By Robert St. John
Barberino-Tavarnelle, Tuscany— For the past 11 years I have spent considerable time in this region. Specifically in the two towns of Barberino and Tavarnelle in the Tuscan countryside exactly halfway between Florence and Siena.
Over the past six years I have led over 600 people, in groups of 25 each, through European cites in Spain and Italy. And even though I have hosted tours through Rome, Amalfi, Venice, Bologna, and Milan, much of my tour time has been spent in Tuscany. If one takes out the two Covid years when we couldn’t travel overseas, it’s really been 600 guests in four years. It’s hard work, but if one must work somewhere, this isn’t a bad place.
A large part of what I do on these tours is introduce my guests to the friends I have made over here and turn people on to local behind-the-scenes places— especially restaurants— I have discovered. I am not a group travel-type person. Never have been, never will be. But this isn’t group travel, or it doesn’t feel like it, at least. There’s something in the DNA of these trips that makes everyone feel as if they are traveling with friends. And I guess, when I break it down, that’s what’s happening.
One of the greatest aspects of these tours I lead is— as far as restaurants go— it’s all hits and no misses. That’s huge to most people. When travelling, for work or pleasure, I always plan trips around restaurant reservations. As much as I live, eat, sleep, and breathe restaurants, I still miss my mark occasionally, when I venture into new territory. When that happens, I have wasted one of only a few slots for dining.
These trips have no misses. In the words of John Irving’s character, T. S. Garp, the restaurant choices have been “pre-disastered.” There are no misses. Every meal delivers, and they are all different as I like to cover all the bases over the course of the week. It’s my goal to have my guests sitting in their seat on the flight home knowing that we checked all the boxes.
The following are my top 10 dishes in Tuscany 2022:
Honorable Mention—The fried sage stuffed with anchovies at Ristorante La Fattoria, Tavarnelle.
10.) Porcini and Eggplant Flan, Locanda Pietracupa, San Donato— like most of the restaurants on this list, I have been eating here for over 11 years. Pietracupa is a refined country inn run by two couples. It’s always the first meal, in the first hour, on the first day for my guests, and is the perfect beginning to set the mood and example for what lies ahead.
9.) Spaghetti with Veraci Clams, La Trattoria del Pesce, Bargino— A large section of Tuscany is on the Mediterranean seaside. Seafood is big over here, and it’s very good. When I was travelling here in the early days, I ignored seafood, as I live one hour from the Gulf of Mexico, home to some of the finest seafood in the world, and I own a couple of seafood restaurants and have constant availability. That was my loss.
The more I dig into Tuscan seafood, the more I love what they eat. It’s fresh. It’s simple, and it’s outstanding. This dish, served in a small, very refined restaurant run by four cousins, is like most great Italian dishes, simply prepared with minimal ingredients, and perfect in its execution and taste.
8.) Regina, Picò, Barberino Val d’Elsa— A Regina is a small piece of pizza dough that has been fried in olive oil and topped with a light amount of tomato sauce, a small sprinkling of parmesan cheese, and a basil leaf. It’s been called, “The fried gold of Naples.” My friend Marco says it’s the original pizza. I just say “it’s excellent,” and worthy of a top-10 spot on this list.
Picò is in the historic medieval section of Barberino and is run by Giovanni and David. Their cocktail list is impressive, and they believe— as many Italians do— that pizza and beer are not a good combination as one is eating yeast on yeast.
7.) Calamari, Caffé Degli Amici, Tavarnelle— I should probably pick Giuliana’s peposo here, as I’ve been eating it for 11 years, and it is wonderful. But lately I’ve been ordering the fried calamari here on my days off and have been making a meal out of it. They go straight into seasoned flour (no egg wash or double breading) and fry it in olive oil.
6.) Margherita Pizza, La Vecchia Piazza, Tavarnelle— I love thin, crisp pizza, and the pizza here is the thinnest, ever. If it got any thinner, there would be no crust. The pizza comes out very crisp and the toppings are minimal. I’m not sure what these people would think of deep-dish pizza, but whatever that is, the Margherita at Vecchia Piazza (the old square) is the exact opposite.
5.) Mussels, La Trattoria del Pesce, Bargino— Again, simply prepared, excellent. Nothing more than olive oil, pepper, a small amount of garlic (they use way less garlic than we think), and salt. Perfection. I use the Mengelberg method when eating mussels by using one hinged mussel as a small clamp to remove the next.
4.) Pappatacio, Pasticceria Bagnoli— Martha Foose calls it “Schnecken.” I always referred to it— likely incorrectly— as a custard-raisin croissant. My favorite family-run Italian bakery calls it pappatacio. Whatever the moniker, it’s a perfect pastry and checks all the boxes for what I look for in a pasticceria breakfast item. I eat one (or two) every morning I am here.
3.) Chianti Tuna and Vegetable Crudité, Antica Macelleria Cecchini, Panzano— Dario Cecchini— the man who Anthony Bourdain tagged as “The most famous butcher in the world” is certainly a talented butcher, but he’s also a brilliant restaurateur, and just an all-around great guy with an unmatched zest for living and making people happy.
Chianti tuna has nothing to do with seafood. It’s pulled pork with capers, vinegar, and onions, served alongside his house mustard. It’s singular, and unique, and very tasty.
The raw vegetables that arrive in a bowl at the beginning of the meal— carrots, daikon, celery and red onion— are perfectly paired with a side of extra virgin olive oil spiked with a sprinkling of Cecchini’s seasoned salt.
2.) Lasagna, Trattoria Mario, Florence— I always thought that lasagna was more of an American-Italian dish than a local one. But it is served in a few restaurants over here. Authentic Italian lasagna is nothing like its American-Italian counterpart. I grew up eating lasagna that was covered in copious amounts of cheese and drowned in tomato sauce. The Italian version uses bechamel, Bolognese, and a minimal amount of parmesan cheese.
The two best examples I have ever eaten are at Trattoria Leonida in Bologna, and Trattoria Mario in Florence. It’s not on the menu, but they prepare it especially for our group. It is always one of the highlights of the week.
1.) Penne alla Bettola, Alla Vecchia Bettola, Florence— I am told that this is the birthplace of Penne alla Vodka. It’s my favorite pasta in this region, so who am I to argue? It’s pasta perfection and never disappoints. Unlike the American version of this dish, there is hardly any cream added. The combination of tomatoes, olive oil, and onion— pureed— create more than enough creaminess and silky texture for a sauce that is perfectly paired with penne pasta. I drive 40 minutes into town on my day off to eat this one pasta dish and count the remaining days on my trip by how many opportunities I have left to eat it.
Bucatini al Amatriciana
1 lb. Dry bucatini pasta
1 gallon Water
¼ cup Kosher salt
2 TB Extra virgin olive oil
¼ lb. Guanciale (cured pork cheek) or pancetta, medium diced
2 cups Marinara
¾ cups Yellow onion, small diced
1 TB Garlic, minced
½ tsp Crushed red pepper
Grated Pecorino Romano as needed
Cook the bucatini following the directions on the package.
Heat the oil in a large skillet over medium heat. Add the pancetta, stirring frequently so as not to burn, until cooked, about 6-8 minutes. Add the onion and garlic and continue until the onions are soft, not browned, about 5 minutes. Add marinara and crushed red pepper and stir until sauce is hot.
Transfer to a large mixing bowl. Add the hot bucatini pasta and combine thoroughly.
Divide among six serving bowls. Finish each with the grated cheese as needed.
(Robert St. John is a chef, restaurateur and cookbook author from Hattiesburg, Miss.)