BARBERINO-TAVARNELLE, TUSCANY— For the past several years— and for the foreseeable future— I have spent approximately 90 days each year hosting Americans in Europe. I am currently seven weeks into my Spring 2023 trips with the fourth group I’ve hosted since mid-March. We are in Tuscany. Next week I will head to Holland and Belgium to host a group of 25 Americans, most of whom have traveled with me before. For some it will be their fifth or sixth trip with me over the past six years. We are fast friends by now.
On these tours I tell my guests that my plan is to, “Cover all the bases, and check all of the boxes.” What I mean by that is the week they spend in Tuscany, or the 10 days in Spain, or 10 days in the Netherlands and Belgium, I want each of them to experience as much of the country’s culture, art, architecture, craftsmanship, personalities, landscapes, wine, spirits— and especially cuisine— as they can. It is my goal that when they are on their flight home, they will look back on the time they spent and realize how much ground we covered, and how much they experienced.
To accomplish this, we eat a lot of food. In Tuscany, our typical meals consist of way more than the typical Italian would eat daily. For those who are first time travelers it takes two or three days to get into the flow of my trips and to realize the amount of food that is going to be served. For the seasoned guests who have been with me a few times, they understand from day one.
In Tuscany, we probably cover two weeks worth of Tuscany in one week. That holds true for the food choices as well. We eat a lot of food. But, again, I want to cover all the bases and check all the boxes. I want my guests to get an accurate representation of the cuisine in this part of the world in the short time they are here. To do that we have to order a lot of food.
Sometimes guests, in the early days of a trip, will complain, “It’s too much food.”
I always reply, “No one is going to make you eat it all. Just eat what you like, or eat small portions of each.”
The beauty of this system is that there are no misses. I have cherrypicked all the restaurants and meals. I have eaten at these restaurants dozens— if not hundreds in some instances— of times. Everything is a hit. That’s one thing that happens when traveling. You can take all the recommendations and reviews you think you need, but there are still misses. I have eliminated the misses, and all the meals are perfect.
Last week a guest suggested I print T-shirts that state, “There’s more food coming.” I had never thought about it, but it’s obviously something I say often on these trips. My aim is true. I don’t want my guests to fill up on the antipasti course before getting the primi, or the secondi. And certainly not before the dessert. I never thought about how much I use that phrase because I’m typically in host mode and focused on the business at hand.
If one is going to check all the boxes and cover all the bases one must have diverse offerings at every turn. In Spain that is easy to do as we move from city to city every couple of days. The food in Madrid is much different than the food in Barcelona. The same goes with Valencia, Seville, and Malaga which is on the Mediterranean and has a plentiful seafood bounty.
I have hosted tours that included Venice, Bologna, and Milan in one week. Those are all Italian cities. But the cuisine is substantially different in each. Venice leans heavily towards the bounty from the sea, Bologna, a city that many call, “The food capital of Italy,” is very meat-centric, and Milan is a city with a lot of Austrian and French influences in their food— dairy products are used more often than in any other part of the country.
When leading groups through Rome, the Amalfi Coast, and Naples the choices are easy. Rome being a major European capital the food choices are diverse and the offerings are “big city Italian.” The Amalfi Coast is full of excellent seafood that was swimming that morning. Naples is ground zero for pizza, so during those trips the job is easier. All I need to do is find the right restaurants.
In Tuscany, the area of the country that I know best, I focus on what the locals eat. We eat pizza, in the small Tuscan town of Tavarnelle-Barberino which has one of my top two pizza restaurants in the entire country in Vecchia Piazza (the other is Piccolo Buco in Rome). But there are so many other Tuscan classic dishes such as pappa pomodoro, ribollita, dishes with multiple uses of white beans, classic soups, Florentine steak, several pastas, and several dishes using truffles. The food in the countryside outside of Florence is very rustic and workmanlike. I love it. It’s right up my alley.
One thing I overlooked in the early days of my travels here was seafood. I will admit that I am a little bit of a Gulf Coast seafood snob. I believe— and still believe— that the bounty of seafood that comes from the Gulf of Mexico is the best in the world. You can tout the seafoods from the Pacific Coast, Atlantic Coast, Mediterranean and other exotic locales. But the seafood I have eaten all my life that comes from the warm waters Gulf of Mexico is, according to my taste, far superior to all others. Though Tuscany does a great job with seafood. So much of this region consists of the Mediterranean coastline. One of the favorite meals I host for my guests is at an excellent seafood restaurant, Trattoria del Pesce, where we eat mussels, clams, salt-crusted sea bass, and even fish for dessert. It’s excellent.
Yesterday when I told my guests that someone in the previous group suggested I pass out T-shirts that say, “There is more food coming.” One of the new guests suggested that the back of the shirt say, “And wine too!” It’s true. They eat a lot, they drink a lot, and it’s my goal that they “want” for nothing. But we’re in Italy. We need to experience as much of this part of the world as we can in a short period of time. The fact that so many return to travel with me for a fifth or sixth time lets me know I must be doing something right.
It’s work, and sometimes it’s hard work, but if you’ve got to work somewhere, this isn’t a bad place to do it. In the meantime, I’ll continue to cover all the bases and check all the boxes.
No peas, no cream. That’s real Pasta Carbonara.
1 lb. Dry spaghetti pasta
1 gallon Water
¼ cup + ½ tsp Kosher salt
3 TB Extra virgin olive oil
½ lb. Guanciale or Pancetta, medium diced
2 cups Parmigianino Reggiano, shredded
1 tsp Fresh ground black pepper
4 each Whole large eggs, beaten slightly, at room temperature
½ cup Warm pasta water
Cook the spaghetti using the instructions on the package.
Heat the oil in a small skillet on medium heat. Add pancetta and stir frequently until cooked, about 6-8 minutes. Allow to cool slightly.
In a large mixing bowl, combine the eggs, grated cheese, remaining ½ tsp salt, black pepper, and pasta water (if the water is too hot you might want to add it in small amounts so the eggs won’t scramble). Mix well. Add hot spaghetti. Add the cooked pancetta and its oil over the pasta and combine thoroughly.
Divide among 6-8 serving bowls.
(Robert St. John is a chef, restaurateur and published cookbook author who lives in Hattiesburg, Miss.)