ROBERT ST JOHN: On the road again

By Robert St. John

This time last year I was in Italy eating my way through that country. On this exact day, I was in Sicily about to head north towards Venice, Milan and Lake Como. I had spent the entire month of October in the cities and towns around Tuscany.
This October was spent in America working, writing, attending football games, and developing recipes for the Italian cookbook due to be released next year. In a few days, however, I will be returning to Tuscany for two weeks to eat my way through the region once again.
I love my hometown of Hattiesburg and I love my home state of Mississippi. I could probably live in a lot of different places, but I choose to live here because I love the people and the region. I like visiting the Rocky and Smoky mountain ranges. I love California and New York. Chicago is one of my favorite big cities in America, and a large part of my youth was spent on the beaches of the Florida coast, but I love Hattiesburg most. It is my home. My roots are here. My friends are here. My business is here. I have always said I wouldn’t live anywhere else.
Then I traveled to Tuscany. While I wouldn’t want to live in the Tuscan countryside full time, I could spend a good portion of every year there. To me, Tuscany is a lot like the American South. Once one is out of Florence of Sienna the pace slows. The people are warm and welcoming. Agriculture is a large part of what makes up the character of the region and is what has defined their existence for centuries. Also, the food is amazing.
Last year I fell in love with the foods of Tuscany (and the Emilia-Romgna region). It was so much of an inspiration that I incorporated many new dishes into the offerings of our Italian restaurant and compiled dozens of recipes for the new cookbook.
It’s always good to check your palate in the middle of cookbook testing. For the five previous cookbooks – all focused on Southern food or variations thereof – I have been able to take small trips to make sure the tone, tenor and flavor profiles of the recipes were accurate. Most were day trips or weekend jaunts to New Orleans or the Florida Panhandle.
While developing an Italian cookbook that will consist of many authentic Italian recipes, it’s not so easy to check those flavor profiles within a few hundred miles of my home. Therefore, I am off to Italy.
I plan to revisit favorites like the Viola Club in Tavarnelle Val di Pesa where I spent one of the more memorable mornings of the past several years cooking in a tiny kitchen with an Italian mother, daughter-in-law and aunt. No one spoke English very well, but I learned a great lesson that day. Cooking is an international language. Once the stovetops get fired up and the ovens are turned on, everyone speaks the same language.
I will visit old haunts and discover new places. I have a long list of got-to-get-to ristorantes, trattorias and osterias in the towns and villages of Tuscany.
My wife and I will pitch our tent at Villa il Santo outside of the small village of Barberino Val d’Elsa for two weeks. The first week we will be joined by friends from Mississippi, and friends we made in Milan last year. The second week our children will fly over for their Thanksgiving vacation with friends of theirs and ours. During both weeks, my friend, dual-citizen, and passionate Italophile, David Trigiani will be there helping to cook and eat and interpret when able.
Thanksgiving will be spent at Teatro Del Sale in Florence, and we will surely frequent Chef Fabio Picchi’s flagship Cibreo.
Most of all, I am looking forward to visiting with the Italian friends we made last year. Barbara and Alberto will be driving down from Milan, and I look forward to spending time in Annagloria’s kitchen cooking dishes using her husband, Enzo’s, olive oil, made from olive trees just outside the window.
The surprise of last year’s six-month European tour was meeting and making new friends. It is with that spirit we revisit Italy.
Food is the bond that brings friends together. When the place they are being brought together is Tuscany, it makes everything taste so much better.
Robert St. John is a restaurateur, chef and author of numerous books.