By Robert St. John
PETROGNANO, TUSCANY— A little over five weeks ago I boarded a plane to Spain. I was arriving two days before 25 guests who hail from all over the American South. Most of them had traveled with me before. We were all heading over so I could lead them through that part of the world while filming eight episodes of my upcoming television series, “Yonderlust.” The Spain trip started in Madrid and then went to Barcelona, Seville, Mallorca, Valencia and Malaga. In 10 days, we covered what would typically be three-weeks-worth of Spain. It’s the way I travel when I host groups in Europe. I always want to cover all the bases and check all of the boxes.
The interesting thing about my Spain guests is that the majority of them have toured with me several times. There were a few who were on their fifth trip with me. Some were on their fourth trip and for a lot of them it was their third time to travel with me. The take-away from that is that all the guests were very comfortable from day one. They knew me, how I host groups when traveling, and most of them already knew each other. It was like a band of friends traveling the Spanish countryside together. The mood was always upbeat and sometimes raucous. Many nights I had to purchase bottles of wine for the tables seated next to us because we were having too much fun. None of our table neighbors seemed to be bothered too much. They were grateful for the gesture, and many joined in the fun.
After 12 days in Spain, my wife and I flew into Florence where we started prepping for three groups of guests to tour the Tuscan countryside, Florence and Sienna with us. This group, like the Spain group was filled with mainly people who had booked this trip in the fall of 2019. All trips were cancelled in March of 2020 for obvious reasons. At the time we thought this would be a flash-in-the-pan type epidemic and rescheduled people for fall of 2020. My thinking was, “Surely this thing will be over in a few months.” We all know how that turned out.
Groups were rescheduled and rescheduled again. We finally landed on several groups rescheduling for fall of 2021. All last summer my excitement grew as it looked like we were finally going to honor our commitment to tour Tuscany with several groups and hit Rome, Amalfi and Naples with another group with whom I had also been rescheduling over and over. Then the latest variant hit. I never really got “down and blue” during any of the covid business. I was too busy trying to save our restaurants, do what I could to save other restaurants and keep my family’s heads above water. I always knew that I would honor the trips we had booked pre-covid.
But when that variant struck last fall it hit me hard. Guests started dropping out. I completely understood their reasoning and certainly wasn’t resentful of it. They needed to make decisions based on their health. I respect that. But it looked like the waiting was finally going to be over and we were going to be able to start touring again. Enough people dropped out that I had to cancel those fall trips as well.
The pandemic hit the world hard. It hit Italy especially hard. Most of this country relies on visitors. The restaurants over here and the people who own villas that rent to vacationers were empty for 18 months. We wanted to support them, too. My wife and I came over in October just to rally the locals and let them know we would be returning with more enthusiastic Americans as soon as we could.
I’ve just finished leading three groups through Tuscany. The first two groups had several people who had been rescheduled three— and sometimes four— times. The third group was almost entirely filled with people who have been waiting to travel with me for two and one-half years. They were eager. But they weren’t as eager as yours truly. From the start, I told them we would make it worth the wait. According to them during their last few days, we made that dream a reality.
I have been focused on living up to my commitments for the past two and one-half years. Once we complete the trips we have scheduled in the fall to Rome, Amalfi and Naples. And several more trips in Tuscany, then our guest travel will return to normal. We will continue to book tours to Tuscany and other parts of Italy, but we are now adding a 2023 return trip to Spain and a trip to Holland and Belgium that will be filled with— food, wine, and culture, but also— World War I and World War II history.
I’m happy that our guests finally got to see a part of the world that they had been hoping to see for over two years. I’m also happy for the locals who were happier than ever to see us. The restaurants we frequent over here— whether with guests or just family— are all locals-only restaurants. They’re run by families and members of extended families, and they all love what they do. One of the unexpected surprises of this recent trip were the smiles on the faces of the restaurateurs as we walked through the door for the first time in 30 months. We were thanked over and over for coming to Spain and Italy to dine with these wonderful people.
I sit here this morning having said goodbye to the final group. A group of friends is flying over to spend time in this lovely countryside with my wife and me. It won’t be work. I won’t be leading the charge, keeping the schedule and hosting paid guests. I will be hanging out with friends. But we will also be visiting our friends in local restaurants.
I am feeling grateful this morning for all the people who help make these trips happen. The couple who owns the villas, Annagloria and Enzo, have always been gracious hosts. They know how to host Americans and they are good at it. Their two daughters, Gemma and Bianca, also know how to cater to guests needs. They help serve dinners we host in the villas and even help with the housekeeping.
Marina Mengelberg, a Dutch born lady who has lived in Tuscany for the past two decades, started out as a tour guide on our very first trip years ago. Now she serves as a co-host and stays in the other villa taking care of the guests who reside with her. She joined me in what are 90-hour workweeks and knocked it out of the park.
Jesse Marin, also Dutch born, helped me co-host the Spain trip and was my boots-on-the-ground person the entire time we were there. He knocked it out of the park.
So many other people helped make these trips possible. Transportation is one of the key elements in travel. As a budget item it can be more costly than lodging. But it takes a lot of logistical planning to shuttle 28 people, housed in two different villas, all over the Tuscan countryside. Our drivers have worked with us for years. They are always on time, and they always think ahead and tackle any problem that arises. Fabio is my minister of transportation. He takes my daily schedule and plugs in the guest-hauling timetable. Andre is a fellow driver who keeps all the guests happy, singing and dancing. Gabriel also provides support.
Toby and Susie at the bakery feed me every morning (and the guests on a couple of mornings). Palo feeds our group, employs my son and keeps us fed even when we don’t have groups, as it is my preferred dining establishment in town in the small town of Tavarnelle. Dario Cecchini welcomes us with music, dancing and lots of meat. And so many other people in so many other places in the area are a huge part of our team. It couldn’t be done without them. Thanks to all.
It’s been a great spring. Looking forward to a fantastic fall.
In the trattorias and osterias on the western coast of Sicily the day’s fresh, raw seafood catch is often displayed on ice in the dining room. One picks their specific fish and the server takes to back to the kitchen where it is prepared. There is usually an antipasta display and several vegetable courses served buffet style. Caponata is often among the offerings. Everyone prepares caponata differently. This preparation was inspired by my friend Annagloria, who is a native of Florence, but a lover of all things Sicilian.
1 each Red bell pepper, large diced
1 each Yellow bell pepper, large diced
1 each Large red onion, large diced
1 rib Celery, sliced
¼ cup Green olives, rough chopped
2 TB Capers
¼ cup Pine nuts
¼ cup Raisins
½ cup Extra virgin olive oil
½ cup Red wine vinegar
1 TB Sugar
1 each 28 oz. can whole peeled tomatoes, crushed by hand, with juice
1 tsp Kosher salt
½ tsp Fresh ground black pepper
Preheat oven to 375.
Combine all ingredients in a large mixing bowl. Transfer to a large roasting pan and cook for 30 minutes, stirring every 5 minutes. Serve immediately.
(Robert St. John is a chef, restaurateur and cookbook author. He lives in Hattiesburg, Miss.)
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