BARBERINO VAL D’ELSA, TUSCANY— There is something that attracted me to this place the first moment I set foot on Tuscan soil in 2011. It was a “familiar” feeling, and it was instant. Something about this part of the world speaks to me in a way no other town, city, or country— outside of my home state of Mississippi and my hometown of Hattiesburg— does, has, or ever will.
I have always felt that Tuscany is a lot like the American South. It’s an agrarian society and the people are warm, friendly, and welcoming. They value family, they love food, and sharing a meal is always an event. There is a huge hospitality quotient at work over here.
The scenery is unmatched, the history is rich— and measured in millennia, not decades— and teaming with culture. Hell, the entire Renaissance of the Western world began 30 miles from where I sit and type this column. There is all of that. Though, in the end, it’s the people.
It’s the people that keep bringing me back to this special place. After a few weeks one begins to assimilate into the culture of a town and place. If one puts him or herself “out there” it happens quickly.
I first came here with my wife, son, daughter, our friend David Trigiani, and my friend, collaborator, and watercolorist, Wyatt Waters. The artist and I spent three weeks in and around Barberino Val d’Elsa working on our third collaborative book project, “An Italian Palate.” Among the locals, we became known as, “l’uomo che dipinge, e l’uomo che mangia.” The man who paints and the man who eats.” No explanation needed, there.
It was the people— the assorted collection of locals— who welcomed us into their world and introduced us to their culture. Guidebooks and travel apps are a poor substitute for human interaction and soon-to-come long-lasting relationships.
When it comes to the Italians in my life, then and now, it begins and ends with one person— Annagloria. That’s it. One name. Like Madonna, or Cher. Annagloria. She is headstrong, smart, stylish, and has a good head for business and marketing. She was raised in Florence and started her professional career in an international business that dealt with the textile industry. She met, and married, a man from the Tuscan country town of Tavarnelle. They purchased a villa with 1,500 olive trees and some grape vines and began raising their three children. Eventually they purchased two more villas, did a beautiful job of renovating them, and started a fledgling vacation-rental business.
Annagloria is the first person I ever spoke to from this area. A decade ago, I spent two years planning an extended trip with my wife and two children. During that six-month journey, we planned to spend three weeks in Tuscany, where we would meet up with Waters and work on a book. We needed a great villa to serve as a home base. We also needed a helpful guide that could steer us to the cities and sites we needed to cover for the book. And we needed someone to introduce us to the locals and all of the locals-only spots. It would be a bonus if that person was a foodie who spoke English well. Annagloria checked all of the boxes, and she filled that role well. She “got” what we were doing. We became instant friends with Annagloria and her husband, Enzo, and are friends, still. Annagloria is the spring from which all of our Italian connections flow. She is the source.
Enzo. That’s it. One name, like Elvis or Prince. Enzo. He’s a winemaker, olive oil producer, home designer, and self-taught building contractor. He is passionate about his work, his town, his family, and his guests. I took him to New Orleans this spring and he fell in love with it. Enzo is the type person that falls in love with wherever he might be at that moment. He is a true country gentleman, she is of the city. Enzo and Annagloria are the Green Acres couple of Tavernelle.
Marina. That’s it. One name, like Adele or Sade. Marina. She’s Dutch, but has lived in Tavernelle for 16 years. She’s a certified tour guide for Florence, Siena, and San Gimignano and is more passionate and knowledgeable about all aspects of those cities and their institutions than any natural-born local. Marina is an intelligent, hard-working, single mom with two lovely teenagers who speaks five languages. She is the person all of our guests fall in love with.
Paolo. That’s it. One name, like Bono or Sting. Paolo. He owns Caffe degli Amici, which would be equivalent to the local, downtown community cafe back home. The townspeople gather there in the morning for coffee, in the afternoon for pasta, and in the evening for billiards, cards, and more pasta. Morning, noon, and night, there are always several tables of local men playing some type of card game that I have never been able to figure out. Paolo works the floor. He services all of the tables in a room that would take five servers to cover back home. The service is surprisingly efficient considering there is only one man taking care of an entire restaurant, but anyone who might complain sees how hard Paolo is hustling and understands. The menu changes daily and is hand-written on a piece of poster board just like the ones I did homework assignments on in junior high. His father mans the cash register, and his mother, Giuliana cooks all of the food in the kitchen.
Giuliana. That’s it. One name, like Charo or Oprah. Giuliana. She is an excellent Italian cook. One can find more intricately presented food. There are certainly nicer dining rooms. Most places in the region have a more diverse wine list. None of those places has Giuliana. When Waters and I land in Florence, we drive immediately to Caffe degli Amici (we call it Paolo’s) to eat. When we have a day off, we eat at Paolo’s. When we want to show our group the perfect example of a blue-collar, everyday Italian meal we go to Paolo’s. The food is not refined, but it is excellent, and real, and— along with the local pizza joint, La Vecchia Piazza— the place I would rather eat, always.
There are so many more. Fabio. One name, like Halston or Beck. He’s our minister of transportation. Dario. One name, like Morrisey or Seal. Anthony Bourdain called him the best butcher in the world. He lives a few towns over in Panzano and gives everyone a larger-than-life welcome to his butcher shop. Once he learns they’re American, he’ll crank up the ACDC (an Austrailian band, by the way) on the stereo of the butcher shop and start passing out wine and grappa. The party usually flows out into the street and is a singular experience.
There are dozens of others, Nadia, Rosanna, Ricardo, Massimo, Cecilia. They’re rock stars, all.
It’s the same back home. There are states with beautiful mountain ranges and painted desert vistas. There are cities with grand art museums and ornate theatres. But in Mississippi, just as in my hometown of Hattiesburg, it’s the people. They, too, are rock stars, all.