Bill and Suzy Menard Amore Italia
By Tim Ebner, photography by Jennifer Chase
Suzy and Bill Menard aren’t Italian by descent, but now they’re both Umbrian—at least part of each year, and perhaps always in their souls.
In the late 1990s, the couple turned their passion for the Italian region of Umbria into a business by launching an online marketplace where they sold high-end Italian products—things like ceramics, textiles and wines—that were hard to come by in the United States.
Their retail business allowed them to travel frequently back and forth to Italy, but they still found they wanted something more. In 2014, the couple decided to open an Italian specialty shop, café and demonstration cooking space in the heart of Georgetown, called Via Umbria.
“When we first walked into the empty space, we looked at each other and knew that this was the building where we were going to create our dream,” says Suzy Menard. “Our job from day one has been to invite people in and give them a taste of Italy.”
Visiting Via Umbria is an experience in itself. Enter through the door, and you’ll feel like you’re visiting a rustic alimentari in central Italy. It’s an especially popular place to visit during the holidays—whether it’s for gifting one-of-a-kind kitchenwares or picking up a few last-minute meats and cheeses for your next party.
And it’s especially true that during the holiday season, just like in their adopted Umbria, the Menards go all out on sharing their love and passion for their second home. In their own words, they explain how both the shop and their travels help to add just a touch of Italy to Washington, DC.
Q: What’s it like to visit Via Umbria for the first time?
Suzy Menard: Well, we really want to take you by surprise. We want people to feel like they’re entering a little Italian village in Georgetown. So, by design, the front of the store has old hardwoods and brick walls. In the back, we have a café, where we wanted a brighter, more modern feel. Because Italy is many things, ancient and modern. For the demonstration kitchen upstairs, we designed it to be open and functional. It also showcases some of the beautiful Italian ceramics, which hang on the wall. Our galleria space, across the way, is where we host events and rotating art exhibits. Each space is meant to capture the great varieties and experiences of Italy.
Q: You travel a lot to Umbria. Tell us about your last visit.
Bill Menard: We own a farmhouse there that we use for business when we are there, and we then we rent it out by the week year-round. A couple times each year, in the spring and fall, we host small food and wine tours. Recently, we had a group of eight from the U.S., and we took them around Umbria for a week touring vineyards, farms, and visiting with local producers and artisans.
Q: Why did you decide to buy an Italian farmhouse?
BM: About 10 years ago, we bought the house with the idea of it being our base of operations for our business. Our farmhouse is in Umbria, which is called the green heart of Italy, and it’s located in a small village near Assisi, called Cannara. It’s a rural town famous for the Cannara onion. And this part of Italy is really quite magical.
Because before we opened Via Umbria, we owned and operated a small Italian goods shop in Bethesda, called Bella Italia. We imported goods from all over Italy, and as we grew step-by-step, from gourmet food products to ceramics to housewares to specialty wines, What we love about this business is the opportunity it gave us to travel to Italy and share it with others; we can now also be a purveyor of the Italian experience.
Q: Tell us about the new chef you just hired.
SM: Our new chef is actually someone we’ve known for a while. Liam LaCivita—he’s half-Irish and half-Italian—was the chef at Centro, which was next to our shop on Bethesda Avenue. We used to eat there a lot for lunch and dinner. One day, he came into Via Umbria and was blown away by the shop. It was very fortuitous for us.
Any time you join us for dinner at Via Umbria, you’ll be eating at the chef’s table upstairs. It’s designed to be interactive and communal. We want it to be an opportunity to meet new friends, which we think is what meals are all about.
BM: Food is essential and elemental to Italian culture. And Liam just gets it.
Q: In Umbria, the focus is on sourcing locally. How do you do that here?
SM: That’s what’s fun for us. We import from Italy, but behind our deli counter we also have meats and cheeses from local farmers and purveyors. For produce, we work a lot with Tuscarora Organic Growers Co-Op. We’re in this great situation where we are small enough that we can also go to small and local farms and buy direct.
Q: Do you have any holiday traditions that relate to Italian tradition?
SM: Our Thanksgiving is the peak of celebrating family and friends. We fly over at least four Italians friends for the holiday because they also want to experience an American Thanksgiving.
BM: We typically have anywhere from 40 to 60 family and friends gather, a very Italian way to celebrate. Everyone comes and we build out a calendar of food events. We roast a whole animal over a fire pit. We do a prime rib on the grill. We roast a turkey. And don’t forget about the seafood. Like any Italian celebration, there’s plenty of seafood. And like any Italian celebration, the meals go on and on and last for hours.