PETROGNANO-SEMIFONTE, ITALY— Customers judge restaurants by many criteria. I once read a survey in which a majority of the people ranked service above food and atmosphere. I’ve also read a study that had restroom cleanliness in the top three. While I agree that all those factors are important, I have always judged a restaurant— first and foremost— on the quality of its food.
I have enjoyed hundreds of great meals in joints and dive bars that have been some of the most memorable of my life. I have also dined in much ballyhooed fine dining establishments that left me disappointed and wanting.
For me, it’s almost always all about the food. Almost.
I eat for a living. That’s a true statement. It’s on my business card and it’s in every personal bio that has ever been released. I consider myself a “world-class eater.” Granted it’s a self-titled characterization and meant to be a tongue-in-cheek title that speaks more to my eating ability over my cooking prowess, but it’s accurate, nonetheless. I keep a running food journal, and the focus is almost always about the quality of the food in the restaurants I visit, rarely about atmosphere.
I received my undergraduate degree in Hospitality Management and one of the main principles my professors drove home when it comes to restaurant success was: Location, location, location. I listened to dozens of lectures from instructors on how a great location will keep a restaurant alive, even a poorly run restaurant. And how a poor location can kill a great restaurant. I took that to heart and opened my first restaurant, and many subsequent restaurants, on the main drag in my hometown with a 40,000-car traffic count.
“Location” in the United States is almost always about visibility and traffic— whether it be foot traffic or automobile traffic. Location in the States also has to do with parking and accessibility. That, too, was drilled into my psyche in college classes, and is probably why most of my restaurants are blessed with tons of parking.
In Italy, especially in Tuscany, “location” means an entirely different thing.
When I first came to this area 10 years ago, I realized that Tuscany is a lot like the American South, and in many ways, Mississippi. It is an agrarian society, but instead of soybeans and cotton they grow grapes and olives. Tuscans, like Mississippians, value family above almost everything else. They, like us, put a high priority on sharing meals with family and friends. And most of all, they are— nearly to a person— kind, generous, and hospitable.
I was 18 years old before I visited the Mississippi Delta. But one of the first things I noticed when I was there on that inaugural visit was that people didn’t think twice about driving an hour to eat dinner three towns over. I appreciated that, even then. I am the type of guy who thinks mothing about driving 90 minutes to New Orleans to eat a great sandwich, only to drive straight home.
In Tuscany the locals regularly eat meals three towns over. But it’s not just about going to another location. Many times, it’s about the remoteness of the location. Nowhere does that statement hold truer than at Catinetta di Rignatta.
Catinetta di Rignatta is possibly the most remote restaurant I have ever visited. And I have eaten in a ton of out of the way places over the course of my career. From remote mountaintop cabins in the snow-covered peaks of Colorado, to secluded seaside shacks on the beach in Mexico, to hole-in-the-wall dive joints in the Mississippi Delta. But none have been as out of the way as Catinetta di Rignatta. None have been as hard to get to as Catinetta di Rignatta. And no other place even came close to having food as great as Catinetta di Rignatta.
Catinetta di Rignatta is located in the Tuscan hills behind a remote Abbey accessed by a one-lane road, at the end of a miles-long gravel road filled with holes and dust that is winding and steep and challenging for a non-four-wheel-drive vehicle even on a bone-dry day. It goes against all established American restaurant dogma when it comes to location, location, location. It’s a place you would never find, even if you were lost in the Tuscan hills. And that would be your loss because Catinetta di Rignatta has the absolute best restaurant view of the Tuscan countryside that one can find in the region. The locals know it. They make the drive, and they pack it out on weekends.
Did I mention that there’s no parking? Despite the hundreds of people who come to eat there on weekends, the overflow parking is among the trees in an olive grove.
I use the term “world class view” more than I should, and I regret that now, because if a view from a restaurant table was ever truly world class and unique, this is it.
Over the years I have eaten breakfast on a rooftop with a view of the Temple of Zeus and Parthenon in Athens, picnicked under the redwoods in California. Dined on mountaintops and sea sides, on sidewalk cafes all over Europe and in high-rise skyscrapers across the United States. But of all those places, over all those years, and all those meals, I don’t think any can compare— to quality of view and remoteness of location— to the lunch I had yesterday in the Tuscan countryside at Catinetta di Rignatta.
It was the second time I had eaten there, and I was seated at the exact same table as the first time a few years ago. But there was something about this visit that will stick with me as long as I live. Many of the same players from the first visit were there, but I think having my wife and longtime travel partner there to share this restaurant experience I had been telling her about for several years made the difference.
Catinetta di Rignatta is not only about location and view. The food is spot on. In true Tuscan style everything is simple, basic, fresh, and grown within a few miles of the restaurant. Melon and prosciutto, pears and cheese, pecorino and honey, and beautiful antipasti, and that’s just a start. At most of my favorite restaurants— whether in Europe or the U.S.— I could make an entire multi-course meal out of nothing but starters. Catinetta di Rignatta is no exception. Of course, we didn’t. We ordered pasta, entrees, salad, and desserts. But I COULD have stopped with the antipasti.
I don’t know how many more meals-of-a-lifetime I have in me. I hope hundreds. However, at 60-years-old, I have grown to appreciate these memorable moments more passionately. Days such as this one, with the view of the Tuscan countryside, paired with a bluebird day, perfect food, and especially one shared with people that I love, will be one I will never forget.
This week’s recipe: Italian Sausage and Mascarpone Crostini