BARBERINO-TAVERNELLE, TUSCANY— I first came to this part of the world in 2011 on a three-week stopover with my wife and kids during a six-month family jaunt through Europe. What struck me within the first few days I arrived in Tuscany was that it felt a lot like the American South.
It’s not a hard conclusion to reach. It’s an agrarian society, but instead of soybeans and cotton, they grow grapes and olives. One is as likely to get stuck behind a tractor on the tight roads of the Via Roma as to lag behind a slow moving combine on US 49 in the Mississippi Delta. The difference, of course, is that the Via Roma is a 2,000+ year-old road. It’s the road that Michelangelo used to travel from Rome to Florence. It’s so old that when Jesus was walking in Jerusalem, someone was walking on the Via Roma, the road that bisects my Tuscan homebase of Barberino-Tavernelle.
The people here are friendly. There is no sign of European haughtiness with the Tuscans. There is a certain uneasiness Americans experience in French restaurants and shops. A lot that is brought on by Americans. But not always.
When in France I’ve found if one says “bonjour” in a friendly manner, and at least tries to communicate in their language, most French people will respond with a degree of politeness. Most, but not all. Many Tuscans seem embarrassed— and are often apologetic— if they can’t speak English well (a majority can). But it’s their country and their language, they have no reason to apologize.
Another reason Tuscany struck me as the South’s counterkin cousin is that they are so welcoming and hospitable. Mississippi is known as the “Hospitality State” of America because its people are so warm and inviting. Possibly not the case for our entire history, but in this columnist’s opinion, it’s most certainly the case today. Tuscany welcomed me with open arms the minute I set foot in this area. These days I feel like an adopted son of Tuscany.
The Tuscan people are family oriented. It matters here. As with many Asian cultures, they take care of their elders. They value and prioritize family just as we do.
Tuscans love to share a meal with friends and family. Meals in this part of the world can drag on longer than a Friday lunch at Galitoire’s. They’re rarely in a hurry.
Lately, I’ve been spending approximately 10 weeks a year here. I host groups of 25 Americans for weeklong deep dives into local Tuscan culture. As a part-timer, I feel as if I have assimilated into this culture. If I totaled up the time I have spent in this area over the past 12 years— from that initial visit, to vacationing with friends and family, to my work hosting Americans— I’ve probably spent close to 18 months here in total. I’ve made friends. True friends. Lifelong friends. People say, “Buongiorno, Robert,” when I walk into a store or restaurant. They smile. They’re always smiling over here. I only wish my Italian was half as good as their English.
My grandparents lived on the Upper East Side of Manhattan during the entire decade of the 1960s. My mother, brother, and I visited several times. As a six-year-old I can remember being puzzled after saying, “Hi,” to random people on the streets and not having it reciprocated. That’s not a dig against New York. I love that city. People are too busy, and the place is too crowded to spend time reciprocating pleasantries to a first grader on Park and 77th. But I’ll bet any Tuscan, on any day, would respond with a smile and a “Ciao,” to a six-year old who spoke to them on the streets of Florence. I know Mississippians— even on their worst day— would respond to a child’s greeting.
Though what I am feeling grateful for today are the friendships I’ve made over here. In the first few years I came here, I never gave it much thought. I was in town unintentionally assimilating into the culture. A few years ago, it hit me. I have made several solid and meaningful relationships here. I feel as close to many of these people as I do to my friends back home.
Last year Dario Cecchini told a group of my guests, “Robert St. John is a spiritual; member of our family.” I don’t know if I’ve ever heard anything on this continent that has made me happier— or prouder— than that. Last week, Paolo Cresti, owner of Caffe Degli Amici, the local restaurant I frequent the most, told my guests, “Robert is a part of our family.” I feel as if he meant it. I certainly feel that way about him. These people make me feel like a true Tuscan son.
In the fall of 2021, after cancelling the fourth tour group over here due to Covid, my wife and I hopped on a jet and flew over anyway. I wanted to let the people I work with over here, and my friends, know that we were coming back with more Americans as soon as we could.
On that original trip I turned 50-years-old here. In 2021 I celebrated my 60th birthday in the same villa I celebrated the 50th. The difference is on that second celebration it was filled with friends I have made over here. Annagloria and Enzo were there. They were the first people I met here. Our go-to tour guide and part-time co-host Marina was there with her boyfriend, Marco. Our friend Jesse— also a fellow tour guide for Spain, Sicily, and others— took the train up from Rome. Our friends Barbara and Alberto drove down from Milan. Toby and Susan from my favorite bakery in town came and brought the birthday cake. Marco and Cristina from the sheep farm just down the road brought a huge wheel of pecorino. Massimo and Cecilia two local restaurateurs who also host my pasta-making classes were there. Our Florence tour guides Ricardo and Cynthia left the city and drove out into the Tuscan countryside for the night. And Nadia and Rosanna, two of the finest Italian home cooks I know, prepared dinner. Annagloria and Enzo’s daughters, Gemma and Bianca served the meal. After dinner Annagloria and Marina arranged for ex-pat Brit, and former MTV Europe VJ, Rick Hutton and his band to perform for the group. It was a very special evening.
Our tours resumed in the spring of ‘22 with five groups and we’ve been working here spring and fall ever since. There seems to be no end to people wanting to join me overseas. For that I am grateful. Our recent trips to Sicily, England/Scotland, and Spain sold out in under 15 minutes. I’d love to sit here— let my ego do the typing— and take credit for the popularity of these tours I host. But I’m afraid it’s the locals who make the experience memorable and keep people returning on subsequent trips to new locales.
In Tuscany one can’t discount the familiarity southerners feel when they encounter the local citizenry. Good food, good times, and good people are always a winning combination whether one is in the Deep South of America or the Olive groves of Tuscany.
Bucatini al Amatriciana
This classic Italian dish comes from the town of Amatrice in the Lazio Region— which includes Rome— and Pecorino romano is the cheese that is used in this dish. Period. They are serious about that. It’s not Amatriciana with any other cheese.
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 San Marzano tomatoes, canned, crushed
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 published cookbook author who lives in Hattiesburg, Miss.)