ROBERT ST. JOHN: My list of highlights while in Italy for 10 weeks; France is coming up next

By Robert St. John

It’s a gray day, inside and out in Lenno, Italy. Outside the front door of our villa, Lake Como is still. The early morning fog has lifted and I can barely see the snow-capped mountains in the distance. I was told this is the best weather they’ve had in decades, so I guess we should be grateful. There is beauty in the morning stillness, but it’s a lonely, solitary beauty.
Inside, my family is packing their suitcases and getting ready to say “arrivederci” to this country and the many friends we have made here. Once again, we are down to a small, but efficient, traveling contingent of four. Our friends the Murpheys ended their weeklong visit on the same day Wyatt packed up his easel, brushes and box of finished watercolor paintings and headed home to his daughter and grandchildren.
He completed 128 beautiful watercolor paintings in 67 days. Amazing. His work covers the entire country from Sicily to the Dolomites. During the past nine weeks he painted, I ate. That was the plan.
I absorbed as much as I could about the food and culture of this extremely diverse country. I ate in small bars and osterias, visited fresh markets, worked in kitchens and dined in some of the finest ristorantes throughout the boot. I have learned a lot.
While my family packs their luggage, I catch myself reflecting upon our 10 weeks in Italy. Last night, over a small plate of pasta and rucola salad in front of the fire, my family did what we often do, and polled each other about the top highlights during our previous weeks.
My Tops-In-Italy List
(in no particular order)
• Truffle hunting in Tuscany – this was a blast, and we found two nice-sized white truffles.
• Working in the small kitchen of the Viola Club in Tavarnelle – I had a little trouble communicating early on. But once the cooking started, no interpreter was needed. We used the international language of the five senses.
• Meeting new friends in Milan – again, this has been one of the surprise benefits of the trip. We are grateful we have made lifelong friends.
• Spending time with friends from home – the only down side to having friends from home on a visit, is eventually having to say goodbye.
• Michelangelo’s David – the most beautifully crafted, and awe-inspiring sculpture I have ever seen.
• The villa in Tuscany – I will return here, often.
• DaVinci’s Last Supper – the stillness of the setting adds to the grandeur and solemnity of the work.
• Venice at night – One word: magical.
• St. Mark’s Cathedral, Venice – After a while, one can almost catch himself getting numb to the majesty and beauty (especially in cathedrals), though the mosaic work here is gorgeous and mind-boggling at once.
• Tour of the Vatican after dark – we were part of a small group that toured the massive complex under the stars, inside and out.
• Going to the market every day to purchase fresh breads, meats, fruits, pasta and vegetables for that evening’s meal – I will live like this when I return home.
• The Amalfi Coast – Like so many places here, one can say, “There’s just no other place like it.”
• Teatro del Sale in Florence – probably the most unique dining experience I have ever experienced.
• Meals with newfound friends in Milan – We ate in ristorantes, we ate in friends’ homes and we ate in small pasticcerias. They get up early and stay out late, but most of all, they love life.
• Cibreo, Florence – in addition to the food, the service was possibly the best I have ever experienced.
• Dinner at Annagloria’s home in Tavarnelle – This was vital for the new cookbook as I saw typical Tuscan home cooking, and learned several great recipes that will surely be in the book.
• Pizza in Barbarino val d’Elsa – all I can say is that I occasionally dream about this pizza.
I could actually keep going, but the family is now packed, and we need to be on our way to the South of France where we will spend a week in the apartment of one of our newfound Milanese friends and submerge ourselves in French food and culture before moving on to Spain.
The four of us have fallen in love with this country and its people. It’s a love affair we know will continue for years, and an experience we will never forget.
If you want to see just how beautiful this country is, drop by the Wyatt Waters Gallery, and maybe you can talk Wyatt into giving you an advance peek into the beautiful art that will eventually be in the book.
Robert St. John is a restaurateur, chef and author of numerous books.