Robert St. John talks home away from home, and crostini
BARBERINO VAL D’ELSA, TUSCANY— In a lot of ways I feel like I’m “back home” in this region, and especially at Villa il Santo. I first discovered this area while on a lengthy tour of Europe with my wife and two children. I was also working on a collaborative book project at the time with my friend and watercolorist, Wyatt Waters.
While covering Italy, from Sicily to the Alps, Waters and I were going to spend three weeks in the Tuscan region painting, eating and cooking while doing research for our book, “An Italian Palate.” It was imperative that I find the perfect place to serve as home base while we blanketed Tuscany. In planning the larger trip that ended up covering 72 cities in 17 countries on two continents, I spent two hours a night for two years researching places to visit, dine and stay. The place I kept coming back to when compiling the Tuscany file was Villa il Santo just outside a charming medieval village called Barberino Val d’Elsa, in the Chianti region.
I kept returning to il Santo for several reasons — 1) It wasn’t located in a tourist town. Quite the opposite, it’s at the end of a gravel road that doesn’t show up on any map. Perfect. 2) It was very remote, but perfectly located — exactly 30 minutes from both Florence and Siena. 3) The villa was a beautiful 1000-year old tower and converted barn, with amazing views from every window. 4) The owner of the villa, Annagloria, spoke English well, was a foodie, but more importantly, she “got” what I was doing over there with my family, friend and collaborator.
Villa il Santo might be at the end of a gravel road in the middle of nowhere, but that is what makes it so special. It hangs high on a ridge overlooking 30 kilometers of patchwork olive groves and grape fields. The towers of the medieval town of San Giamignano can be seen in the distance, and I am told that on a clear day, from certain spots in the region, one can see the Ligurian Sea just over the hills 50 kilometers in the distance.
I am here a day ahead of Waters due to a prior commitment on his end, back home. He’ll fly into the Florence airport in a few hours, and we’ll go to the small grocery store in town and purchase groceries for the first of our 25-guest groups that we’ll be hosting over the next three weeks. We will be taking all three groups to a lot of the places we discovered on that first journey over here. Over the years, we have added new places we have discovered. We have a blast. Our guests have a blast.
Most of the things in my life that I have ended up making a career of — restaurateur, chef, author, columnist, television producer, etc. — were not planned. Tour guide can now be added to the list. I certainly never thought of this as an auxiliary career option, but, as most things in my life, it just happened.
Waters and I were on the promotional book tour in support of “An Italian Palate,” and people who were buying the book — many of whom had read this column and kept up with our journey while we were over here writing the book — kept saying, “I sure wish you two would take my husband and me back to Tuscany with you.” Sometimes it was “my sister and me,” other times “my daughter and me,” and occasionally just “me.” At first it seemed like the normal and pleasant small talk one makes while someone is signing their book. Though, book signing after book signing, it was the same thing, “Please take us to Italy with you.”
Finally, I called Waters on the phone one day and said, “I think people really want us to take them to Italy. Are you in?” As always, he was up for any new adventure.
So far, we have hosted four groups of 25-people each over the past 18 months. Tomorrow, the first of three groups we’ll host back-to-back over the next three weeks will arrive. We’ll take them to all of our favorite haunts and introduce them to all of our favorite locals. We’ll eat where the locals eat and stay where the locals stay. We’ll hit a couple of major tourist attractions in Florence and Siena, but for the most part, this is about the food, wine, people and culture of the Tuscan countryside.
If you’re not in one of those groups but would like to follow along with us as we journey through Tuscany, check out the second season of our show, “Palate to Palette with Robert St. John and Wyatt Waters,” Thursday evenings at 7:30 p.m. on Mississippi Public Broadcasting. The first episode aired on April 5, but they are all archived on www.pbs.org/show/palate-palette.
I have never believed in reincarnation, but if I did, I would imagine that a couple of my past lives were spent in this area. It’s a place that spoke to me the minute my family and Waters came here for the first time. It speaks to me still.
Tuscany is a lot like the American South — it’s an agrarian society, the people live to eat, they love and respect family traditions, and most everyone is extremely hospitable. It’s home away from home. As a matter of fact, the first episode of Palate to Palette season two, was titled “Home Away from Home” and can be viewed here: www.pbs.org/video/home-away-from-home-gui4tq.
Italian sausage and mascarpone crostini
This recipe is inspired by Rosanna, a Tuscan woman who cooked dinner for a large group of Mississippians, Milanese and Tuscan locals at Villa Il Santo. These were served with the first course.
1 loaf ciabatta bread, sliced ¼-inch thick, about 16 slices
1 Tbsp. extra virgin olive oil
1 lb. ground Italian sausage
1 tsp. fresh garlic, minced
1/8 tsp. ground allspice
1/8 tsp. ground cloves
8 oz. mascarpone cheese
Preheat oven to 300.
To par cook the crostinis, place the sliced ciabatta on a baking pan lined with parchment paper. Bake until almost crispy, about 10 minutes. Allow to cool completely at room temperature.
Heat the oil in a large skillet over medium heat. Add the sausage and spices and stir frequently until half-way cooked, about 3-4 minutes. Drain and set aside to cool at room temperature.
Divide the partially cooked sausage among the crostinis, about 2-3 Tbsp. each. Divide the mascarpone among the top of the sausage. Return to a baking pan lined with parchment paper and finish in the oven until sausage is cooked and cheese is melted, about 8-10 minutes.
Robert St. John is a Hattiesburg chef, restaurant owner and the author of several cookbooks. To learn more about his recipes and restaurants, visit robertstjohn.com.