Each year I compile a list of the top 10 dining experiences I enjoyed throughout the previous year. The list is never about the most expensive meal or the finest atmosphere. This end-of-the-year list covers the meals that were most memorable to me.
10.) Breakfast with Friends Before the St. Patrick’s Day Parade, my home in Hattiesburg
I was honored to serve as the Grand Marshal of the St. Patrick’s Day Parade in Jackson last March. I didn’t want to ride on the back of a convertible by myself, I wanted to share the experience with friends. So, I borrowed a large float that we use for Mardi Gras parades, hired a DJ, and invited a couple of dozen friends, and friends of my children. I was surrounded by some of the people I love most. It was a blast.
Before we left Hattiesburg for Jackson, we had a light breakfast at my home. Everyone was dressed in costume and the atmosphere was very festive. Being the only teetotaler in the group, I drove the passenger van to Jackson and back. It was a great day.
9.) Lunch in the Parish House, Tavarnelle, Italy
This past spring spring, my friend, business partner, and fellow tour leader, Wyatt Waters and I led three groups through Tuscany. We typically take our guests to our friend Paolo’s place for lunch on the first day. This year his restaurant was under renovation. I didn’t want to miss out on our guests enjoying Paolo’s mother’s wonderful cooking, so we arranged for the meal to be served in the small 800-year old parish hall of a local church. It was an atmosphere that was straight out of central casting for a home-cooked Italian meal.
It was just cold enough outside to have a fire in the massive fireplace. Amazingly Giuliana, seemed to cook the entire meal for 28 people on a couple of hotplates over in the corner of the room. Her minestrone is legendary, and her pastas are always simple but masterful. Those three meals will go down as some of my all-time favorite Italian meals, ever.
8.) Pizza with Harrison and Sarah Hadley, Tavarnelle, Italy
My son’s longtime girlfriend studied abroad last spring. I was working in Tuscany during the time she was in Florence. As a Christmas gift the previous year, I gave my son a trip top Florence to visit her for a week. It just so happened that his trip over to Tuscany coincided with my third week of tour work. He was a welcome site. The three of us spent the day in the Italian countryside and ended the day at my favorite pizza place. Days rarely get more perfect than that one.
7.) Wyatt’s Wedding Reception, Jackson, Miss.
My buddy Wyatt got married to the love of his life in the spring. I was honored to be his best man. It just so happens that his bride was a bridesmaid in our wedding 26 years earlier. It’s funny how things come around like that. We catered Wyatt’s wedding and I took care of the groom’s cake which was made entirely of donuts. Instead of a bride and groom on top of the cake, I used Beatles figurines. It was a great day for my best friend.
6.) Lunch with Wyatt and Marina at Alla Vecchia Bettola, Florence, Italy
It’s rare that one gets to visit a restaurant where a world-renown dish was invented. Think Bananas Foster at Brennan’s in New Orleans, or Oysters Rockefeller at Antoine’s. Bettola just outside the old city wall in Florence is where Penne ala Vodka was created. It’s a small restaurant, but they nail it at every turn. Penne ala vodka may have put them on the map (though I never see tourists in there), but everything else that comes out of that kitchen keeps the locals coming into that small dining space. Our friend Marina turned us on to Bettola, and it has become a must-visit on every trip. Massimiliano Stagi, the owner of the restaurant gave me the recipe for his Penne ala Vodka, and it will be included in our new book which will be released in October.
5.) Surprise Party for Marina, my home, Hattiesburg
Our Tuscan friend Marina Mengelberg (she’s actually Dutch, but has lived in Tuscany for the past 17 years), and her two children came to the United States for a two-week visit this year. We took them on a tour of our little section of the south from New Orleans to the Panhandle. Mengelberg is one of our guides on our tours through Florence, Siena, San Gimignano, and the Tuscan countryside. That working relationship quickly turned into friendships between her family and ours. The highlight of Marina and her kid’s visit to America was a surprise party I arranged at our home.
Over 150 people who have travelled with Waters and me in Italy came from as far away as Texas, Alabama, and Tennessee to show their appreciation to Mengelberg. There was a bluegrass band set up in the backyard by the pool, and before the evening was over there was a lot of dancing to 1980s music in the pool house. It was a blast.
4.) Hilltop Dinner at Trattoria La Tagliata, Positano, Italy
I have always believed that when God invented sunsets, he was sitting on a hilltop on the Amalfi Coast. This year Waters and I led two groups to the Amalfi Coast. I arranged for our second-night dinner to be at a restaurant with a breathtaking westward view high on a cliff above Positano. We arrived just before sunset. The food was excellent. The view was spectacular. But the highlight of the evening might have been the entertainment.
I typically don’t book entertainment during meals on these tours. The restaurants we frequent are all local-only spots and are very tight and cramped. This evening would be different. I thought this would be the perfect occasion for live music. Whatever I expected was far surpassed by the actual musical performances. Before the end of the night all of our guests were singing and dancing and there may have even been more than one conga line that snaked its way through the entire restaurant. It was a perfect dinner in a perfect setting resulting in a perfect meal.
3.) Mother’s Day with My Mom, Wife, and Kids, New Orleans
My family took my mother to New Orleans for Mother’s Day. Over the course of the weekend, we hit all of the restaurants she and my father used to frequent— Antoine’s, Arnaud’s, Galitoire’s and Brennan’s. It was a journey through the past for her, and a meaningful experience for my family and me.
2.) Queen’s Festival, Historic Train Depot, Hattiesburg, Miss
In March, my daughter was queen of our local Mardi Gras Krewe. Our restaurant catered the event. The food was great, the band was good, our friends and family were all there. But nothing will match that moment I saw my beautiful daughter walk into that room. It literally took my breath away for a moment. She is as sweet, kind, and thoughtful as she is gorgeous. I was— and continue to be— a very, very proud daddy.
1.) Dinner with My Son, Las Vegas
Before my son went off to college, I wanted us to take a father-son trip, just the two of us. We went out west to see the Grand Canyon, Zion National Park, and the Paul McCartney concert in Las Vegas. Before the concert we ate dinner at The Old Homestead Steakhouse in Caesar’s Palace. I let him order a 10-ounce A5 Waygu steak.
The steaks were great, but the company was best. He and I have eaten meals together all over the world for the past 18 years. Breakfasts and steak dinners are our thing. This meal was the end of an era, but not the end of that tradition. Let the next phase begin.
What are the meals that would make your list in 2019? Here’s wishing you many memorable meals in 2020.
This week’s recipe: Spinach Flan