Italy on a Plate: The Foreward from Frances Mayes

In this new book from Susan Gravely, the founder of VIETRI homeware, she shares memories and recipes from her experiences abroad.

by Frances Mayes | photographs courtesy VIETRI

When Susan arrives in Italy, she is not out of the airport before she starts fielding calls. Everyone wants to see La Susanna. Business, yes, but it only begins there. In her many years of traveling to Italy, sometimes two or three times a year for long visits, she has made friends up and down the peninsula. Great friends. What a privilege to have the opportunity to share their pasta in the kitchen in Umbria, attend lavish feasts at long tables in a vineyard in Tuscany, grab coffee with artists in Rome, spread picnics on the Amalfi beaches, hit all the amazing restaurants in Friuli-Venezia Giulia, and sip a spritz on a balcony in Venice. All with her people. 

Susan came to Italy originally on vacation with her mother and sister Frances. On that fateful trip, they discovered by chance the charming ceramics of the south of Italy. Soon, they started VIETRI on a whim. A very smart whim that inspired a passion. 

The decision—impossible to know these things from the start— resulted in the great business that is VIETRI. The “Gravely girls” knew that artisan ceramic tradition goes to the very roots of Italian culture. In museums all over the country, you see the aesthetic designs practiced by the early Etruscans and by the invading Greeks who settled along the Ionian Sea. Their earthenware pots and plates, cups and bowls all show that it was beauty that motivated the making of everyday objects. You want to reach inside the glass cases and touch that sculptural pitcher, that handsome water jug. By the mid-14th century, glazing and decorating had begun. During the Renaissance, ceramic design flourished, and many of the complex patterns established then endure today. 

Now, there is a new culture of design, still aimed toward enhancing daily life. Susan’s passionate quest remains: What will delight, what will be the best gift, what adds to the creative tradition? The versatile and imaginative dinnerware she and her team commission or discover lifts the spirits and ensures that gathering at a table will be not just dinner, but an occasion. Why did I once think I would have an everyday set of dishes and a formal set? Living in Italy, and inspired, too, by VIETRI, I came to realize that I loved variety on my table. After all, you don’t just have two pairs of shoes—one pair of trainers and one fancier! Every day the table is set. A colorful collection of patterns, linens, and glassware just enlivens the dinner and keeps you enjoying where you pull up your chair to eat with those you love. My own adoration of ceramics resulted in a kitchen expansion! 

Frances has now retired but still travels frequently to Italy, especially to Florence. Now, Susan constantly comes for her work, but work and play are seamless. I get the impression that, regardless of projects, she would be tearing up and down from Puglia to Valle d’Aosta. She has a gift for locating artisan designers of ceramics, sure, but an equal gift for making friends. Her secret talent? She is genuinely interested in the other person. Immediately, she wants to know who you really are, your interests, your family, your dreams and ideas, where you are headed and where you have been. There is no slow wading into a friendship; Susan goes in off the high dive. As E. M. Forster advised, “Only connect,” though Susan hardly needs his wisdom. This book— part memoir, part travel lore, part introduction to friends—is a loving tribute to the good life we find around a table. 

Our feasts are our memories. We gather around to only connect and to celebrate. Italy on a Plate—well, yes! This book is a joyous testament to Susan’s warm, fun, adventurous personality and reveals to us just how close to the heart her friends are. I am lucky to be among them.

This passage is the foreward to Italy on a Plate: Travels, Memories, Menus by Susan Gravely. It was reprinted with permission. Learn more about the book here.