By Robert St. John
TAVARNELLE VAL D’PESA, TUSCANY— A little over six weeks ago I boarded a flight for Spain to spend 10 days leading 25 people through that country. After a day off, I headed to Italy to lead three groups of 25 each through one of my favorite regions on the planet, Tuscany. Once the third group left, a group of friends from my hometown flew over. Today is the last day with them. We head home tomorrow.
Whether hosting paid gusts, or friends, it’s been a blast. Whenever someone mentions the 80-hour workweeks I always reply, “It’s work, but if you’ve got to work, this ain’t a bad place to do it.”
I am ready to return home. I love it over here. In many ways it feels like a second home. But I’ll end up spending over two months in Tuscany this year — and time in Rome and Amalfi, in addition to the hours I logged in Spain — so there’s plenty of time to cover everything I need to do. Now it’s time for me to get back to the States and get to work at my other jobs. There are several plates in the air at present.
So, I sit here at my usual table at the Bagnoli Bakery — my every-morning spot — looking back at the past month in Tuscany. The weather has been cool most days, hot sometimes at night, and we’ve had a couple of rain days to deal with. But the overall visit has been excellent.
I always tend to get reflective on my last day here. It’s the way it’s been for the past 11 years. Some know that I am a fan of lists and find myself constantly filling the notes feature of my phone with endless lists that cover all range of subjects. Today I’m thinking about the things that make me happy over here.
Top 10 Things That Make Me Happy in Tuscany
10.) The Lemon Sorbet Palate Cleanser at La Fattoria — This seems like such a small, inconsequential item to put on a list such as this. Though it’s something that I love dearly. La Fattoria is the local Florentine steak joint. They cook huge slabs of beef in a massive fireplace. That is why everyone goes there. I eat the steaks, but I enjoy the small lemon-sorbet palate cleanser every time it arrives before the main course. They know I like it so much they always bring me a couple after the meal for dessert.
I eat gelato over here occasionally and have a few spots that serve my favorites. But I’d choose this lemon-sorbet over gelato, every time.
9.) Mussels at Trattoria Del Pesce — I grew up eating Gulf Coast oysters. They have always been my mollusk of choice. For the first five decades of my life, I looked at mussels as the bastard cousin of the king of all mollusks — oysters. I was young and stupid.
I don’t think mussels are necessarily better than oysters, but they are a very close second. And when prepared simply with a little olive oil, wine, stock, garlic and herbs they can make one forget cocktail sauce, horseradish, and lemon — if just for a moment.
8.) The Drive from Tavarnelle to Panzano — There are many beautiful drives over here, and storied history around every turn. But there is something about that specific nine miles of road that appeals to me more than others. The drive is only 20 minutes, but it covers such diverse terrain and beautiful scenery, I never tire of it.
7.) A Visit to DarioWorld — I call it DarioWorld because I am a fan of all the components that make up Dario Cecchini’s restaurant empire in the small town of Panzano. I use the word, “Empire,” only because I can’t think of another adjective that would be appropriate. It’s not a vast conglomeration of dining concepts. It’s three small restaurants and a butcher shop stacked on top of each other, and across the street from each other. But they are all singularly unique and original. There is nothing like this over in the States. Seriously, nothing. A visit to Antica Macellaria Cecchini is a party every time. The sign on the wall says it all, “Abandon hope all ye who enter, you are now in the hands of a butcher.” The atmosphere is festive. The food is excellent. The vibe is festive and fun. And from a restaurateur’s purist viewpoint, the concept is brilliant, and Dario, and his wife Kim, are fine people and excellent hosts.
6.) The Night View from Villa San Michele — At the top of Fiesole, overlooking Florence, is a five-star hotel with unmatched views in this area. Sunset at this place is special.
5.) The Calamari, Norcina Pasta and Arrabiata Pasta at Paolo’s Place (Caffe Degli Amici, Tavarnelle) — I have eaten here more than any other restaurant in this area for more than a decade. The meals were extra special during this trip as my son was in the kitchen cooking alongside Paolo’s mama.
4.) My Table by the Window Every Morning at Bagnoli Pasticceria — I am a creature of habit in the morning. When I am home, one can find me sitting at table 19 in The Midtowner at 7 a.m. every morning. Over here, I sit at the table by the window in my favorite bakery every morning. The pastries are great and the people who work here are lovely, kind, and welcoming.
3.) The Views from Villa Il Santo (especially at sunset) — We first came to Villa Il Santo more than 11 years ago. We felt at home instantly. The view from the terraces is world-class. I never tire of it.
2.) My Friends Over Here — The older I’ve become, the more I have realized that it’s not the monetary and material things that matter. It’s the spiritual and relational things. I am blessed with great friendships back home. Though I am also blessed with wonderful friendships over here.
I could spend three entire columns listing the names, how I met them, and how much I appreciate and admire them. Instead, I’ll just offer a blanket “Grazie!”
1.) Walking the Streets of Florence with My Son — Eleven years ago I brought him here and we walked the city. That trip instilled the same case of wanderlust that has overcome me in the subsequent years.
Now he’s over here living on his own for several months, working in an Italian kitchen. We were able to join him a few times a week during our mutual days off and visit all his favorite places. Now that he lives here, he shows me around. He knows more local restaurants than I do. And the people know him. In Florence, I am now “Harrison St. John’s father” and he is not “Robert St. John’s son.” I love that.
Cibreo in Florence is one of my favorite Italian restaurants. The late great Chef Fabio Picchi serves a light-as-air spinach flan as a course on his tasting menu. This is my version, which is a nice, light vegetarian first course option.
2 cups Heavy cream
1 ea 10 oz. package frozen chopped spinach, thawed, drained well
4 ea Eggs
2 tsp Kosher salt
1 tsp Fresh ground black pepper
1/8 tsp Ground nutmeg
Grated Parmigiano Reggiano as needed for garnish
1 recipe Roasted Tomato Coulis
Preheat oven to 275.
Combine heavy cream and spinach in a small sauce pot and warm over low heat, just to take the chill off.
Remove from heat and puree until smooth. Strain through a chinois. Discard any solids that remain.
Transfer to a bowl and combine remaining ingredients gently.
Coat 8 4-6 oz. oven safe ramekins with non-stick spray and divide mixture among them. Bake in a water bath for 30 minutes or until set. Allow to cool slightly. Using a paring knife, loosen the flan from around the edges and unmold onto desired plate. Garnish with fresh grated Parmigiano Reggiano.
Yield: 8 servings
Roasted Tomato Coulis
6 ea Roma tomatoes
1 TB Vegetable oil
½ tsp Kosher salt
¼ tsp Fresh ground black pepper
Preheat oven to 350.
Coat tomatoes in oil and place on sheet pan in the oven for 20-30 minutes, until skins begin to wrinkle and begin browning. Rotate tomatoes every 10 minutes to avoid one side burning.
(Robert St. John is a chef, restaurateur and cookbook author. He lives in Hattiesburg, Miss.)