I love Italy — and its food — but there’s no place like home
Semifonte, Tuscany 2018, The Last Day
Wyatt Waters and I arrived in Tuscany around the first of April. It was still cold. The grapevines were bare, and the olive trees had yet to be pruned from the winter break. It’s May now. Today the grapevines are flush with leaves and the olive trees have been pruned and are ready to start flowering in a few months. Italy has “greened up” during our stay. The poppies are in full bloom and have broken out into brilliant red dots all across the countryside. There are occasional wisps of smoke in the distance — the remains of pruned olive limbs burning in the fields. The vistas are long and beautiful here. Back home, the pine forests make it impossible to see this far into the distance. It’s still brisk, but not cold. It’s been a long month here in Tuscany, but an enjoyable and rewarding one.
Waters — the watercolorist, and my co-collaborator in books, television and now travel — and I have just finished leading the last of three groups through our favorite parts of Tuscany. We took them to all of our favorite haunts. We hosted them in many of the restaurants we have discovered over the last eight years, and we introduced them to the people that we have come to know, love and appreciate. We did a few of the tourist things, because you can’t go to Florence and not see Michelangelo‘s David or Botticelli’s Birth of Venus. But those visits were the exception rather than the rule. We mostly stayed on the back roads and took the stradas less traveled. We ate in places where the locals eat, visited cheese-making facilities, olive oil producers, world-class butchers, old-world silversmiths and small family wineries. For me, that’s what travel is all about — keeping it “local” to the area I am in.
Our return flight was cancelled, and our journey home was delayed an extra day. Waters and I are here for a final 24 hours, which is a bonus and the icing on the cake of a long month. He is currently set up at the entrance to the medieval town of Barberino and is finishing his 44th paining in 28 days, an impressive feat. On our first visit here in 2011, we covered the entire country from the southernmost tip of Sicily to the Alps. In that 10 weeks he completed 128 watercolors. The pace with which he worked this past month is even more impressive. The works — which will be included in our next book — are remarkable. His work ethic, even in his early sixties, is even more noteworthy. He works twice as hard as most artists in their early twenties.
While he is painting I am taking this final day and spending a little quiet, meditative time with myself. It seems like I have been in a constant state of motion — and nonstop talking — for 30 days. The silence is nice.
As I type, I am sitting on a small hilltop beside a very small and historic 500-year-old chapel down the road from our villa. This is the site where Waters painted the cover of our book “An Italian Palate.” Just me and a few birds. It’s a bluebird day, but the rain is coming. I’m looking back on a month that was exhilarating and tiring all at once.
The small chapel is in the middle of nowhere in a spot where Semifonte, a thriving town, once stood. Florence wiped them out over 1,000 years ago, tore down the walls, destroyed all of the buildings in the town, and salted the fields. The chapel was built 500 years later as a monument. People get married here now. In a few hours, our friend Marina will be conducting a wedding ceremony here. The dome is a 1:8 exact model of Brunelleschi’s dome in Florence. The ball on top of the cupola still has a hole in it where a German sniper was taking target practice from a faraway hill over in Petrignano.
Last night we had our final dinner with the third group in as many weeks. When we first started leading these tours, we always booked the final night’s dinner at a Michelin-starred fine-dining restaurant in one of the nice hotels on the edge of town. The meal was great, and the service was impeccable, but the evening lacked something. I have ended all three weeks on this most recent stint at La Fattoria, home of the best Florentine steak in all of Tuscany. The place lends itself to a more festive, loose, and communal atmosphere. Last night our group of 25 competed with another group of 25 young Italian men — probably a soccer team — in the same room. It got loud and rowdy. It was fun.
There is an elderly couple who have just now set up lawn chairs on the backside of the chapel. They’re reading books and have a picnic lunch sitting between them. Da Vinci once painted the exact view they are admiring. The three of us have now been joined by a younger couple who are holding hands while walking around the tiny chapel. The local legend is that if a couple holds hands and walks around the chapel three times they will stay together forever.
I am ready to be home. My wife and I have been together 30 years. We have walked around this tiny chapel several times. Until a few weeks ago, the longest we had ever been apart was one week. I miss my wife and two children. It will be good to see them again, and get back to some semblance of normalcy.
There is work to be done. We are just a few weeks away from opening two new restaurants. All of the recipe testing was done before I left in April. Most of the decorating and design decisions were made earlier in the year. I’ve been keeping up through the Internet and things are progressing well, but I am ready to hit the ground running. I love the restaurant business, and my favorite part of the restaurant business is creating, and opening, new concepts.
So, it’s bittersweet leaving this beautiful part of the world. The food is excellent, the history is rich and storied, the culture is deep, and the people are warm, sincere and friendly. But Glinda the Good Witch had it right — there’s no place like home. There’s no place like home. There’s no place like home.
My friend — and master olive oil producer and winemaker — Enzo Corti loves this dish. His wife Annagloria made it for dinner one night as Wyatt, my wife Jill and our friend David joined them in their beautiful Tuscan villa for dinner. This is the real deal when it comes to eating squid in the Italian region of Tuscany. It’s probably Sicilian in origin, but perfect for Tuscan locals. My children prefer the fried version, but this is a more healthy, authentic preparation.
¼ cup extra virgin olive oil
1 ¼ tsp. crushed red pepper
1 Tbsp. garlic, minced
2 Tbsp. Italian flat leaf parsley, chopped
1 Tbsp. plus ½ tsp. Kosher salt
2 ½ lbs. calamari, tentacles and sliced tubes
1 each 28 oz. can whole peeled tomatoes
2 cups shrimp stock
2 bunches Swiss chard, stems removed and rough chopped
5 oz. fresh spinach, stems removed and rough chopped
In a 2-quart sauce pan, heat the oil over medium and sweat the garlic and the crushed red pepper for 2 minutes. Add the calamari, salt and parsley and continue cooking over medium heat until any excess liquid from the calamari has evaporated, about 6-8 minutes. Reduce the heat to low. Add the canned tomatoes, including the juice, and cook for 10 minutes, stirring occasionally.
Increase the heat to medium-high. Add the shrimp stock and bring to a simmer. Add the Swiss chard and the spinach. Reduce the heat to low. Cover and continue cooking for 30-45 minutes, stirring occasionally. Do not let all the stock evaporate. There should be about ½ cup of liquid left.
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.
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