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Robert St. John

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

Tuscany Top Ten

April 13, 2022

PETROGNANO, TUSCANY— There are several places I have considered my second home over the years. In my youth I spent summers on the Mississippi Gulf Coast and our fish camp always seemed like a second home. I have lived in Jackson, Mississippi several times. I have had— and currently have— businesses there. So Jackson certainly has felt like a second home at times.

Though no place has felt like a second home like Tuscany. From the moment I came here in September of 2011, I felt as if I were— to paraphrase John Denver, “Coming home to a place I’d never been before.” I have often stated that I do not believe in reincarnation, but if I did, I am certain that several of my past lives occurred here. There’s just something about this area. Tuscany reminds me of the American South. It’s an agrarian society, though instead of cotton and soybeans, they are growing olives and grapes. The people are friendly and welcoming. They love family and they love sharing a meal. Those are just some of the reasons why I feel like this place is a second home. The other reason is the food.

It’s not the style of the food, or the ingredients that make up the dishes, it’s the reverence that is given to the food by the locals. It’s the way I’ve always felt about southern cuisine back home. There is a pace over here similar to the pace lived in the American South. Life is little slower. Some things are just minor suggestions and not hard and fast rules. People take time to visit with one another and when that element is experienced it carries through to the dining experience.

If one took out the Covid years, I have spent more than a year in this region in the last five years. I know the food well. It’s what I do. I eat for a living. Last week I began to think about my favorite meals and my favorite food items in Tuscany. Whenever I start thinking in those terms I get list happy. Therefore I made a list of the top Tuscan food items that I love. These are obviously personal selections and my choices the list is certainly subjective and others will have their favorites. Here are mine.

Top Ten Tuscan Dishes

10. Nadia’s Mushroom Risotto, Petrognano
I typically don’t eat a lot of risotto in this area. When I am in Milan I tend to over-order risotto. We have a chef that comes to our villa l. My Kool who makes excellent porcini mushroom risotto.

9. Mussels In Breadcrumbs and Pepper, Trattoria del Pece, Bargino
A lot of people don’t think of seafood as Tuscan food. Though a major part of Tuscany is on the coastline and Tuscans love seafood. They also know how to prepare seafood. I ate, what I thought, were the best mussels of my life in Malaga ,Spain three weeks ago. That dish got quickly surpassed by the mussels I ate in Barginoino a few nights ago. I have been to this seafood restaurant several times over the years but I have never taken a group. It is now in the permanent rotation. Seafood perfection.

8. Sformatino at Pietracupa, San Donato
On the first day, at the first meal, I serve my guests a savory mushroom pudding with eggplant and a light cheese fondue. It is excellent. And the perfect food item to kick off a great journey.

7. Arrabiatta, Caffe Deli Amici “Paolo’s,” Tavernelle
I have said for years if I could get a Paolo‘s mama, Guiliana, over to America we would have one of the best Italian restaurants in the south. I did one better and sent my son to work in her kitchen. My favorite dish that comes out of that kitchen is a basic, and simple, spicy pasta dish. It’s a classic in this area and it satisfies my desire for a higher spice level like the food we have back home.

6. Penne alla Bettola, Florence
Bettola is one of my favorite restaurants in Florence. My son, who lives there, has made it his favorite restaurant as well and eats there at least three times a week. This is the birthplace of the dish we know as penne à la vodka. I’ve ordered other menu items there, but I’ve never not ordered the Penne alla Bettola. It is pasta perfection.

5. Lemon and Sage Sorbet, La Fattoria, Tavernelle
Florentine steak is cherished over here. It’s basically a very thick T-bone that is grilled rare and sliced for table service. La Fattoria in Tavenelle— my favorite place for Florentine steak— does it well. They cook it in a massive fireplace and serve all sorts of other items like roasted potatoes, fried polenta, and spinach to accompany it. Though my favorite item in that restaurant is not the steak. It’s not even on the menu. It is a small lemon and sage sorbet palate cleanser that they deliver between courses. Riccardo the owner knows I love it so much that he brings a couple of extra servings for my dessert.

4. Dario’s Olive Oil Cake, Panzano
When it comes to dessert, I always prefer a fruit finish to a chocolate finish. Anthony Bourdain called Dario Cecchini, “the most famous butcher in the world.“ His restaurants are excellent. He is a master butcher, but he is also an extremely talented and creative restaurateur. He’s known for his meats, or as he enthusiastically exclaims, “carne!” But I think what I like most at the meals I enjoy at his restaurants is the olive oil cake. He uses a whole orange— pith, peel, skin and all. It is very light and very flavorful. Desert perfection.

3. Lasagna from Trattoria Mario, Florence
I typically don’t order or eat lasagna in Italian restaurants over here. Though I have made a couple of exceptions over the years. Trattoria Mario, an extremely popular lunch place in Florence, hosts my groups in a private dining room down in their basement. The lasagna is not on the menu, but it is the absolute best I have ever eaten. Period. End of story. There is a major difference between American Italian food and authentic Italian food. American Italian lasagna is over-sauced with marinara and incorporates a lot of cheese. The authentic version uses no tomatoes but a béchamel sauce and beef in Florence, or pork in bologna.

2. Buffla Margherita pizza, Vecchia Piazza
I like the way most Tuscan pizza joints prepare pizza. It is wafer thin with minimal ingredients. My favorite pizza in this area serves an excellent Margherita pizza with buffalo mozzarella. I get them to add extra basil and use a little salt and pepper. Excellent.

1. Sfoglia and Pappatacio, Bagnoli Bakery, Tavernelle
I am a creature of habit in the morning, no matter where I am in the world. I have been eating these two pastries for over 11 years. There’s a routine I follow over here. I wake up, shower, and then head to Bagnoli bakery in Tavernelle. On the way I stop at my go-to7 ATM to get cash for the day to tip the various servers, drivers, and guides we employ. I typically get to the bakery at 8 AM. My order is always the same. I get the Sfoglia, which is ham and fontina cheese inside a very flaky dough. It is not a typical breakfast item for people over here. It’s an item that workmen grab and stick in their pockets to eat for lunch. I like it for breakfast. It reminds me of the French croissant that has ham and cheese in it. Though the dough is much different. The Pappatacio is the Italian version of the French custard-raisin croissant. I love custard or Bavarian cream in anything. I also love raisins. These two are my morning go-tos every single morning in Tuscany.


This week’s recipe: Risotto

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