Celebrating Susan Gravely’s “Italy on a Plate”

Susan Gravely and I have travelled parallel paths. Our first trips to Italy happened at about the same time in the 1980s. We both fell deeply in love with the beauty of its towns, the wonder of its food and wine, and the extraordinarily vivid, generous, and talented people we met there. Inevitably, our lives would be shaped around our shared Italophilia. 

Susan once founded Vietri, widely regarded today as America’s top dinnerware company. For 40 years, she has cultivated relationships with skilled ceramic and glass artisans across Italy. Their work, and their friendships with Susan, have brought Vietri to the best stores in our country. Neiman Marcus placed an order at her first trade show. From that early endorsement from a retail authority, Vietri has grown into 2,000 accounts across the US with a fulsome offering of dinnerware, glassware, flatware, home accessories, and more. Glassworks in Shadyside is part of Vietri’s network.

Susan Gravely in a yellow dress speaks to a man and woman seated at the dining table with a fancy light fixture over head.

A Wordless Meeting 

My own Italophilia guided me into a career as a merchandising executive in the home divisions of top US department stores. I saw Susan frequently at trade shows in New York, Milan, Atlanta, and Dallas. Her direct gaze, the interest she took in everyone who came her way, and her inventive knitting together of makers, products, colleagues, and customers, impressed everyone. She seemed able to see at a glance the movement of her products from factory floor to store shelves to kitchen tables, and wisely guided her business with what she saw. 

As Susan tells it, our most important rendezvous involved no exchange of words or glances. In fact, I didn’t even see her. Working hard in a Tuscan factory to pack a very late order of plates, she ducked her sweaty, dusty, T-shirt-wearing self behind a stack of boxes as I strode, in suit and tie, toward a conference room to inquire about the very same late inventory. Her conspirators kept her secret admirably, but I’m truly sorry she hid. I would have thrown my jacket off, loosened my tie, and pitched in. Working side by side, I might have enjoyed some of the stories Susan relays in Italy on Plate

The book Italy on a Plate by Susan Gravely sits on a brown placemat of a dining table.

Bringing Stories to Life Through Literature

We might have enjoyed dinner afterwards at Ristorante La Lanterna, a trattoria in Montelupo Fiorentino whose food and atmosphere draw not just people passing through on business, but generations of locals too. Susan shares several recipes from their menu in Italy on a Plate. I then smiled over her words about this place and its owners, the Pieraccioli family, recalling how often a combination of respect, humility, interest, and humor launched me time and time again into relationships with people who could just as easily brushed me off. Often the first step was to allow myself to be convinced by someone that wine with lunch does not distract from but rather adds to one’s intelligence! To paraphrase an old saying: When in Rome, do as the Romans do. Good things happen.

The book provoked even deeper smiles when describing people who have become her fast friends, and with whom I have also done some very happy buying, laughing, and breaking bread. Mariano Venzo from VBC in Nove then invites Susan into his home for family meals. His jovial countenance accompanies a willingness to experiment with new ceramic techniques and new dinnerware designs. Don Vincenzo Solimene, whose business is located along Italy’s breathtaking Amalfi coast, welcomed her into his 1960s Futurist factory, designed by architect Paolo Soleri. Together, with his children and an amazing crew of artisans, they introduced a collection of hand-painted plates to Americans which are now an instantly recognizable classic. I remember the first time I saw these plates in use–at the famed Orso Restaurant in NYC’s Theater District–and I marveled at their witty motifs. Brava Susan, I thought.

The interior of a darkly painted dining room sits a dining table decorated with brown placemats, lots of wild flowers, and blue plates.

Sharing the Love

I especially enjoyed her sketch of Franco Ammannati from Ceramiche Virginia, located in the countryside not far from Florence. A man of great creativity, he has been a part of some of Vietri’s most successful designs. Take Cucina Fresca, for example. Susan was searching for a collection of durable, high-fired dinnerware that would somehow express the tactile charm of low-fired terra cotta earthenware (pretty, but prone to chipping). Franco realized that by brushing the edges of plates with some beeswax prior to their final firing, he could coax the glaze into the gentle irregularity of terra cotta, with no sacrifice of strength. Franco’s genius is paired with an unforgettable sense of humor. The off-color punchlines of his very best stories prevent me (alas) from repeating any here! 

“These people have become as dear to me as family,” writes Susan. I know the feeling. One of my most cherished friendships was forged in the same mix of Italy, creative business, travel, love of food, sharp humor, and just plain old goodness of heart. I met Lisa Ottanelli in 1996 on a merchandising trip to Italy for Saks Fifth Avenue. As my buying agent then, she was supposed to keep me out of trouble and help me place efficient, easy-to-fill orders. Instead, we managed to get into all sorts of Lucy-and-Ethel trouble on the road, in the name of innovative product development and retail success.

Susan Gravely in a yellow dress holds a red glass in her hand and talks to two people whose backs are towards the camera.

Decades later, Lisa was an absolute integral part of Barberry Handmade, the artisanal store my sister and I ran in Sewickley not long ago. Still joined at the hip almost 30 years later, we’re planning a trip together even as this story goes to press. 

A Celebration for a Passionate Woman

Susan visited Pittsburgh last year to hold a book lecture and signing at TABLE Studios in Shadyside. A full house listened raptly to her stories of people, plates, and repasts. Afterwards, many of our guests shared the ways Vietri has been a part of their lives. The next day, 16 aficionados gathered at my house in Sewickley for lunch with Susan. Chef Kate Romane of Black Radish Kitchen prepared crostini, a green salad, Pesce all’Aqua Pazza and Torta di Mele Classico. These last two recipes, fish in a deliciously flavored tomato broth, and classic apple cake, are found in Italy on a Plate.

A light blue plate holds a dish of tomatoes in a sauce with a fork positioned at the top of the plate. On the placemat sits anotehr small plate and a glass of water.

James Mohn and I, as hosts, along with Justin Matase (who mixed a wonderful mocktail to start us off), set the table. Anne Dickson of Fox and the Fleur came early to create lush florals for the foyer, living room, and table. Susan, her “Gal Friday” Brette Baumhover, and Ilene Levy and Henry Shenk from Glassworks, arrived first. Then the rest of the guests arrived in summery splendor: Vivian Benter, Kanika Capel, Brenda Friday, Tim Komen, Mollie Hanna Lang, Nikol Marks, Kathe Patrinos, and Stacy Weiss. 

Two rectangular plates in blue and light purple hold a scoop of white cream with flower leaves scattered on top.

It All Comes Back to Italy

What did we talk about? After some introductions and some catching up, Susan got us talking about the food, the people, and the sublime talents of Italy, of course. The afternoon flowed gorgeously from dish to dish, and topic to topic. A bit of wine was poured. La dolce vita enveloped us. Which is exactly what Susan had envisioned as the effect of her book.

“My hope for Italy on a Plate,” she told us all, “is that it will encourage you to try new recipes and enjoy them with friends and family. I hope my words do Italy’s wonders justice, and that they inspire you to travel there, soak in its splendor, and bring some of it back with you to share with those you love, around a table, with a full plate and a full heart.” I suspect that the number of Italophiles in the world increased greatly that day.

To buy a copy of Italy on a Plate, and to see the Vietri line, visit Glassworks on Walnut Street in Shadyside.

Story by Keith Recker / Photography by Laura Petrilla / Table Settings by Ilene Levy and Glassworks / Dinnerware, Glassware, and Flatware by Vietri / Placemats, Napkins, and Napkin Rings by Kim Seybert / Food by Kate Romane, Black Radish kitchen

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