ROBERT ST. JOHN: Sit back and enjoy my Top 10 list for 2011

By Robert St. John

The last thing anyone needs this time of year is another best-of or Top-10 list. Too bad, I have been doing this for 12 years, so I get to claim some type of seniority or year-end-column-list squatter’s rights on this one.
Every year I publish a year-end Top-10 list of the best meals I’ve enjoyed throughout the past year.
I’ve been eating my way through Europe for the past five months, but most of the culinary highlights have come from two countries. Though we dipped into France for a few days several weeks ago, Italy and Spain have been the shining stars on this trip, so far.
We return to France next week, and if any of those meals qualify, they will be on next year’s list.
It’s been a life-changing year so far. My love of food and the restaurant business has grown, my creative spirit has been re-energized, and I am on fire and ready to return home loaded with more ideas and energy than I’ve ever had before.
Here we go.
10.) Lunch on the terrace at our villa in Tuscany, Barbarino, Italy – We did this several times during our three-week stay. The lunches were simple and casual. The view was amazing – 180-degrees with the Tuscan mountains visible 20 miles to the west – and the weather was perfect. Even though we were at the end of the growing season, I ate the best grapes I have ever tasted. The pastries came from the Bagnoli Pasticceria in town, the cheese from the creamery down the road, the olive oil from trees at the villa, the pasta dishes from my sauté pan in the villa, and the view from God. Beautiful on all counts.
9.) El Tintero, Malaga, Spain – Family and friends came to visit for the Christmas holidays. I figured if I couldn’t do the typical and traditional turkey-and-dressing thing, I should move as far away from that family tradition as possible. I did. We ate our Christmas Eve dinner overlooking the Mediterranean on a long table while waiters walked through the dining room, loudly calling out the names of the freshly cooked plates of seafood they were carrying – lobster, squid, giant shrimp, several varieties of fish cooked several ways, and assorted other seafood items I didn’t recognize. At the end of the meal they counted the stack of plates on the table and handed me the check. Next to Teatro Del Sale (#5), this was one of my most unique dining experiences in Europe, and worthy of an entire column to describe it all.
8.) The Viola Club, Tavernelle, Italy – This was a small locals-only lunch spot in our town. We ate there often. There were always a few dozen men playing cards in the front room. A mother, aunt and wife handled the cooking in the tiny kitchen. The son served the tables, and his father manned the bar and cash register. Euro for Euro, it’s been the best value on the trip, so far. Real, local food, served unadorned by real, local people. I also spent a fun morning in their kitchen. Good stuff, that.
7.) Dinner with friends, Milan, Italy – Our friend Barbara invited us to a dinner in our honor at her friend Betty’s house. We had been traveling all day, and the first course wasn’t even served until 10:30. The food was typical of a Milan dinner party, and it was excellent. I sat next to a man who learned English by listening to Beatles records as a child; we spontaneously belted out Beatles songs throughout the dinner.
Possibly the best thing to happen on this trip is that we have secured new friendships with great people whom we love and admire. They will all be visiting the United States next December and I am going to take them on a culinary/music tour of the South.
6.) Nobu, Copenhagen, Denmark – This restaurant came at the perfect time. We had spent three weeks in the culinary deserts of Greece, Albania and Croatia. While walking the streets of Copenhagen, after a lunch of goulash, I passed a sign for Nobu (my favorite New York sushi spot). The meal was so timely, and so good, I almost cried. Seriously.
5.) Cibreo, Florence, Italy – Fabio Pizzi is the top chef in Florence, and one of the most talented, creative and enterprising business people in the country. This is his flagship. The food is upscale and among the best fine-dining meals I have eaten in several years. The entire experience was made better by our waiter/maître ‘d, Joseph, who served us tomato aspic, basil flan, veal tripe salad, a spicy fish soup, perfectly prepared sea bream, and the richest and best polenta I have ever eaten.
4.) Teatro Del Sale, Florence, Italy – Again, Fabio Picci. This is one of the most unique dining experiences I have ever enjoyed. Teatro Del Sale is located across the street from Cibreo, but is a mile away in theme and atmosphere. Where else in the world can one eat more than a dozen courses, personally served by the chef, and attend a show in a historic theatre, afterwards? I don’t use the word “must visit” often. But if you go to Florence and don’t eat here, you’re nuts.
3.) Tapeo, Barcelona, Spain – I returned to this restaurant three times during a four-day visit. I will eat there again two more times on my way north. It is still the leader for “Best Tapas In Spain” in my opinion. It’s a small, locals-only space run by a husband and wife. The dishes prepared by the chef/owner and one assistant kept me up for three nights, forcing me to make lists of small-plate items I plan to develop and serve when I return home.
2.) Ristorante L’Archibugio, Barbarino Val d’Elsa – The best pizza I have ever eaten. Period. End of story.
1.) Dinner at Annagloria’s house, Tavernelle, Val d’Pesa, Italy – This dinner marked a sea change for me. In one meal, I saw how simple and easy true Tuscan-Italian home cooking can be. It will be the one meal that will serve as the inspiration for all of the dishes that will be included in the new Italian cookbook. Our friend Annagloria, the owner of the villa we rented in Tuscany, invited us to her home for dinner. In about one hour, she prepared: local Tuscan grapes wrapped in gorgonzola cheese, pear halves filled with marscapone and sweet gorganzola, potatoes filled with squid and pesto, vegetable gnocchi with fish, a spinach and squid entrée, and an amazing chocolate cake that took three minutes to make and nine minutes to bake. All will be in the book.
Onward.
Robert St. John is a restaurateur, chef and author of numerous books.