – it could be the town librarian, a gardener, a dear family member or a movie star!
A dinner party at Bramasole usually begins with enjoying a glass of prosecco or red wine in their open kitchen as they put the finishing touches on dinner. Including guests in the final stages of cooking has become one of my favorite ways to entertain as well; it puts everyone at ease and creates a familial, collaborative and gracious atmosphere. There’s no fluster or pressure to have a perfect final product before the doorbell rings; rather, it’s a relaxed and easy way to start an evening. I remember when Frances and Ed told me that there was no Italian word for “stress” until Americans brought it over. Even though “stressato” now exists in the Italian vernacular, it is something I have never felt under their roof.
Before sitting down for dinner, Frances and Ed serve an inviting array of antipasti that showcases the bounty of the season. They have taught me how Italians roast chestnuts over the open fire during the holidays, and they’ve shared the way to make perfect bruschetta with fresh summer produce (the lesson remains to keep the recipe simple and use the best quality ingredients you can find).
Next, the party moves to the dining room, where Frances loves to set creative, unexpected and gorgeous tablescapes. Linen tablecloths and napkins dress the table, and down the center are a collection of treasures from the house – small sculptures, little bowls, tall candles and more. The effect is unique and artistic, and it has encouraged me to remember to look around my own house first when I’m putting together my table at home. The menu always features what is in season, served in traditional Italian style. What strikes me the most about these dinners at Bramasole is the twinkly-eyed, curious and youthful nature of the hosts. Conversations take the most fascinating turns because Frances and Ed are interested in everyone and everything. They are adept at finding common ground with anyone, yet they are always delighted to learn something new. Dinners at their house continue long after dessert is enjoyed, as everyone lingers at the table, sharing memories and adventures. The Mayeses have a way of making their guests feel appreciated and valued at their table, and that is something I endeavor to recreate for guests in my own home. During a recent visit, Frances and I walked into a local art gallery in Cortona that had three prints of Bramasole on display. The owner of the gallery, a friend of Frances’, said that they always sell quickly thanks to Frances’ bestselling book. Everyone wants to own a piece of that life under the Tuscan sun! I hope Frances’ favorite recipes will give you a taste of that wonderful life.
LIGHTNING ROUND WITH SUSAN
• Number of VIETRI employees, then and now: When we first began in 1983, it was Momma, Frances and me. Today, we have approximately 52.
• Favorite VIETRI piece: My very first set of Campagna dinnerware from my first trip to Vietri sul Mare with my mother and sister in 1983.
• Best part of working with family: You always know you are loved and encouraged and trusted, even in the difficult times.
• Favorite recipe from the book: Hands down, the orange and sage scented shortbread cookies, created by Frances Mayes herself.
• If I could only travel to one Italian city ever again, I’d go to … Florence.
• Three must-haves in my suitcase when traveling to Italy: A black cashmere sweater, black trousers, and a white cotton collared long-sleeved shirt.
• Red or white wine? Red.
• Favorite dinner spot in Hillsborough: Antonia’s.
• Farthest I’ve shipped a VIETRI piece: Australia.
• Three dream dinner party guests: Dalai Lama, Oprah Winfrey and Frances Mayes.
• I’d serve them: A crisp green salad, veal piccata, fresh peas, homemade biscuits, a light red wine and a refreshing sorbet served with Frances Mayes’ orange and sage scented shortbread cookies. (Recipe below!)
• What’s next? The future is bright. We are always looking ahead and discovering new and exciting treasures.
CROSTINI DI PISELLI E SCALOGNO (PEA AND SHALLOT CROSTINI)
YIELDS 8 TO 10
Crostini are toasted slices of a finely textured bread loaf, usually a baguette. Bruschetta is also toasted, but it uses larger slices of a rustic Italian or sourdough bread.
- 2 Tbsp. extra-virgin olive oil
- 4 shallots, minced
- 2 cups fresh peas, shelled
- 3 Tbsp. chopped mint
- 2 Tbsp. mascarpone
- 1⁄4 tsp. salt
- 1⁄4 tsp. black pepper
- 8 to 10 slices bruschetta or crostini, toasted
Heat the olive oil in a medium sauté pan over medium heat. Add the shallots and peas and sauté 4 minutes, or until the peas are barely done and the shallots are wilted. Stir in the mint, mascarpone, salt and pepper.
Transfer to a food processor and coarsely chop. Spoon onto the toasted bruschetta or crostini and serve at room temperature.
ORANGE AND SAGE SCENTED SHORTBREAD BISCUITS
YIELDS 2 DOZEN
Shortbread is a versatile and quick cookie to bake. It freezes well, too. You can make a simple version with a little vanilla, skipping the flavors below. Another delightful variation? Cut the shortbread into bars and dip them individually into chocolate.
- 8 ounces unsalted butter, softened
- 1⁄2 cup sugar
- 2 cups all-purpose flour, sifted
- Pinch of salt
- 1 Tbsp. orange zest
- 6 fresh sage leaves, minced
Combine the butter and sugar in a medium bowl and beat until fluffy. Add the flour, salt, zest and sage leaves, and mix until the dough comes together.
Divide the dough into two equal portions and roll out 2 (2 1⁄2- to 3-inch diameter) logs on a lightly floured surface. Wrap with plastic wrap, and chill the dough for at least two hours.
Preheat the oven to 325 degrees F.
Cut the cookies into 1⁄2-inch slices and place on a parchment-lined baking sheet. Bake for 25 minutes. Check after 20 minutes for doneness; cookies should be slightly firm to the touch.
Remove with a spatula to a wire cooling rack and serve warm, or at room temperature.
Chapter 6 essay and recipes used with permission from “Italy on a Plate” by Susan Gravely (Vietri Publishing, 2023).