By Robert St. John
BARBERINO VAL D’ELSA, ITALY – Even on a cold, gray, rainy day, the Tuscan countryside is picturesque. There is an unintentional romanticism that bleeds through every vein of this land. It is made twice as charming due to the fact the locals seem to have no idea how wonderful this place actually is. Understandable, I guess, if that is all one has ever known.
Do the people of Fiji or Tahiti know how breathtaking their little slice of the globe is? Possibly, but only because people are traveling thousands of miles and enduring hours spent breathing re-circulated airline air to get there. I suspect it is the same story in this region of Italy.
We arrived to Villa Il Santo yesterday, and my wife and I felt as if we had come home. We spent three weeks here last October, which turned out to be the longest period we stayed in one place on the entire six months I was working on the book. When our two children fly over for their Thanksgiving vacation next week, it will truly feel like we are at our home away from home.
The first day consisted of a quick trip into the ancient tower-filled city of San Gimignano which can be seen from our terrace about 15-20 miles to the west. We hit Ristorante Dulcis In Fundo just before closing time and ate our way through the jet lag by consuming four courses – the best of which was a light pasta with local white truffles and the least – surprisingly – was a risotto that missed the mark.
The treat of the trip so far has been last night’s dinner in the villa. I prepared supper the first evening – pecorino ravioli with pesto and gemelli with pork and mushrooms in a light cream sauce with a lightly dressed Tuscan salad of rucola, balsamic, and extra virgin olive oil. It was easy and quick, but not even close to the dinner prepared by a local woman named Rosanna last night.
Our friend, Annagloria, the owner of the villa, decided to surprise us by sending her friend Rosanna to the villa to cook a typical home-prepared Tuscan meal. We arrived late, after a day of tower climbing, to a kitchen that was in full-out supper-cooking mode. Rosanna worked with the calm efficiency of an Italian mother who had – for several decades – prepared thousands of meals for a large family.
I stayed by her side as she prepared four courses that will surely make the cut for the new book. A nice little pork and cheese antipasti broiled on a small crostini, a first course of Pasta Amatriciana – a classic Italian dish of tomatoes, pancetta, and onion, finished with pecorino. It’s typically made using bucatini. Rosanna used fusilli.
The third course was a rustic and delicious Pollo Alla Catcciatore, or chicken hunter’s style, which was appropriate since there were several pheasant hunters out in the grape orchards below the villa that afternoon.
The final course was tiramisu, and though I am not a fan of that particular dessert, I am now a raving fan of Rosanna’s version, and it will be the gold standard for that recipe forever. Excellent.
Later this afternoon, despite the overcast skies and constant drizzle, we will join Annagloria’s husband, Enzo, a third-generation Tuscan winemaker and olive oil producer, and follow the time-honored practice of pressing olive oil made from olives picked on the trees just outside our window.
Last year we arrived too late for the wine crush and too early for the olive oil pressing. This year we have hit it just right, and I look forward to learning how to make the single most important ingredient in the Italian larder – olive oil.
With clear weather forecast for the remaining two weeks, and with our children just days away, my wife and I will be content to spend the rest of the day nibbling on prosciutto cotto, prosciutto crudo, pane Pugliese, and pecorino Cugusi, drizzled with Enzo’s olive oil, while staring at the countryside and dreaming of what was and what will be, no matter the weather.
Robert St. John is a restaurateur, chef and author of numerous books.