Lessons in Good Food and Hospitality From a Life of Eating Between Italy and the South

Lessons in Good Food and Hospitality From a Life of Eating Between Italy and the South
An al fresco table set with plates from VIETRI's Solimene Campagna di Vietri sul Mare collection. The dishes are handmade and painted in the town of Vietri sul Mare on Italy’s Amalfi Coast. (Infraordinario Photo)
Crystal Shi

Susan Gravely, like so many others, fell in love with Italy at first visit.

“I was enamored by the colors and the smells. I loved the gardens and fruit trees. I loved the gentleness of people and their enjoyment for life and living,” she said of her first trip to the Amalfi coast, with her mother and sister, in 1983.

The trio also fell in love with Italy’s artisan traditions of colorful handmade, hand-painted dinnerware, treasures so beautiful they knew they had to bring them home to North Carolina to share. Such were the beginnings of their business, VIETRI—and a lifelong love affair with Italy.

Now, 40 years later, VIETRI is the United States’ largest importer of Italian tableware and home décor products, working with family-owned and -operated factories throughout Italy. Gravely has written a memoir and cookbook, “Italy on a Plate,” in which she reflects on her life and work between Italy and the South, defined by the partnerships and friendships so often forged at the table.

Here, Gravely shares her lessons learned, dishes savored, and tips for setting a perfectly imperfect table.

Susan Gravely, founder and creative director of VIETRI. (Infraordinario Photo)
Susan Gravely, founder and creative director of VIETRI. (Infraordinario Photo)
The Epoch Times: How did your upbringing in North Carolina shape your approach to food and hospitality?
Susan Gravely: Food and being together with family and friends have always been a part of Southern hospitality. Manners, etiquette, kindness, sharing, and laughing... We cooked from scratch and enjoyed family recipes for generations.

My parents entertained their friends often, but we also had many foreigners in our home due to my father’s international tobacco company. We four children were able to be present as long as we behaved and demonstrated good manners, listened intently, and were willing to learn. We spoke only when we were spoken to. Meals were always of Southern cuisine with fresh ingredients, prepared with a lot of love.

The Epoch Times: What lessons in hospitality have you taken from the Italians?
Mrs. Gravely: I have learned that perfection is only created by the joy of folks being together around the table, celebrating being together with good food and wine and stories and laughter. Plates can all be different. Flowers come from their garden. All is simple and imperfectly perfect.
The Epoch Times: Did you pick up any culinary tricks and secrets that you often apply in your own cooking?
Mrs. Gravely: Never be afraid of putting a lot of salt in water for pasta. Also, use the water from the cooked pasta if the sauce needs more liquid. The salt helps glue the sauce and pasta together! Simplicity is key. Use fewer and fresh ingredients whenever possible.
The Epoch Times: What are your best hosting tips, for creating a familial and gracious atmosphere?
Mrs. Gravely: I love to have flowers in the house. They can be in a series of clear vases or buckets or glasses, it doesn’t matter. I usually bring them fresh-picked from my garden.

I love to put my food on a variety of styles and colors of platters and serve buffet or family-style. I think about the food and what looks nice on what platter. It adds to the meal and the smells!

If we are having a seated dinner, I invite everyone to bring their wine glasses to the table so they can continue enjoying what they sipped earlier on.

Simple yet delicious vanilla ice cream is the perfect addition to any dessert.

Gravely and her husband, Bill (L), toast with their friends and kindred spirits Frances and Ed Mayes. (Infraordinario Photo)
Gravely and her husband, Bill (L), toast with their friends and kindred spirits Frances and Ed Mayes. (Infraordinario Photo)
The Epoch Times: What are your favorite ways to set a table?
Mrs. Gravely: I love to set a table—any shape or size, and the more people the merrier! I mix dinner plates from various patterns. I may mix solid colors or intricate designs. If I mix the dinnerware, I will be consistent with a simple, classic thick linen napkin and the same color placemat.

If I am using our flagship dinnerware pattern, Campagna, which is still my favorite, I will use different jewel-toned placemats, colorful striped Papersoft Napkins, and mix-and-match drinkware. The colors are the same: reds, blues, yellow, orange, green, turquoise. I will line the table with Hibiscus Glass Bud Vases and add assorted flowers with plenty of greenery, and lots of low candles.

If it is a small group, I may do a long rectangular basket of flowers. I might get out my porcelain patterns from my wedding, and my mother and grandmother, and give each person their own feeling.

The Epoch Times: The story of your life and work with VIETRI are a testament to the magic of connection and friendships—sometimes born of chance encounters! Can you speak to the power of community and connection in your work and life?
Mrs. Gravely: I have always loved the human spirit, from newborns to the end of life. One’s eyes tell a lot about someone. Does someone look up, straight ahead, or down?

After being at the New York School of Interior Design, two friends and I decided to go to a soothsayer. When asked if I wanted her to look at a crystal ball or my hands, I quickly said hands. She told me my life would be happy and that my next work would be a combination of the things I love in my life. I had no idea what she was saying at the time, but it has come true.

I work with many ages with many perspectives on life, but the glue is a craft—winemaking, glass blowing, ceramic maestros, artists, writers, leadership coaches, financiers—people who love what they do and accept life with its ups and downs. These are friendships that encourage me, sustain me, and let me be who I am. My work and life cross continents, yet the people and their thoughts and dreams are similar. They love their families, care enormously for others and the world, and love being home.

Susan Gravely with her sister Frances and their mother Lee on their first trip to the Amalfi Coast. (Infraordinario Photo)
Susan Gravely with her sister Frances and their mother Lee on their first trip to the Amalfi Coast. (Infraordinario Photo)
The Epoch Times: How would you encourage people today, in a society afflicted by loneliness, to seek out that kind of genuine connection?
Mrs. Gravely: It does feel that our society is now afflicted by loneliness. I think that the pandemic exacerbated this feeling. A positive human connection is the most important aspect to good mental health. I encourage others, when asked, to reach out. Let someone know that they look nice, that you enjoy being around them, that the smells from their kitchen are enticing. Smile at others (most will smile back). Start connecting with others in small ways.

If you have felt isolated, it is hard to feel good about yourself. [People] have probably spent too much time thinking about themselves and have lost their sense of humor. In my egotistical teens, my mother would say, “Stop thinking so much about yourself. Get out and do something for someone else.” She was right.

Invite someone to meet you at a coffee shop or go for a walk. Find out what they have been doing, what they are thinking about. Most of the time they will then ask you, and a relationship will begin!

The Epoch Times: What’s next for you? What are you most excited about right now?
Mrs. Gravely: From a cooking and entertaining point of view, I think I have my next cookbook title! I see it as similar in layout to “Italy on a Plate” because I love writing about friends and experiences in Italy.

From a VIETRI company point of view, I am excited about the young, passionate, and brilliant colleagues I have. Each person brings ideas and commitment and a push for me to keep going.

"Italy on a Plate: Travels, Memories, Menus" by Susan Gravely ($48, Vietri Pub).
"Italy on a Plate: Travels, Memories, Menus" by Susan Gravely ($48, Vietri Pub).

Susan Gravely’s Keys to a Perfect Table

  1. When serving a buffet, let your guests choose a dinner plate pattern. It is a super conversation piece.
  2. If you get over-excited by your centerpiece flowers, make sure you put them to the side during the meal so everyone can see each other. Talking to your left, right, and forward makes for a fun time!
  3. Always light candles.
  4. Always mix people up at the table. Different ages make it even more fun!

Lightning Round With Susan Gravely

Three ingredients you can’t live without: Olive oil, prosciutto, tomatoes.
Most prized kitchen tool: My grandmother’s rolling pin because it reminds me of the thin, delicious homemade biscuits that she and my mother made when I was young.
Most treasured piece of tableware: My first Campagna dinner plates, which I still use! They remind me of my first trip to Italy and how natural and easy the idea was to start VIETRI.
Something that has brought you joy recently: Being asked to be a godmother again!
Crystal Shi is the food editor for The Epoch Times. She is a journalist based in New York City.
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