By Robert St. John
For the past 20-plus years, my final column in December is always a list of the top dining experiences I enjoyed throughout the previous year. In a typical pre-2020 year, I spent a few months working in Italy and a good bit of time traveling across the United States doing research and development for our restaurants, which always made it an easy piece to write.
The global pandemic may have slowed me down a little, but just a little. I traveled to Italy to do food research for three weeks and hit a few other U.S. cities this year.
This list is never about the most expensive meal or the finest atmosphere. It’s just a ranking of the meals that were most memorable to me.
So here is the list of my top 10 dining experiences from 2021, submitted in the hopes that 2022 brings us one of our best years, ever.
RSJ’s Top 10 Meals 2021
10.) Arrabiata Pasta with Jill, Caffe Degli Amici, Tavarnelle — The pasta at our friend Paolo’s is always great. His mama is in the kitchen and is a talented cook. We had just arrived in town and the Arrabiata pasta was made as it always is at Paolo’s, by crushing spicy red chilies and garlic into a paste, and then adding that to crushed tomatoes (the Italians would call it a “tomato sauce” but what they mean are canned whole tomatoes that have been pureed, not marinara). They sauté the pepper-garlic mixture with olive oil, the tomatoes, add salt and pepper, a little pasta water, and whatever type of pasta they choose, (Paolo chose spaghetti this day). Extremely simple, but so flavorful. The key is the peppers. It’s hot and it is meant to be as “arrabiata” translates to “angry” in Italian. I have eaten that dish dozens of times over the years, but that day— being back in the place we love— made it better than ever.
9.) Raw Oysters with friends, Cooter Brown’s, New Orleans — Mardi Gras in New Orleans was cancelled this year, yet that didn’t stop New Orleanians from partying. Hundreds decorated their houses and yards. I loaded up a group of friends in a van and was the designated driver for a lively tour of the ‘Yardi Gras’ homes.
Our restaurant reservations took us all over the city into different styles and types of cuisines but the highlight for me was when the four of us ate raw oysters in Cooter Brown’s, the longstanding dive bar at the Riverbend. I have always believed that oysters taste better in a dive bar.
8.) Bouchon — A trade show for cinema owners landed me in Las Vegas for a few days. I have always considered Thomas Keller the best chef in America. His Bouchon in the Venetian Hotel is consistently next-level, and this visit might have been on an even higher stratum. Keller had a massive seafood tower waiting on us when we sat down and loaded us up with a tableful of desserts before we left. Everything that happened in between was otherworldly.
7.) Lunch with a view at Catinetta di Rignatta, Tuscan countryside — Catinetta di Rignatta is not only about location and view. The food is spot on. In true Tuscan style everything is simple, basic, fresh and grown within a few miles of the restaurant.
At 60-years-old, I have grown to appreciate these memorable moments more passionately. Meals such as this one, with the view of the Tuscan countryside, paired with a bluebird day, perfect food and especially one shared with people that I love, will be ones I will never forget.
6.) El Rayo Patio with the Kids — I spent a year working on opening a massive patio area adjacent to our new Tex Mex concept, El Rayo. Before we opened, I shared a meal with my wife and two children in the space. Just us. It was a perfect moment. I don’t know how many more restaurant openings I have in me, but I milked every nano-second of that one.
5.) Lunch with Italian friends, Forte dei Marmi — The Tuscan beachside town of Forte dei Marmi, is a place unlike any other I have visited in Italy. I can’t believe that I’ve spent so much time in that region and just discovered it. I ate a shrimp and lemon pasta which was — as all of the best Italian dishes are — extremely simple with limited ingredients. It’s one of those dishes that I should have taken a photo of but finished it before I could even think about it. It’s three months later and I am still thinking about it. The companionship of our Dutch and Italian friends made it a perfect meal.
4.) Breakfast with High School Classmates — The class of 1979 all turned 60 this past year. I arranged for the ones who were available to meet for an informal breakfast reunion. The thing about childhood friends you grew up with is that the bond is so deep that one might not see another for a decade or more but everyone picks right back up where they left off in an instant.
Halfway through the meal, I took a break from my eggs and bacon, pushed back from the table and took in the scene. It was at that moment that I once again reminded myself what a wonderful childhood I had.
My grandfather used to say, “A rich man has his first dollar. A wealthy man has his first friend.” He also said, “You can judge a man’s wealth, not by the size of his bank account, but by the depth and breadth of his friendships.” I feel like a rich man today, not because I have a bunch of money in the bank. I don’t. But because I have a wealth of friendships from as far back as I have memories. And for that I am truly grateful.
3.) Breakfast with a Co-Worker’s Son — We tragically lost a team member at one of our restaurants earlier this year. At the funeral I invited his elementary-school-aged son to breakfast. My dad died when I was young, too. I wanted him to know that things will be alright. For privacy’s sake, I’ll skip the details. Though it was probably as much a learning experience for me as it was him. Good stuff.
2.) Daddy-Daughter Breakfast, The Midtowner, Hattiesburg — The day before my daughter moved away to start her life as a career woman she asked if she could meet me for breakfast. I have told both of my children for the past quarter of a century that the answer to the questions, “Can we go to breakfast?” and “Can we go to the bookstore?” will always be answered with an unequivocal and enthusiastic, “Yes!” Last week I wouldn’t have been more excited if a total stranger walked up and said, “Here’s $10,000!”
On one hand I am so very proud of her and happy for her. On the other hand, I am not eager for this next phase to begin. The upcoming move has me feeling sentimental, reflective, and slightly melancholic. We sat and enjoyed each other’s company and talked about her future and our past. Perfect!
1.) 60th Birthday Dinner, Villa il Santo, Petrognano, Tuscany— I celebrated my 60th year on the planet in the villa we have returned to over and over for the past decade. The icing on the tiramisu was that I was surrounded by so many of my Italian friends.
It was a collection of many of the Europeans I love most. Annagloria and Enzo, the owners of the villa were there, along with Marina and her artist boyfriend, Marco. Our friends Barbara and Alberto drove down from Milan, and our friend Jesse took the train up from Rome. The dinner table sat 16, and two of the best Italian home cooks I know, Nadia and Rosanna prepared a six-course meal filled with all my local favorites. Annagloria and Enzo’s daughters, Gemma and Bianca helped serve.
In the middle of dinner, I did as I often do and pushed away from the table and took in the scene. Marco and his wife Christina who make the best pecorino I have ever tasted, at their sheep farm down the road, came bearing a five-pound wedge of aged pecorino. Massimo and Cecilia, owners of a fine restaurant in town where our guests learn to make ravioli, brought wine. Paolo who owns one of our favorite local restaurants arrived late after working the dinner shift. Toby and Susanna, from the local bakery I visit every morning, brought a beautiful birthday cake made from a Napoleon shaped in the numbers six and zero, and husband and wife tour guides Ricardo and Cindy drove down from Florence. It was one of the most memorable and meaningful dinners I have ever experienced.
After dinner, a band set up in one of the rooms and played American rock-and-roll until early in the morning. Perfect!
Here’s to a prosperous and joy-filled 2022!
Roasted Garlic Crostini
1 loaf Ciabatta bread, sliced ¼” thick, about 16 slices
1 cup Roasted garlic, smashed
5-6 leaves Fresh sage, chiffonade
Preheat oven to 300.
To make the crostinis, place the sliced Ciabatta on a baking pan lined with parchment paper. Bake until crispy, about 15-20 minutes. Allow to cool completely at room temperature. If you are doing this ahead of time, store at room temperature in an airtight container for 2-3 days.
Spread 1 TB of the smashed roasted garlic on each crostini. Stack the sage leaves, roll them tight, and slice thin with a sharp knife (chiffonade). Divide the sage among the crostinis and drizzle with the best extra virgin olive oil you can find.
(Robert St. John is a chef, restaurateur and cookbook author.)
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