By Robert St. John
Yesterday we regretfully left Villa Il Santo in the Tuscan countryside and made our way down the A-1 toll road to the capital city.
As we were packing and shutting down the villa, I worried we might have reached this expedition’s pinnacle just 10 weeks into the year-long journey.
Our three weeks in Tuscany would certainly be the gold standard for the trip, and the measuring stick by which all locations and lodgings would be judged, but we have two dozen countries and more than 36 cities to hit before this excursion is over.
As I drove down the gravel road that leads away from the villa, I silently prepared my sales pitch to the kids for the apartment in Rome – “I know the kitchen is on the fourth floor, it’s a small apartment in a big city. Get over it. You’re in Rome. Yes, you’ll have to use the shower in our bedroom, at least you’re not having to take a shower outside on the fifth floor balcony like Wyatt. Get over it. You’re in Rome. Take a good look around, this is how your first college apartment will look.”
I knew I could make the argument, but did I even buy it myself? All questions were answered when I approached the Piazza di Spagna, half a block from the apartment. We’ve traded in early-morning birds chirping in the countryside for street noise. The clanging and banging of construction workers two doors down have replaced the pheasant hunter’s distant shots. Hot air balloons rising over the Tuscan hillside in the distance are just that, in the distance.
We are in Rome.
As I sit in this apartment listening to the sounds of the city waking up, I think back to the top dining experiences we enjoyed in Tuscany:
6.) Viola Club, Tavarnelle Val D’ Pesa – The Viola Club is not even the name of this place, though that is what is on the sign outside. The sign refers to the Florence football team’s colors – purple. We were given several answers on the name of the place, “Acli,” “The Viola Bar” and other designations we couldn’t understand. Most of the locals just call it “The Bar.” We called it The Viola Club because that is what is on the sign.
The Viola Club is the local hangout serving breakfast and lunch. It’s run by a family – mom in the kitchen, dad behind the bar and son waiting tables. The food is good and unbelievably inexpensive. We ate there six times and they nailed the food every time.
Paolo, the son, serves all of the tables. He is overworked and the service sometimes drags, but it’s not because he’s not working his tail off. Hiring two additional servers would be huge for this place, but I don’t know if there are any more family members in the bullpen.
I spent last Tuesday morning in The Viola Club kitchen with Paolo’s mom, Giuliana, and his wife, Elizabeth. They cooked, I stayed out of the way. It was a blast. The recipe I was researching was Peposo, which I learned, and, which will definitely be in the book (and the restaurant).
5.) L’Archibugio Ristorante, Barbarino Val D’Elsa – The following is what you need to know about this pizza joint in the medieval town of Barbarino: It’s small, it’s cramped, the service is slow, it’s named for a muzzle-loading rifle, and it has the absolute best pizza on the planet. Period.
Trust me. I have eaten a lot of pizza in 50 years. So much so, that after my first restaurant opened in 1987, the pizza delivery people automatically knew my order when I called, “The usual, Mr. St. John?”
L’Archibugio, according to my friend, David Trigiani, who was with us on all four visits, “is the best pizza I have ever eaten in Italy.” This, coming from a dual-citizen lover of all things Italian, a man who travels here several times a year, a man who knows food, a man who has been to Naples and eaten in the birthplace of the pie.
The crust is the thinnest pizza crust I have tasted. The toppings are minimal. It is the exact opposite of what we Americans accept as pizza, and it is wonderful.
4.) Teatro Del Sale, Florence – I already covered this place a few columns ago, but I returned after that column, and now can say – with great certainty – I know where the best polenta in Italy is served.
3.) Bagnoli Paticceria, Tavarnelle val D’Pesa – This was my go-to breakfast joint, and home to one of the best croissants I have ever eaten. We won’t hit France until February, but they’re going to have to work pretty hard to beat those pastries.
2.) Trattoria Mario, Florence – This is all I will tell you about this small, crowded trattoria with communal seating. On the first visit, we were seated with a woman who has eaten there every Friday for 40 years. She used to live across the street. When she was 10, she moved outside of the city. She still comes back into town once a week. She doesn’t order. They just bring her food.
On the second visit to Mario, we sat with a man and his brother who have eaten lunch there every day for 10 years. Every day. Ten years. “That’s nothing,” he said. “That man over there,” he said loudly, as he pointed across the crowded room, “has eaten here every day for 40 years.” The man waved. Neither of them ordered. The server just brought their lunch.
What greater endorsement can a restaurant receive?
1.) Cibreo, Florence – Chef Fabio Picchi, of the aforementioned Teatro Del Sale, is one of Italy’s most accomplished chefs. He opened Cibreo in 1979, when he was 25 years old, using a small, wood-burning stove. He has since grown that tiny, 80-seat concept into one of the finest restaurants in the entire country.
If given the choice, I will always choose a secluded life in the countryside over the bustle of a city, but, for now, I will do as the Romans do.
Robert St.John is a restaurateur, chef and author of numerous books.