Cookbook review: Tables set for savoring life

‘Italy on a Plate: Travels, Memories, Menus’ by Susan Gravely (VIETRI Publishing, $48)
"Italy on a Plate: Travels, Memories, Menus" by Susan Gravely (Vietri Publishing, $48)

Credit: Handout

Credit: Handout

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

In 1983, Susan Gravely traveled with her mother and sister to Italy for an extended vacation beginning on the Amalfi Coast. The first meal of their journey — served in the luxurious Il Pietro di Positano hotel perched on the cliffs overlooking the Tyrrhenian Sea — remains fresh in her mind. But what stood out to them more than the oven-fired pizza or the fresh sea bass were the whimsically painted plates the food was served on.

“We had never seen tableware so beautiful,” Gravely writes in the introduction to “Italy on a Plate: Travels, Memories, Menus” (VIETRI, $48). Upon learning they were made by local artisans in the nearby town of Vietri sul Mare, they arranged to visit the factory the next day. Mesmerized, they brainstormed how they might import the dishware to the states.

Back home in eastern North Carolina, a business plan emerged. VIETRI is now America’s largest importer of Italian ceramics, with home decor products in stores in every state and internationally. In her debut book to celebrate the company’s 40th anniversary, Gravely shares that story, along with recipes and glimpses into the homes of friends in Italy who welcomed her to their tables. Frances Mayes, the bestselling author of “Under the Tuscan Sun,” wrote the foreword and shared recipes for Risotto Primavera and Lemon Hazelnut Gelato served at Bramasole, their storied Cortona home.

The daughter of a well-traveled businessman, Gravely learned to set a beautiful table growing up in a home frequently filled with dinner guests from all over the world. That spirit of hospitality connects her to each of the families profiled in these chapters. Their recipes are homey and uncomplicated, such as the Pesca All’Acqua Pazza (“Fish in Crazy Water”), which I whipped up in under 30 minutes.

The last chapter, Bringing Italy Home, invites readers into Gravely’s own Chapel Hill dining room, with recipes for Scalloped Oysters, Hot Milk Layer Cake, and other family heirlooms. Like the recipes from her Italian friends, they’re served in the handcrafted dishes that launched a lifelong dream and, for her, represent something deeper: “connection, time together, and the savoring of life.”

Susan Puckett is a cookbook author and former food editor of The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. Follow her at

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