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Robert St. John

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

The Wind-Up

October 16, 2019

NAPLES, ITALY— Wyatt Waters and I have just finished leading two tour groups through Rome, The Amalfi Coast, and Naples. In addition to filming season five of our television program “Palate to Palette,” Waters and I are also completing our fifth book, and the final paintings for that project have been done over the past couple of weeks.

It’s work— seven 14-hour days in a row, resulting in 98-hour work weeks— but if one has to work somewhere in addition to the restaurants in my beloved hometown of Hattiesburg, what better places than these? But, like the restaurant business, it is work that I truly love, and work that I feel I am fairly good at, if for no other reason than the people keep coming back. Validation in travel works the same as validation in the restaurant business— success is achieved when people return.

Sitting in this Naples hotel about to catch a very early morning flight back home, I am excited by two things:

1.) I am chomping at the bit to get back into the restaurants and start working full-speed-ahead through the Christmas holidays.

2.) I am feeling very grateful for the people who joined us on the trip and the people who held down the fort back home.

I am asked for travel recommendations almost daily. Here are some of the highlights we experienced over the past three weeks (not in any particular order):

Il Pirata— This restaurant has been run by the same family for the past 60 years. It’s located in the seaside town of Praiano. We chartered private boats to take our guests to Capri, and toured that island and Villa San Michele, before circumnavigating the island and taking a leisurely cruise to dinner at il Pirata. We sat on the Mediterranean water’s edge and dined on several courses, but the sea at sunset was the true star of that dinner.

Fattoria La Tagliata— If I had to pick a favorite dinner over the course of the past three weeks, it might be this one. This restaurant is situated high on a cliff over Positano looking west towards the sunset. They are known for their grilled meats, but the pastas— a gnocchi and a very simple pasta with zucchini— were the stars of the show. The restaurant provided entertainment, a guitarist one week, and a duo the next. Both got our crown involved and engaged, and a great time was had by all. If you are ever on the Amalfi Coast, this place is a must.

Sunset cruise— We served our guests Prosecco at sunset on the three large wooden boats we chartered to take our guests to Capri. We stopped next to a small island as the sun set. It was one of those unexpected magical moments that tend to happen on these trips when the right mix of people click at the exact right moment.

Grand Hotel Tritone in Praiano— The Tritone is a four-star property that probably has three-star rooms, but five-star views and access. I researched hotels with Jesse Marin (my boots-on-the-ground guy over there) and this one checked all of the boxes. Though it was one of those properties that revealed itself slowly over a couple of days as we kept finding little nooks all over the property, each view of the Mediterranean better than the next.

There are mainly two types of hotels on the Amalfi Coast— those set high on the cliffs with beautiful vistas of the Mediterranean, and those on the seashore with water access. There aren’t too many with both. The Tritone is one of those with dual amenities. It’s been run by the same family since it was a tiny five-room property. It has a pool on the upper level and a saltwater pool on the shore with a private beach, restaurants up and down, and a breakfast room with unmatched views of the morning coastline.

Golf carts in Rome— Five years ago they began allowing golf carts to ride on the streets of Rome. I know that sounds crazy for a major metropolitan European city— I thought so when it was suggested— but it was a blast and perfect way to see a lot of the city in a small amount of time.

Picolo Buco— The best pizza in Rome. Period. End of story. I ate at this restaurant once with my family in 2011. Since then I have sent probably 100 people there via answers to email queries for Rome restaurants. Luca Issa, the owner, has what should be the equivalent of a PhD in pizza. He sources ingredients from dozens of local farms. He uses three separate organic flours in his dough recipe and 13 unique extra virgin olive oils for different pizzas on the menu. The buffalo mozzarella arrives fresh daily. There is always a line. Luca will tell you, “Even my mother and wife have to wait in line.” We were fortunate that he made a rare exception for our two groups and we had the entire place to ourselves.

The Sicily-Rome American Cemetery— There are two World War II cemeteries in Italy. We tour the Florence-American Cemetery when in Tuscany. These were my first two trips to the Sicily-Rome American Cemetery. No American should ever pass an American war cemetery without stopping and paying respects to the men and women who made the ultimate sacrifice for our freedom and liberty. I could fill two columns with my love for these places and the people who operate and maintain them. Trust me, just go.

Our guides on the ground, Jesse Marin and Marina Mengelberg— I may be a jack of a few trades, but I am certainly a master of one— choosing tour guides. We work with Dutch-born Tuscan guide Mengelberg on our Tuscany tours, and she introduced us to Dutch-born Roman guide Marin for this trip. Our guests love them. We love them. I could write volumes on why. Just know that Waters and I appreciate everything they have done for us on this tour.

There were so many other memorable moments from the meatballs we enjoyed during a lunch at Andy Luoto’s farm deep in the Italian countryside to the view from high atop a hillside in Naples last night at our final dinner.

Out of the 53 guests over the two weeks, three people were on their fourth tour with us— Tuscany, Venice-Bologna-Milan, Magical Mississippi Tour, and now the Rome-Amalfi-Naples excursion. For all of the others it was their second or third tour in Palate to Palette style. Some are also travelling with us to Spain next spring, which will make it their fifth tour with us. They started out as guests several trips ago they are friends now. I love that.

Waters and I love that people have connected with the way we travel, focusing on food, art, and culture, with a preference for the undiscovered and unique local aspect of Italy. We also love that these people— our newfound friends— continue to put their travel/vacation faith in our hands. We take that responsibility very seriously. But most of all, we appreciate the bonds we have made with our guests. That is something Waters and I never anticipated. These past two weeks were like some type of alumni weekend set in far-off exotic and historic places. As long as they want to keep exploring new places, we’ll keep taking them.


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