“To understand the world, you must first understand a place like Mississippi.”
Yazoo City native, Willie Morris, often attributed that quote to William Faulkner. I have never seen a document verifying that Faulkner uttered those exact words. It actually sounds more like something Morris would say. Nevertheless, I agree with the sentiment that my home state encapsulates many of the nation’s problems (and highlights) into one small region.
And what a great region it is.
I love this state. Always have. Always will. Though I have recently learned that you really don’t know the depth and appreciation one has for a place until one becomes a tour guide for that place.
On a lengthy, grand tour of Europe several years ago we made great friends in Italy. We have returned often to Milan and Florence and have spent a lot of time with those friends. Every return visit over the past few years has ended with the same sentence, “You must come visit us in Mississippi.”
Finally, last week, they did.
Annagloria and Enzo Corti own the villas we stay in when travelling to the small Tuscan town of Tavarnelle, 30 minutes south of Florence (her home town). Their villas are our home base when we travel that region, and one of my favorite places in all of Europe.
Whenever I encounter a European that says, “I’ve been to America.” I always stop them mid-sentence.
“Let me guess, New York, Miami, and Las Vegas.”
“Exactly,” they say. “We love New York.”
“You haven’t really seen America,” I say.
Of course, we Americans are guilty of the same thing. Most go to Rome, Venice, and Florence, and say they have seen Italy.
Annagloria and Enzo have been to New York and Miami, often. They recently told me that they were coming over to visit Chicago, New York, Washington D.C., and Naples. I convinced them to add Mississippi to their itinerary once their business was done. Finally, they complied.
Have you ever wanted something for so long, that when it finally happens, you worry that you might not have thought the whole thing through? That’s me, on this recent visit. Two weeks out I started struggling with what I could do with them in three short days. I had hoped to take them to some Mardi Gras festivities here in Hattiesburg, but they were arriving the day after all of the hoopla. Do I take them to the Delta? The Coast? The capital? Or do we stay home in Hattiesburg for a few days? They were flying out of New Orleans on the Thursday after Fat Tuesday, and so I knew we would take them to our place down there. But would we take them into the craziness that is Fat Tuesday in New Orleans, or wait until everything is settled on Ash Wednesday (which also happened to be Valentine’s Day this year). They wanted to eat in all of our restaurants, so I knew that Hattiesburg would be a big part of the schedule.
2:00 p.m.— I picked them up at the Pine Belt Regional Airport. They had been travelling, cooking, and presenting in people’s homes in Chicago, New York, Washington D.C., and Naples for three weeks. It was time for them to relax and let me do all of the work. We travelled to my house, they unpacked and got settled in.
7:15 p.m.— I couldn’t decide between dinner at Tabella (our Italian concept) or Crescent City Grill (our New Orleans concept). They are from Italy, so I didn’t really want to feed them Italian food, but we were headed to New Orleans in a couple of days, too. I decided to make it a progressive dinner.
We started out at Tabella with pizza, meatballs, and focaccia. I was as nervous as I have ever been dining with a customer in one of our restaurants. Here were two very well-travelled Italian foodies who know the cuisine and how to cook it. How would our recipes stack up?
We started with pizza. Annagloria and Enzo both know that my favorite pizza on the planet comes from their hometown. The pizza there is wafer-thin and has minimal sauce and toppings. It’s so good that after I first tried it, I came back and changed the way we were making pizza at Tabella to be more like the pizza I love in Tuscany.
I apologized in advance, “This won’t be as thin as Tavarnelle pizza.” The pizza arrived to the table and they inspected the crust.
“This looks perfect.” It was very thin and looked a lot like the pizza in their town. They ate it up. Next came the meatballs. I am very proud of our meatballs and have always thought that they hold up and compare to any I’ve eaten in Italy. Though was it just me? They tore into the meatballs and ended up sopping up the leftover marinara on the plate with the focaccia just as any veteran Mississippian would do at the end of a biscuit and gravy experience. A high compliment indeed.
I was relieved. They loved it. Tabella dishes had received the Italian seal of approval. It was one of the highlights of their visit, for me.
Next, we took them to Crescent City Grill where I fed them chargrilled oysters and grilled tripletail. They love seafood, and Enzo commented on how much better the food tastes down here than in the Northern and Eastern parts of the country. Score another one for Mississippi.
9:00 a.m.— We were scheduled to meet with my friend, and their frequent houseguest, Wyatt Waters, in Clinton at his gallery. Unfortunately, Waters had become the latest victim of this never-ending flu epidemic and was home on his waterbed with 101-degree fever.
12:30 p.m.— Our friend, and frequent Italian travelling companion, David Trigiani, fixed a wonderful lunch of chestnut soup, chicken, cous cous, and lemon gelato that made them feel at home.
2:30 p.m.— typically closed on Monday, Though I arranged for the Mississippi Museum of Art to open so I could show the Italians the wonderful bicentennial exhibit, Picturing Mississippi 1817-2017, which was the perfect way to give my visitors the complete history of Mississippi through fine art, from Audubon’s Wild Turkeys to Warhol’s Elvis Presley. They loved it.
7:00 p.m.— when we returned from Jackson, I told them to go upstairs, freshen up, and come down around 7pm, I had a surprise for them. In the meantime, we invited 40 of our friends who we had introduced them to— and who have stayed in their villas— to our house for a surprise party. It was a blast. They got a true taste of southern home cooking, and got to visit with friends, old and new.
1:00 p.m.— After a hastily scheduled doctor’s appointment (which made me proud of the state of the medical community in my hometown) we ate lunch at our burger concept. Enzo is a fan of hot dogs, and one of the best-kept secrets in town, are the hot dogs we serve there. He deemed it “better than New York City,” and again, I was beaming with pride.
8:00 p.m.— We finished the Mississippi leg of their visit in the Purple Parrot’s wine room. This is where we were able to really shine. We started with a light scallop and corn appetizer, moved on to a smoked-duck spring roll, and then— because I couldn’t decide which to serve— gave them a dual entrée of blackened redfish and a 90% crabmeat crab cake. We were too full for dessert, but I served crème brulee anyway, and Enzo ate every bite.
I had been worried about the visit. I was entertaining two people come from an area that is so steeped in history that the road they live on— the Via Roma— has been in existence for over 2,000 years. Michelangelo walked on the road on his way to Rome. People were walking on their road when Jesus was walking in Jerusalem. The city of her birth, Florence, was the birthplace of the Renaissance. Our state just celebrated 200 years. That’s not even a blip on the historical timeline over there.
All of my worrying was in vein. They fell in love with Mississippi, and it was exactly as I have always said— it’s the people and the food.
Next week: Part II, Annagloria and Enzo Do New Orleans