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Robert St. John

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

Faraway Friends

December 13, 2016

Food Journal December 7th 2016








MILAN— It’s been my experience that the older I get, the more I value relationships over worldly, material things. There was a time in my life— as a younger man— that the opposite was true. The change for the better began occurring around the time my first child was born.

I can remember looking at that sweet little baby girl, fresh out of the hospital nursery, and thinking, the only things I need in this world are my wife and this little baby. In that moment I would have been content to leave it all behind and move to a tiny remote cabin in the middle of nowhere to live out our lives, just the three of us.

Of course we are a foursome today, and one of the four is a 15-year old boy, who would eat all of the cabin’s rations and supplies stored for the winter in the first week. Then we would likely starve to death because he and I are terrible hunters.

I am in Milan feeling grateful. I have just finished leading a tour group through Tuscany with my best friend, his girlfriend, and my wife. The trip was a success. With a few days to spare at the end of our stay we have travelled up to Milan to visit old friends who live here. They are the ones that have me feeling so appreciative this morning.

Barbara Colombo and Alberto Berticelli are two of my favorite people on the planet. We met them five years ago while we were traversing Italy working on a book. It was one of those rare situations in life where you meet someone, and almost instantly, the relationship feels like it’s been there since childhood.



The two are married. Barbara is a pharmacist who owns her own pharmacy and Alberto is a journalist who writes for the largest newspaper in Italy. They live in the middle of this wonderful city, just blocks from the Quadrilatero della moda (the fashion district). Yet today, it’s not the high priced designer boutiques on Via Montenapoleone that I am interested in— not by a long shot— though there is a time in my young life that even those circumstances would be reversed. On this visit I have been solely focused on catching up and spending time with good friends we haven’t seen in a few years.

Yesterday we walked the city with our friends, but mainly we shared meals and conversation. Italy is all about food and culture so much so that food is an innate component in the culture.

Barbara and Alberto live in a nice eighth-floor apartment with their two daughters, a dog, and a cat. Even the animals eat well over here. The dog eats a daily bowl of cooked chicken, rice, and carrots prepared by the housekeeper. The cat has a daily ritual where he walks out into the hallway and sits in front of the elevator until it stops and opens on his floor. If the cat likes the people who are in the elevator at that time, he will get on and ride it down to the first floor where he then travels to the sushi bar next door. There the staff and customers feed him. Afterwards the cat returns to the apartment building where he stands in front of the elevator in the lobby and waits for someone he likes for the ride back up to the eighth floor. Once on the elevator, he knows which floor to get off on.tucankitty

We had witnessed this phenomenon on an earlier visit, and it played out during this trip. It’s just another charming aspect in these sweet people’s lives.

This morning we had one of the greatest breakfasts I have ever enjoyed. In the middle of the fashion district there are two rival, upscale pasticcerias that have been in business for over a century— Cova, now owned by Louis Vutton, and Marchesi, now owned by Prada. Each serves pastries, breads, baked goods, and espresso, and are among the most elegant and refined bakeries anywhere.

Cova has been serving fine pastries on the same corner of Via Montenapoleone since 1817. Marchesi— though now in a new location— got a late start and didn’t fire up the baking ovens until 1824. In Milan you choose one or the other. It’s like Ford or Chevy in the United States. Our friends are longtime Cova people. Though this trip we were with them on their first visit to Marchesi, and they instantly switched their allegiance. The baked good have to be pretty good for a change like that to take place.

We sat and visited and ate Panatone (Italian Christmas bread), and they drank cappuccino. For the record, my wife, an expert on the subject, said it was the best cappuccino she had ever tasted.

I am a big fan of panatone. It is the ultimate sweet bread. The proofing process takes a few days to create the dome shaped loaf which is filled with candied orange, lemon peel, and raisins. Unlike its denser, heavier cousin— the fruitcake— panatone is light, airy, not too sweet, and a lot like panbrioche. Marchesi’s version is so good I ordered several to be sent back home for Christmas.

We are here on Alberto’s birthday and he and Barbara have each taken two days off of work to spend with us as we eat our way through this beautiful city. As we walked past the massive and beautiful Milano cathedral— truly one of the most breathtaking structures in all of Europe— it occurred to me that I was in the middle of a true Five F moment where faith, family, friends, food and fun collide all at once. It’s always when the first four are present that the fifth naturally happens.

Now we are off to celebrate Alberto’s birthday with even more of our Milan friends (the cat and dog will have to fend for themselves).



Chocolate Croissant Bread Pudding

12 ounces chocolate chips, divided

6 egg yolks

2 eggs

1/2  cup sugar

1 tsp vanilla

1 1/4 cups cream

1/2  cup milk

1/8 tsp salt

6 croissants

Lightly butter an 8 1/4”x 8 1/2”x 2 1’2” Ceramic Baking Dish     

Place half of the chocolate chips in a double boiler. Heat the vanilla, cream and milk with half the sugar and pour over melted chocolate. Combine the other half of the sugar with the eggs and yolks and whip until light and fluffy. Temper the hot chocolate mixture slowly into egg mixture. Cut the croissants in half. Submerge the bottom halves of the croissants into the custard mixture and soak for 10 minutes. Gently remove them from the custard, and cover the bottom of the baking dish with the soaked croissant halves. Sprinkle the remaining chocolate chips over the soaked croissants. Soak the tops of the croissants in the remaining custard mixture for 10 minutes. Gently remove them from the custard and arrange them atop the chocolate chips. Pour and remaining custard over the croissants. Cover and refrigerate over night.

Preheat oven to 325

Remove the prepared bread pudding from the refrigerator one hour before baking. Press the croissant down to make sure all of the custard has been absorbed into the croissants. Cover the bread pudding with a sheet of wax paper, followed by a sheet of aluminum foil.

Place the covered baking dish in a large roasting pan, and fill the pan with hot water so that it comes 1 1/2 inches up the sides of the baking dish.

Bake for 25 minutes. Remove the foil and wax paper cover and bake for 20-30 more minutes, the bread pudding should jiggle slightly, but have no liquid custard remaining.

Remove from the oven and allow the bread pudding to rest for 30 minutes before serving.

Place a small pool of the bourbon crème anglaise on each serving dish. Cut the bread pudding into 6-8 portions and place each piece in the center of the crème anglais, serve immediately.


Yield: 6-8 servings


Bourbon Crème Anglaise

1cup cream

1/2 cup half and half

1/4 cup bourbon

3/4 cup sugar, divided

4 egg yolks

1 tsp vanilla extract


In a stainless steel pot bring the cream, half and half, bourbon, vanilla and half of the sugar to a simmer. While it is heating, combine the yolks and remaining sugar in a mixing bowl and whip until light in color.

Slowly add the hot cream mixture into to yolks while stirring constantly. Return the mixture to the pot and cook over a low-medium flame stirring constantly. Cook until the mixture becomes thick enough to coat a spoon or spatula.

Remove from the heat and cool down in an ice bath.

Yield: 8 servings

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