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Robert St. John

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

Harrison In Florence

March 30, 2022

PETROGNANO, TUSCANY— For the good part of the past decade I have hosted groups of American travelers— mostly Southerners— in this part of the world. I have always believed that Tuscany is a lot like the American South. It’s an agrarian society, but instead of soybeans and cotton they grow olives and grapes. The Tuscans are friendly and hospitable. They love food, and love sharing a meal with family and friends. They love having fun and they know how to party. That’s why Southerners connect with the people over here.

I have just finished leading a group of fellow travelers through Spain. We covered a lot of ground in 10 days— Madrid, Barcelona, Valencia, Mallorca, Seville, Gibraltar, and Malaga. When that tour ended my wife and I flew immediately to Florence to set up for three tour groups— and later a group of friends from back home— to lead through thus Chianti region. I’ve spent so much time over here over the past 11 years that I feel like I could almost call this area a second home.

I always feel like I’m coming home to this area. It connected with me the first time I ever set foot on this ancient Etruscan soil. I don’t believe in reincarnation. But if I did, I would suspect several of my past lives were spent here in this area. It’s been familiar since the start.

I felt even more like coming home this time because my 20-year old son is living and working here.

When my family first came to Tuscany in 2011 we all felt a familial connection, my son maybe more than me. He’s got his father’s wanderlust and has returned often with us and on his own. He’s currently in the early stages of an eight-year plan that I have set for him moving into his professional career. He wants to go into the restaurant business and I told him if he’s going to go into the family business he’s going to have to go about it in the right way, and with a plan.

The plan is basically what I wish I would have done, and what I should have done at the beginning of my career. I approached this industry in one of the most backwards ways imaginable. I am lucky enough to have gotten to a point to where I can look back and say, if I were to go about entering this industry in a smart, methodical way, how would I do it? That’s what he’s doing— getting a business degree, a chefs degree, and working for friends of mine in other restaurants for over two years.

That’s what brings him to living in a third-floor walk-up in Florence and riding the bus for two hours every day to the small Tuscan town of Barberino-Tavernelle to work in the kitchen of a friend of mine. A place he’s eaten in since he was 10-years old.

The first thing on my list whenever I come to town here is to have lunch at one of my favorite restaurants in the area Caffe Degli Amici. I’ve been eating there for over a decade and have often said of my friend Paolo‘s restaurant, if I could take his mama, Guiliana, to America to cook in our Italian restaurant, I would be able to retire within months. She is that good.

This visit I was excited to go to Caffe Degli Amici because my son was in the kitchen that day. I’ve always dreamed of going to a restaurant where my son was working. I’ve thought often of what it might be like— me sitting in the dining room as a customer with him in the kitchen preparing my meal.

He’s worked on a couple of my restaurants over the past several years, but that’s different. It’s hard to describe the sense of pride I had as a peaked my head into that tiny kitchen and saw him cooking with Giuliana and a couple of other Italian ladies.

My wife and I arrived late for lunch so we could just sit and wait until he got off and then eat with him. I don’t know what other fathers feel like when their sons join them in their law practice, their plumbing business, or their accounting firm, and granted, my son has a join my business yet. Nothing is guaranteed, and even if he does one day, he’ll start at the bottom and will have to work his way up. But I do know the feeling of sitting down with him in another restaurant, a restaurant 5,232 miles from home, and sharing a meal that he prepared. It is wonderful. It was a very proud moment for me father.

He spent the night in the villa with us that night and I drove him to work the next day. Before he went to work we stopped for breakfast at my favorite little bakery in town. It’s a place he and I went to every morning for weeks when we were first year and he was 10 years old. It’s a place he now goes to before work after he gets off of the bus.

As we ate our pastries we sat in silence for a minute and I just looked at him and remembered that 10-year-old boy who was so enthusiastic about life and everything that came his way. I was now looking at a 20-year-old man who was living independently, and on his own, in a major European city. The city that he and I had both have fallen in love with years ago. The pride in me swole again.

I grew up without a father, and as a consequence, I always wanted to be a father. Even at an early age I looked forward to being a father. It wasn’t until I was 36 years old that my daughter was born, an amazing young lady in her own right. My son was born when I was 40. I always knew I would love being a parent. I always knew I would love my children. Though I had no idea when I dreamed of being a father all those years that Would have the capacity to love another human being like I love those two children. I also never knew that sense of pride that naturally comes from watching your children become adults.

We are here for four weeks and I plan to spend a good bit of time with my son, dining in different restaurants, and going to certain food sites that we both love. Sometimes, even when you’re in the middle of it, you know you are experiencing a time period that you will remember for the rest of your life. It’s the feeling I had the entire time we traveled through Europe for six months and 2011. It’s the feeling I have today.


This week’s recipe: Rosanna’s Tiramisu

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