ROME— If 2022 had a personal theme created specifically for me, it would be decorated in the green, white, and red of the Italian flag, have Louis Prima music playing in the background, as pasta was served, while I was packing a suitcase. It’s certainly been an Italio-centric year for me. I spent six weeks working over here in the spring, spent the interim months preparing to open— and opened— an Italian restaurant, and I’m back over here working for the next six weeks.
I’m a restaurateur by trade, but I also split time as an author, columnist, television/documentary producer, cook, and a tour host. It’s the tour host gig that keeps bringing me back to Europe. These days I spend approximately three months over here touring guests through different European regions. It’s mostly Italy, but we covered Spain earlier this year and will return to the Iberian Peninsula next spring in addition to more Italian locales, Holland, and Belgium.
This tour covers Rome, the Amalfi Coast, and Naples. We’re heading into our third day in Rome and will cover a lot of ground today and tomorrow before heading down to the Amalfi Coast, with a stop at the small, remote farm of an Italian chef, and a meaningful visit to the Sicily-Rome American Cemetery near Anzio.
This tour hosting occupation happened organically and has taken off as a true side gig. There is something deep inside me that loves turning people on to people, places, and food. I’ve been that way since I was a kid. I love it.
Several of the people who are traveling with me this week have travelled with me before, most in Tuscany. Almost all of them booked this tour in 2019 and have been patiently waiting for the pandemic fog to clear for three years. One of the things that keeps me in the tour hosting game is that so many people return and travel with me. The Spain trip earlier this year was filled with people who were traveling with me for their fourth or fifth time. Next year’s Spain trip and Holland-Belgium trips filled in a little more than an hour. I must be doing something right.
On our first full day in Rome and we spent the afternoon riding through the city in golf carts. When my friend and co-tour organizer, Jesse Marinus proposed the idea of weaving through the streets of Rome in golf carts back in 2018, I scoffed. It sounded dangerous. But he lives here, so I trusted him. It was a blast. So, we re-upped and did it again. It is the perfect way to see so much of the city in a short amount of time. Golf carts can reach places buses and vans could never travel. No accidents. No one needed an Italian mulligan.
We ended the evening on a progressive dinner through the Jewish Ghetto, Tiber Island, and the Trastevere neighborhood where we ate our primi and secondi with Irene at her trattoria, Al Drago. It was my third time to eat there, and each time was better than the one before. The place is straight out of central casting and was hopping on a bustling Saturday night.
The entire city was alive. I feel blessed to have been able to spend time in almost all the major European cities, but there’s something about Rome on a Saturday night that bests them all. There’s a youthful energy in Rome at night, it’s different than other Italian cities. Venice is quiet at night, Milan feels very cosmopolitan, Florence is peaceful but with measured merrymaking, Naples is hectic, and Palermo is edgy. Rome is buzzing with an energy entirely its own.
Though early weekday mornings are cool and peaceful in this Italian capital. I’m not sure if there is another city on earth with the depth and breadth of history— over thousands of years— that Rome possess. It’s everywhere. This is only my fourth week, over the past decade, to spend in the city, but there is something that has finally connected with me, here.
I was a little frustrated with the lack of bakeries in the Monti neighborhood on the first two mornings, but this morning I took a short, 25-minute walk to the Roscioli Bakery. It’s a place I’ve wanted to visit for several years. I have the cookbook but had never visited the bakery. I got there 30 minutes before it opened and just watched through the window on the street as the bakery team carried out their pre-opening duties. There were only a couple of people waiting with me, but one can tell that they do a brisk business. It’s a world-class bakery of the first order and is responsible for me not leaving this city with a negative impression of Roman morning offerings.
I try to cover all the bases on these tours. Yesterday we ate lunch with the Sacci family in the restaurant they’ve been operating over 50 years. Dinner was with my friend, Luca Issa at his renowned pizzeria, Piccolo Buco.
Luca started in the restaurant business with his family in a small trattoria. My family met him and dined there in 2011. He eventually broke off and started a pizzeria that took the simple Italian pies to another level. He sourced 17 olive oils from different locales all over the country and each one was paired with a specific pizza. All the ingredients were painstakingly local, and the organic buffalo mozzarella is delivered daily from a farm just outside of town. It’s truly pizza perfection. I have probably sent over 100 people there over the past decade and no one has left disappointed. The line is always long, but Luca— who possesses the hospitality gene in spades, and runs his small dining room like the maître d of a three-star establishment— gave us the entire restaurant for two hours. It was perfect.
We head south tomorrow. I have five more days of doing what I love to do— turning people on to things I have discovered. When one is doing that on the Amalfi Coast, the job is made so much easier— just sit back and let the sea do all the work.
2 lb. Ricotta cheese
2 lb. Ground chicken, chilled
3 each Whole large eggs
2 cup Parmigiano Reggiano, grated
2 TB Kosher salt
1 tsp Fresh ground black pepper
All-purpose flour as needed.
Wrap the ricotta cheese in cheesecloth and place in a strainer set over a bowl. Weight the cheese with a couple bowls and refrigerate overnight to drain the excess water.
In a large mixing bowl, combine the drained ricotta with the chicken, eggs, grated cheese, salt and pepper using your hands. Mix thoroughly until completely smooth, about 4-5 minutes.
Form into 2 ½ oz. meatballs. Lightly coat each meatball in flour and transfer to a lightly floured baking pan. Place meatballs in the refrigerator to set for at least 4 hours or overnight. They may also be frozen at this point.
Place a large skillet on medium-high heat and pour enough olive oil to just cover the bottom of the pan. Dust the meatballs one more time in flour. Brown the outside of the meatballs, being careful not to burn them. Place on paper towels to drain excess oil and fat. At this point, they may be held under refrigeration for 4 days or frozen for 3 months.
If serving immediately, add 4 cups of Marinara (recipe xxx) and simmer until meatballs are completely cooked to an internal temperature of 160, about 30-45 minutes.
Yield: 18 2 ½ oz. meatballs
(Robert St. John is a chef, restaurateur and cookbook author who lives in Hattiesburg, Miss.)
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