For the 22 years I have written in this space, I have always reserved the final column inches of the year to list my top ten meals of the previous 12 months. Here’s this year’s list.
10.) Trattoria Mario, Florence— I first ate at Mario in 2011 with my wife, 14-year-old daughter and 10-year-old son. We broke one of my typical travel rules which is to not revisit a restaurant twice on the same trip. In that Florence stay over we ate lunch at Mario three times. Not a rare feat as we met locals who had eaten there every day for almost 20 years.
These days I bring groups to Mario for lunch while we’re in Florence. Their lasagna— and the one at Leonida in Bologna— are the best examples of Italian lasagna I know. They make it special for us as it’s not on the menu. The kitchen at Mario is very small for the volume they do. Actually, almost all of the kitchens I frequent in that part of the world are very small. They get a lot done in small spaces.
9.) Trattoria Del Pesce, Bargino, Tuscany— For a long time I stayed away from seafood in Tuscany. I always preferred the seafood I grew up with from the Gulf of Mexico. It took me a while but I have now become a huge fan of the seafood that comes from the Mediterranean, especially in Tuscany. They prepare it so simply. Trattoria Del Pesce’s sauteed mussels and pasta with clams are unmatched in my opinion. Trattoria Del Pesce is a very nice restaurant in the middle of nowhere, in the very small Tuscan country town of Bargino. Most people would pass this place 99 times out of 100. It would be their loss.
8.) Restaurante Las Bellotas, Jabugo, Spain— If you ask me where to find the greatest ham in America, I can easily say that my friend Alan Benton in Tennessee cures the best country hams. If you ask me where the best overseas ham comes from, that’s an easy one, too. The Jamon Iberico in Jabugo, Spain is unmatched. This past spring I led 25 people through Spain. While some of my guests toured Seville, I took a dozen people out into the countryside to see how the black pigs are raised. We walked among them as they ate acorns under the cork trees. From there we had an excellent lunch and the best pork dishes I’ve ever eaten.
7.) Piccolo Buco, Rome— I have been eating at this restaurant since 2011. My all-time favorite pizza in Tuscany comes from a place called Vecchia Piazza. My all-time pizza anywhere comes from Piccolo Buco. Luca Issa is a master of pizza. His buffalo mozzarella is shipped from a small farm South of the city every morning. During this meal in October my wife Jill and I sat with our friends Jesse and Marina. It was great catching up, just the four of us. The fact that we were eating world-class pizza during the visit made it that much better.
6.) Tapeo, Barcelona— It looks like 2022 was a year for me to revisit several of my all-time favorites across the world. I fell in love with Tapeo over a decade ago. During my first visit to Barcelona I met chef Daniel Rueda and dined with him several times. Since then, I have sent hundreds of people to that restaurant. It’s my favorite tapas bar in a country filled with tapas bars. His patatas bravas is among the best. But the way he cooks pork ribs is outstanding. I’ve lived in the South all my life. People take pride cooking ribs in this part of the world. To my taste, no one can match what Daniel does in a small space off a small street in Barcelona.
5.) Osteria Le Logge, Siena— As I was reviewing the notes in my 2022 food journal, the note under this restaurant read, “This braised beef cheek might be the single best dish I have eaten in Italy. Ever.” Le Logge is a restaurant my friend Marina has been trying to introduce me to for five years. I had a favorite in Siena, and I couldn’t quite let go. My mistake. I should have listened to her much earlier. This meal was made special since my travel groups had gone home, and a group of our close friends had flown over to spend a week with us. We shared this meal at lunch, and it was outstanding.
4.) Alla Vecchia Bettola, Florence— Before heading off to culinary school this fall, my son moved to Florence and spent several months cooking in the kitchen of one of my friends. While my wife and I were over there hosting tours we met our son for lunch at Bettola. It’s a locals-only restaurant just outside the old city walls in Florence. It is also the birthplace of penne alla vodka. It is outstanding and has quickly become my favorite restaurant in Florence. He had already been there a month when we arrived and had discovered Bettola on his own. There’s something special about us sitting there with him enjoying world class pasta in a real, authentic, environment.
3.) Enzo, Ridgeland— Due to schedules it had been a while since my wife, son, and daughter had all eaten together, just the four of us. I cherish those times. A few days before Thanksgiving my son flew home from culinary school and my daughter and wife drove up to Jackson where I was already working at the new Italian restaurant. They picked him up at the airport and brought him to Enzo where the four of us shared a meal. It was the first time we had all dined together in that space.
2.) Pre-Welcome-Conference Dinner, An Apartment Somewhere in Chelsea, Manhattan, New York— In any other year this would, by far, top my list of favorite meals of the year. Though there’s another entry ahead of this one. Actually, there should probably be a 1A and 1B.
I was asked to speak at Will Guidara’s Welcome Conference in September. It was a huge honor, and I took a quick break between opening a new restaurant and getting ready to leave to work overseas for six weeks to share my “One Thing” concept with an international audience at Lincoln Center. I really knew nothing of the Welcome Conference before I was invited to speak and flew up a little naive as to the scale and scope of the event.
Speaking at Lincoln Center was a great experience. Though the dinner the night before was one of the more memorable moments of my 60 years on the planet. Those who were scheduled to speak the next day were there, along with those who would introduce us, a couple of sponsors and the four organizers of the conference. The gifts they gave out to the speakers were the most unique and well-thought-out personalized gifts in the history of speaker gifts, each distinctive with a unique backstory. The dinner was marvelous, the desserts were excellent, but Guidara’s heartfelt presentation in announcing each gift will be something I will never forget and almost too personal to share in this space.
1.) Per Se, New York—My wife, daughter and I flew up to New York last week. My son had just finished his first semester of culinary school upriver in Hyde Park. He took the train down to meet us in Manhattan. We spent the next five days and four nights— just the four of us— eating our way through Manhattan and enjoying each other’s company. The highlight of that week— more accurately the highlight of the year— was dinner at Thomas Keller’s Per Se. I had eaten there before and have eaten at the French Laundry several times. But never with my wife and two kids. We are a restaurant family. We dine out together all the time. This meal was next-level good. Actually, it was at the top level of all levels. It truly doesn’t get any better. The evening finished with a tour of the kitchen. Perfection.
Bring on 2023
1/3 cup Butter
1/4 cup Shallot, minced
2 tsp Garlic, minced
1/3 cup Flour
1/2 tsp Creole Seasoning
1/2 tsp Salt
1/4 tsp Black Pepper, freshly ground
1/8 tsp Ground Nutmeg
1 1/3 cup Milk, heated
2 tsp Hot Sauce
4 large Eggs, separated
2-10 packages Frozen Spinach, thaw and squeeze out as much water as possible
1/2 tsp Cream of Tartar
2 Tbl Unsalted Butter, softened
Preheat oven to 350
Heat butter in a two-quart sauce pot over medium heat. Cook shallots and garlic for three minutes. Blend in flour and cook for 4-5 minutes, stirring often to prevent burning. Add Creole Seasoning, salt, pepper and nutmeg, blend well. Gradually add in the heated milk, stirring constantly with a wire whisk. Remove from the heat. Stir in the hot sauce.
In a small bowl, beat the egg yolks until light and frothy, fold the yolks into the sauce mixture. Add the spinach to the sauce mixture.
Using the whip attachment on an electric mixer, beat the egg whites with the cream of tartar until stiff peaks form. Stir one quarter of the stiff egg whites into the spinach mixture. Gently fold in the remaining egg whites.
Butter a two-quart round Pyrex baking dish. Pour the spinach mixture into prepared baking dish.
Place the Pyrex dish in a water bath with 2 inches of water. Bake for one hour and serve immediately.
Yield: 8-10 servings
(Robert St. John is a chef, restaurateur and cookbook author who lives in Hattiesburg, Miss.)