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Robert St. John

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

Main Dish

Spaghetti Marinara

My travel journal entry October 6, 2011: Our villa is located in the remote countryside outside of a medieval village called Barbarino Val D’Elsa. The village is very small, with tiny streets, and— like most of the small towns in this area— has a cathedral in the center. Two days ago, I dropped Wyatt off near the village. He was going to walk around and find something to paint. That is how the process is evolving. Sometimes he knows in his head what he wants to paint that day, other times we ride around and something in the landscape, or on the side of the road will grab his attention. It must be working, because he has maintained an amazing pace of two paintings per day, and he says it’s his best work, ever. I can’t argue. When I returned to Barbarino Val D’Elsa two hours later, I walked into the cathedral in the center of the village while waiting on Wyatt. It was typical of the small catholic cathedrals we have seen scattered throughout Europe, except for one detail. Many of the cathedrals have huge marble sarcophagi or sections of the floor lined in marble where former church officials, bishops, and even saints are entombed. The cathedral in Barbarino has a glass sarcophagus with the body of someone still in there— and he ain’t looking too good. It’s a shock to see the drawn-up leathered and weathered face of a small man lying in a glass coffin next to the alter where, three days ago, I watched through a side door while children took communion. My friend, olive oil supplier, winemaker, and owner of the Tuscan villa we call home when in Italy, Enzo Corti commented, "In Tuscany you shouldn't be afraid of the dead priest, but the live one."

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Spaghetti Bolognese

Many feel that Bologna is the culinary capital of Italy, and therefore, the culinary capital of the world. Bologna is a funky, vibrant town with a Vespa in every household and an osteria at every turn. It has centuries old architecture, miles of arcade-lined sidewalks, and an impassioned citizenry who love life and excel in food. About midway through my first meal in town, I pulled out my calendar and tried to figure out how I could squeeze in another few days in Bologna later in the year. It was about halfway through his first street-side gelato that my son considered a permanent move. The people of Bologna live their lives with passion. It’s in the food, it’s in the table chatter, and it’s on the street— passion. I love that. In Bologna, we never ate in a restaurant that had been open less than 35 years. It wasn’t the plan, it just happened that way. The average tenure for an American independent restaurant is less than four years, and 90% are closed after five years. Here in a town that knows and loves food, most places are staying open for decades. It’s the passion. While in Bologna, I arranged to film and prepare Bolognese Tagliatelle with a Bolognese chef in his kitchen. We filmed the segment and everything went well, everything except that the cameraperson— my wife— forgot to turn on the video camera. Italians typically use wide flat noodles such as tagliatelle or pappardelle with meat sauce. Tomato is a secondary component to the meat. In America we typically flip that and we use spaghetti while the tomato sauce is prominent. This recipe is a happy medium between the two— less tomato and spaghetti.

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Penne Norcia

Norcia is a town in Central Italy known for boar and sausages. It’s one of the main dishes I serve to company. The key is to use the absolute best sausage you can find (or prepare). The Norcia base would actually work as a filling for a killer Sloppy Joe sandwich if one used ground beef instead of sausage.

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Pasta Trigiani

My friend David Trigiani is a dual-citizen Italian and a lover of all things— food, wine, design, and women— that emanate from that country. He has taught me numerous Italian dishes in his home in Jackson, Mississippi. Many came from his mother’s kitchen in his childhood home in Pennsylvania, others he learned on his many travels through Italy. This recipe is one that David has made for me dozens of times.

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Pasta Carbonara

No peas, no cream. That’s real Pasta Carbonara.

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Oricchiette Ostuni

One of my favorite go-to pastas is oricchiette with pesto and tomatoes. Oricchiette in the Southern Italian vernacular means “little ear.” I ate a dish similar to this in Ostuni, a beautiful old town just above the cobalt blue Mediterranean. The addition of pesto is all me. I love it.

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Fettuccine Alfredo

I guess this recipe probably started in Italy. There are stories that a restaurateur in Rome invented it to serve to American tourists in the early part of the 20th Century. Whatever its origins, it is widely popular in America (and probably still popular in Italy with American tourists). For the 25 years I have been in the restaurant business there has always been some type of Alfredo-inspired dish on our menu. Here is a classic “Italian” preparation and a decidedly American treatment with shrimp.

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Shrimp Empanadas

The perfect frozen party food. Keep a batch in the freezer and when unexpected company shows up, pop them in the oven. They’ll wonder how you made something that tastes so good, and looks so complicated, so quickly.

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Chicken and Andouille Empanadas

There are a lot of ingredients in this recipe, but don’t let that discourage you from making these easy pastries. Measure out all ingredients ahead of time and your job will be much easier. Perfect if you have misjudged bulk-food quantities when hosting a party. Keep a batch in the freezer and when you’re the food starts running low, pop them in the oven.

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