I was 12 years old when my parents first realized their dream of opening their own Italian restaurant. At first, as these things usually go, I resented them for making me work after school and on weekends, when most of my friends were hanging out and doing whatever it is that kids do. But as I came of age in that restaurant, I discovered that those friends often didn’t have the same experience with meals that my parents, fresh off the boat (figuratively speaking, of course. They actually came via 747), always created at home. I was lucky to grow up in a family with two great cooks, eating what I still consider the best cuisine in the world. But more than the flavors of the dishes, there was a communal aspect to eating in my family that was special. Meals were always an event. The whole family would gather around the table and often would stay there for hours and hours (though us kids would quickly get bored and run off to play). Mealtime was joyous, full of conversation and laughter. And lots of wine.
That’s what my parents wanted to replicate for their customers. My dad, ever the properly Italian-trained chef, would always prepare dishes from scratch, sourcing the best raw ingredients he could get his hands on, while my mom ran the front of the house, making sure customers felt at home, striking up conversation and always making everyone laugh. And people kept coming back both because Chef Tony’s food was always consistent and delicious, but also because Mamma Filomena would make them feel at home, something I began to realize I was fortunate to have experienced my whole life.
Then there was the wine. Wine was a constant at the dinner table growing up. And the lunch table. A meal just wasn’t complete without it. Never in excess, just a glass (or two) to go with the food. The wine was usually Italian, and more often than not it was homemade. My parents to this day still make their own wine, experimenting with different blends of grapes, different containers for aging. And us kids always got to try the finished product, though I can say I didn’t have quite the taste for it back then as I do now. But slowly, while working in the restaurant I began to understand the connection wines have with the food. How well the right wine, usually Italian, complemented the food we were serving and vice versa. I became enamored by how such a seemingly simple thing could take on so many different styles, flavors, personalities. I learned a lot from the wine reps selling us the wines and even more so from the winemakers themselves when I went to industry tastings. After college I decided why not go straight to the source and learn about Italian wine in Italy. So I signed up for a sommelier course in Rome.
I got a lot from that course. I learned about the regionality of Italian wine, how the indigenous grapes of a particular area combined with its soil, climate, winemaking traditions and so on, to create a unique style of wine. I learned that the food from a given area always goes hand in hand with the wine produced there. I learned that the variety of wines in Italy alone was much bigger than I even knew. But I also learned a lot just living in Italy. I once again witnessed the conviviality of mealtime. Groups of Italians that would spend hours chatting and laughing at the table, long after they finished eating. I saw mom-and-pop restaurants, quite similar to the one I grew up in, welcoming in customers as if they were part of the family. And once more, wine was the constant. At lunch and at dinner. Sitting on the tables of businessmen and young friends alike. It was a social lubricant, yes, but one that is just as important to a meal as the food itself.
This is what I responded to when I first discovered VinoRoma. The founder, Hande Leimer, herself an outsider to Italy, was promoting these very same concepts to her clients. I immediately took to her (and, dare I say, her to me) and jumped at the chance to join the VinoRoma team. Over the course of the next decade or so I relished my role of spreading the good word of Italian wine and culture to thousands of clients that, nudged by word-of-mouth or positive reviews, continued to book wine tastings with us. Then came 2020 and the global pandemic, which shut us down along with all of our friends in tourism and hospitality. But it turned out to be a perfect occasion for reflection for all of us at VinoRoma. An opportunity for Hande, who worked so hard to build this business to what it is today, to take a step back and an incredible opportunity for myself to take the reins and reboot VinoRoma for its next chapter.
What Hande built will not change. We will still be offering the same wine tastings and food tours that drew all of those grateful clients throughout these years. We’re simply going to be offering more. More types of tastings. More exclusive experiences. More master courses and other unique events. More chances to meet like-minded people, both Italian and foreign, and learn from each other. We want to build a community of wine fans of all stripes, from newbies to old hands. Everyone should feel welcome and never intimidated. VinoRoma has always been a social club as well as a wine school. Our goal is to lean into the former while still offering plenty of the latter. A meeting place in this great old city where people can come, drink good wine, and learn a little something along the way. As Hande will tell you (with apologies to Mr. Pollan): “Drink Wine. Not too much. Mostly Italian.” We might only add: “Share with one another.”
Maurizio Di Franco