Anybody who has lived near Greater Vancouver in recent years should be familiar with the name Umberto Menghi. For those die-hard ‘foodies’, who can forget ‘Il Giardino’ at the corner of Hornby and Pacific, the little yellow house that really started it all for Umberto in Vancouver? If you want to read a truly wonderful success story, read about Umberto’s early life as he grew up in Tuscany, working at odd jobs in restaurants, eventually going to hotel school; serving time in Rome, Grenoble, Geneva and London, learning languages, international services, everything in the hotel business. This included training in the kitchen, dining area, front desk, concierge, and all aspects of hospitality. He finally ended up in Montreal during Expo ‘67, met another restauranteur who eventually became manager of the Hotel Vancouver and was offered an opportunity in that city. This led to further crazy adventures as he travelled to the ‘wild west’ of Canada, where he began life in his adopted home of Vancouver. This story is described in his own words in one of his delightful Tuscan cookbooks, “Umberto’s Kitchen, The flavours of Tuscany.”
Umberto’s reputation is well known in Vancouver as his successes continued to flourish with Il Giardino in Vancouver, and La Trattoria in Whistler, as well as his cooking show “The Elegant Appetite”.
My story begins years after Umberto opened up his deluxe hotel and cooking school in Ripoli di Lari in Tuscany. At that time, my daughter Colleen was a hair dresser in Vancouver, with Marianna Menghi, Umberto’s wife as a client. Colleen was also an avid cook and lover of international cuisine, and during their discussions, Marianna suggested Colleen go to Villa Delia, Umberto’s cooking school. “Not Possible!” said Colleen, knowing the costs of the Villa Delia experience. As time went by, through Colleen’s persistence and Marianna’s help, they arrived at a workable solution, and Colleen and a girl friend booked a trip to Tuscany and their participation at the cooking school.
Back to my part of the story. Diana and I had also booked a trip to Tuscany for a completely different reason. This was the time we met another couple, Carol and Dave Mills at a farmhouse in the Tuscan countryside near the village of Montisi. (see Travel Tales ‘An Evening in Montisi, Part One and Two’)
So, while we were having fun in Tuscany, we mentioned that our daughter had booked a cooking class at Umberto’s Villa Delia, several miles north of where we were. This prompted the question, “Why don’t we drive up there and have lunch one day? We can check it out before Colleen arrives”. Actually, Diana and I had already booked the lunch date in Vancouver, before we left home. We figured our friends would be easily talked into joining us.
And so it began, checking the maps, the routes, where was it, etc. The village of Ripoli di Lari was near the town of Collesalvetti, fairly close to Pisa. “We can do this” was the unanimous vote, and before we knew, we were on the road to test our theory.
After a couple of hours driving, we found ourselves on a narrow country road, watching for some sign of ‘Villa Delia’. This hotel cooking school, although maintaining its old world charm and character, still offers a high degree of deluxe accommodation with 24 spacious guest rooms with all the modern conveniences, swimming pool, vineyards and olive groves and 54 acres of rolling hills to walk, jog or bike.
We arrived at about ten o’clock on a Sunday morning, much too early for lunch, and everyone that worked there was busy with their own jobs. What a beautiful place!
Surrounded by cypress and olive trees, vineyards and thousands of flowers, complete with a swimming pool. Apparently Umberto would be returning soon, most likely at church in town. As it turned out, he was busy with a CBC Television crew, filming an episode of the CBC Series, ‘Life and Times”. This episode was the Life and Times of Umberto Menghi.
So we wandered around the site, inside and out, then walked down through the vineyards, and enjoyed the incredible views of a picturesque Tuscan Villa. We finally settled on a shady patio with a cold bottle of water.
Then Dave bought a bottle of Prosecco, one of our favourites. Before long, Umberto, his wife Marianna and his son and more family members arrived, then some of Umberto’s friends and business associates. Marianna was very pleased we had come, as she knew our daughter well and remembered that she was coming later that year for the cooking classes. For the next few hours, before and after lunch, the TV crew were filming every one at the event.
They set up a very long table in front of the courtyard/patio for Umberto’s family and associates, as well as a special table for 4 for us.
We eventually moved to this table and bought another bottle of Prosecco. At another gazebo/shelter, they had set up glasses, huge bowls of ice, with juice, beer, chilled wine and pitchers of punch. They called everyone over to start on the appetizers and drinks, lovely little pastries, popovers and hors d’oeuvres of many varieties.
Eventually Umberto called us all back to the main tables and introduced us to his family members, relatives and friends. He also warned us that the TV crew would be filming us all from time to time.
Our lunch began with lasagna, salad, deep fried rabbit in a batter, baked lemon chicken, pommes frites, tomato/onion plate, bread, eggplant, zucchini, followed by a lovely crêpe with a plum and chocolate sauce, filled with ricotta cheese, surrounded by fresh strawberries. In the meantime, they had supplied another bottle of Prosecco, as well as two kinds of water, some white wine, Vin Santo, and a wonderful house red wine, the ‘Garbato’ Toscana, much nicer that any of the Chiantis or expensive Brunellos we had tried.
After lunch, Umberto and Marianna made sure we all got up and tried our hand at a Bocce tournament.
Umberto kept everyone honest and helped with the rules. I took Marianna’s place for while, but failed miserably!
The entire experience was very special, and Umberto and Marianna made us feel so comfortable and very welcome at this family meal.
Before we knew it, we had to leave, a long drive back to our farmhouse ahead.
Knowing this drive was coming, I had slowed down on the wine tasting much earlier, but Dave was enjoying himself, and we had to help him back to the car. He slept most of the way back past Sienna, Sinalunga and home to Montisi.
On the return trip, we managed to stop at Volterra, a small village perched 1800 feet high up on a small peak above the surrounding Tuscan countryside. Volterra is well known for its beautiful, creamy white Alabaster, and the entire town is filled with shops selling all forms of bowls, cups, plates, lamps and carvings of all kinds. It was quite a sight, and of course we had to buy a small, intricately carved bowl to take home.
We all agreed that Villa Delia had received our unanimous vote of approval for Colleen and her friend to attend. I believe we managed to arrive on a very special day, a day with not only TV film crews, but much of Umberto’s friends and family to make the entire day one of a kind! We only wish we were booked for a couple of weeks more.
Diana and I often comment that we are so thankful that we are able to do this kind of travel. Special travel that allows special things to happen, special experiences, and introduces us to special people and cultures.
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