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Robert St. John

Restaurateur, author, enthusiastic traveler, & world-class eater.

Friends from Mississippi to Milan

November 21, 2011

LENNO, ITALY— This column is supposed to be about a restaurant I visited last week on the island of Burano, just across the lagoon from Venice. Osteria da Romano reminds me of an Italian version of Galatoire’s. The waiters wear starched white jackets and bow ties, several generations of family members operate the restaurant after being passed down from previous generations, and the food is classic, as most of the menu has remained the same for a few decades. Any restaurant that has fed Ernest Hemingway and Keith Richards has a friend in me.

But something funny happened on the way to the forum (it’s been three weeks since we were in Rome, but I’ll never have another opportunity to use that line), we made new friends.

One of the unexpected pleasures of this trip has been the friendships made, secured, and enjoyed. We made friends from the Seychells while we were in Greece, befriended locals in Amalfi who also live in Bologna, and instantly hit it off with the owners of the villa we rented in Tuscany who, in turn, introduced us to their friends from Milan.

It’s the Milan friends who have kidnapped today’s column, and left Osteria da Romano— and its perfectly prepared salt-crusted sea bass— high and dry.

Making close friendships over here was something I never expected. I write often about the value of friends, and how important true friendships are in the course of our daily lives. But for this European journey I was focused on locations, restaurants, and book details. Newfound friendships have been an outstanding bonus.

Annagloria and Enzo, the owners of the villa we rented in Tuscany, are great people, and one of the highlights of the Tuscan leg of this excursion was when they invited us to their home for a typical Tuscan meal. It was perfect.

A few nights later, Annagloria called and invited us to join her, Enzo, and their friends from Milan for dinner.

We attended a special dinner at a remote bed and breakfast out in the middle of the Tuscan countryside. It was an event that seems to happen monthly. The food was served buffet style, seating was communal, and there was a performance after dinner. The food was great, the performance was surreal— a British cover band, in a Tuscan inn, singing American rock and roll, and setting up the songs in Italian— but the connection we made with the group from Milan was priceless.

The Milan group was starved for information about Mississippi and the South. While the lead singer crooned a lounge-act version of “Sweet Home Alabama,” I explained how we lived 100 miles away from the birthplace of jazz, just over 100 miles away from the birthplace of the blues, and less than 100 miles away from the birthplace of country music. They didn’t know who Jimmy Rogers was, but all faces lit up when the name Elvis Presley was mentioned.

“Ultimately,” I told them, “you can trace the birthplace of rock and roll to my hometown of Hattiesburg, as ‘Rolling Stone’ magazine’s ‘The Illustrated History of Rock and Roll’ states that two songs recorded in Hattiesburg in 1936 are the earliest rock and roll recordings on record.”

To further state my case, I referred them to Muddy Waters, another fellow Mississippian, and his song, “The Blues Had A Baby (And They Named the Baby Rock and Roll).” If rock and roll wasn’t invented in Hattiesburg, it was certainly conceived in Mississippi, the home of the blues. As always, I am proud of my town and state, and the Italians seemed to be completely enthralled by Mississippi and didn’t need a sales pitch as they had already become fans.

We invited the Milan group to lunch at our villa the next day and had a blast. They, in turn, invited us to spend time with them when we reached Milan.

We have just spent two days with Barbara, Alberto and their friends in Milan. We were invited to a typical six-course dinner in the home of one of their friends and Barbara, a pharmacist, and Alberto, a journalist for the largest newspaper in Italy, took two days off of work to show us around Milan.

They are as proud of their city and region as we are of ours. Maybe that was the connection. Throw in some excellent food, and we have secured lifetime friendships.

The hometown pride that they displayed as we walked through the busy streets of Milan was only surpassed by the enthusiasm I have for my home state and it’s neighbors. We made plans to bring our six Milan friends over when we return and give them the full tour of New Orleans, Hattiesburg, the Mississippi Delta, and the Florida Panhandle.

Yesterday, friends from home joined us. They, in addition to Wyatt (who has been with us for eight weeks while we work on our new book) will meet our new friends and the Mississippi-meets-Milan journey will continue.

Several months back, while in Turkey, an employee of the cruise line we were using suggested I tell the locals we meet that we hail from Canada, not America. I told him that he was crazy. When a former Californian who was seated next to me at a ristorante in Florence replied, “I’m sorry,” after telling him I was from Mississippi, I went on a 30-minute public relations rant about the great things in my home state. By dessert, he was ready to visit.

The Five Fs are tenets I try to incorporate into my daily life: Faith, family, friends, food, and fun. For me, those are the things that are most important in life. Any time one can incorporate three or more of those at one time, memories are sure to be made. In this time of thanksgiving, even though I am thousands of miles away, I am grateful for family and friends, and proud of my hometown and home state, today more than ever.

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