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Robert St. John

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

Italian Breakfast

May 2, 2017

TAVERNELLE VAL D’PESA, TUSCANY— My ongoing love affair with breakfast bakeries and pastry shops continues even when I am out of the country. Actually, it increases when I am out of the country. I spent a month in France several years ago hitting a different patisserie every morning. I never got bored.

I believe people are wired certain ways from birth. That specific wiring affects our tastes, our behaviors, and our habits. I was wired to love bread and breakfast— and on good days, both at once. I am the Anti-Atkins incarnate.

In this part of Italy, I have a favorite bakery— or pasticceria as they call it. It’s a place I discovered in 2011 when I first visited this part of the world. Four of us visited every morning— Wyatt Waters, my son, our friend David Trigiani, and I. We all loved it.

The Bagnoli Pasticceria is owned by a man named Bagnoli whom I have never met. He also has a son and a daughter who are pastry chefs in the kitchen. The place is small by American standards, with three large display cases. One holds all manner of croissants— plain, sugar-topped, honey-topped, jam-filled, cream-filled, and chocolate. There are several other sweet breakfast pastries in the case, all of which are beautiful and either filled or topped with chocolate, custard, or some type of fruit. This is the case that the Italians crowd around in the morning. Another case has savory, cold, pre-made paninis in it. Many people would pass this by at 7:00 a.m. Many people would be sorely mistaken.

That case holds two of my favorite breakfast pastries on the planet— a round little beauty made with prosciutto cotto (ham) and fontina cheese, and another light, flaky savory breakfast treat that is cut into pie-shaped triangles and has tomato inside (my son calls it “Italian breakfast pizza”). It is actually called, “prosciutto cotto sottilette pomodoro capperi,” which translates to “baked ham, sliced thin with tomato and capers,” or as I call it, breakfast perfection. They are each made with a croissant-like dough and are light and very crumbly (always a great sign). I could eat one of each of every morning for the rest of my life and never miss pancakes, eggs, and bacon. OK, I would miss bacon.

In the corner near the front door there is a vertical refrigerated display case with all manner of elaborately decorated cakes, and an extremely over-worked espresso/cappuccino machine behind the counter. There are two or three stand-up tables across from the counter and four small tables with chairs in an adjoining room. The bakery is staffed by six or seven very busy ladies, and there is an energy in that place in the mornings that is convivial and upbeat. The average visit per customer is about five to seven minutes long, in and out.

The typical Italian breakfast on-the-go happens there every morning. It’s the same all over the country, in bars, cafes, truck stops, petrol stations, and bakeries. Customers come in and grab a pastry and a shot of cappuccino or espresso and hold that cup in one hand and a napkin-wrapped pastry in the other. They visit with one another while they enjoy their quick breakfast, and then they are on their way to take on their day.

Italians would never think of driving up to the window of a building and ordering coffee or breakfast. I’m not making a statement on which is better than the other, just stating a fact.

I am not wired to be an Italian. I am not a tour guide for this country, I barely speak in niceties and mangle Italian words hourly. Yet I am an enthusiastic cheerleader for all things Italian. I have never liked coffee, and that is almost a pre-requisite for Italian living, I stopped drinking alcohol 34 years ago, so wine is a no-go, but I love the food, I love the art, I love the countryside, I love the culture, and— most of all— I love the people.

I have just now taken a break from writing this column to shuttle two ladies to Wyatt Waters’ villa for a morning painting session. The Bagnoli Pasticceria wasn’t on the way to or from my villa or Wyatt’s villa, but I was happy to navigate the early morning school traffic in Tavernelle to make a welcome detour at the bakery.

I type this with my two favorite pastries and a cup of hot tea and honey by my side in a converted 1,000-year old barn in the Tuscan countryside. In a few days, this journey that has included hosting two groups of 22 people each, will come to an end. I only have a finite number of days to eat these pastries before I go back to reality. For that reason alone, I will stop typing now, and savor every bite.









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