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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
Susan Gravely’s Keys to a Perfect Table
- When serving a buffet, let your guests choose a dinner plate pattern. It is a super conversation piece.
- 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!
- Always light candles.
- Always mix people up at the table. Different ages make it even more fun!