ROBERT ST. JOHN: Dreaming of Tuscany

ROBERT ST. JOHN

ROBERT ST. JOHN

I once had an aunt and uncle who lived in France for several years. They eventually returned to the States but kept an apartment in Paris and a country cottage in Normandy. The two were devout Francophiles. As far as they were concerned, all that was beautiful in life began – and ended – at the French border.

They spoke lovey-dovey French to each other over dinner and professed their knowledge of French wine, food and culture at every opportunity. No matter what the conversation was about, they always had a comeback that “______ (fill in the blank) was better in France.”

As a child that might have seemed obnoxious, but in later years I came to appreciate their devotion, not only to each other, but the country they had fallen in love with in their youth. Who was I to decide what country/region/culture someone else should love or not love? These days I can relate to their dedication on another level. The minute I set foot in Italy, several years ago, I was smitten. In a strange way, I felt at home.

I love, love, love America, Mississippi, and my hometown of Hattiesburg. I wouldn’t live anywhere else. But Italy calls to me in some strange way I never anticipated.

Earlier this year I canceled a spring break trip to Tuscany. I had made the arrangements in advance of last year’s book tour and hoped to visit Italian friends and old haunts in 2014. Due to scheduling conflicts and business concerns the timing didn’t work. I would be there right now shopping at the green grocer, talking with my friend Enzo about this year’s olive oil harvest, and traversing the Tuscan hillsides looking for new, out-of-the-way locals-only trattorias and osterias.

Instead I sit at a desk in a windowless office dreaming of Tuscany. Though in my mind’s eye I am sitting in the Viola Club in the small town of Tavarnelle.

The Viola Club is run by a family – mom in the kitchen, dad behind the bar, and son waiting tables. The food 100 percent authentic Italian, it is good, and unbelievably inexpensive. We ate there often and they nailed the food every time. It was one of those places that wasn’t much to look at but was filled with local color.

Paolo, the son, serves all of the tables. The menu changes daily and is handwritten on a piece of poster board. I spent a few mornings in The Viola Club’s kitchen with Paolo’s mom, Giuliana, and his wife, Elizabeth. They cooked. I soaked it all in. It was a blast.

I miss that place. I also miss cooking with Enzo’s olive oil that was made using olives picked from trees just outside our villa’s kitchen.

I miss eating pizza in the medieval town of Barbarino. The tiny restaurant there is a culinary anomaly. It’s cramped, the service is slow, and it’s named for a muzzle-loading rifle, but it has the absolute best pizza on the planet. Period. The crust is the thinnest I have tasted. The toppings are minimal. It is the exact opposite of what we Americans accept as pizza, and it is wonderful.

I miss hunting for truffles with Roberto Minnucci just down the hill from our villa. Watching the interaction between a truffle hunter and his dog is similar to a South Mississippi quail hunt, except the prize at the end of the day is the elusive Italian white truffle.

I miss buying my wife flowers every day at the local flower shop just off the Tavarnelle town square. There is something about a small flower shop on a European town square that lifts the simple act of gifting a floral arrangement into another stratosphere.

I miss the view from the villa across the valley. It can’t be described in words on a page because it changes every day, but the diversity and complexity of a Tuscan sunset is something everyone should witness.

I miss bringing home pastries from the bakery that are wrapped like presents using gift paper. No matter what one purchases – one croissant, a frozen cake, or a dozen lunch pastries – they wrap it in very nice blue and gold wrapping paper and tie it with a small blue ribbon.

I think of Italy often. I long for the slow, measured daily pace of life in a locals-only Tuscan village. Mostly I miss our friends Annagloria, Enzo, Barbara, Alberto, Gianni and Esa.

Spring break approaches and I am home. Though I don’t want to become like my aunt and uncle. I hope to never be a person who begins every sentence with, “Over in Italy …” If I ever pick up that habit, grab the nearest brick and knock me in the head. But, in the meantime, my friends and family might have to endure my yearning just a little longer.

Robert St. John is a restaurateur, chef and author of numerous books.