Wednesday, October 20, 2021

Robert St. John: World-Class Views

 PETROGNANO-SEMIFONTE, ITALY— Customers judge restaurants by many criteria. I once read a survey in which a majority of the people ranked service above food and atmosphere. I’ve also read a study that had restroom cleanliness in the top three. While I agree that all those factors are important, I have always judged a restaurant— first and foremost— on the quality of its food. 

I have enjoyed hundreds of great meals in joints and dive bars that have been some of the most memorable of my life. I have also dined in much ballyhooed fine dining establishments that left me disappointed and wanting. 


For me, it’s almost always all about the food. Almost.


I eat for a living. That’s a true statement. It’s on my business card and it’s in every personal bio that has ever been released. I consider myself a “world-class eater.” Granted it’s a self-titled characterization and meant to be a tongue-in-cheek title that speaks more to my eating ability over my cooking prowess, but it’s accurate, nonetheless. I keep a running food journal, and the focus is almost always about the quality of the food in the restaurants I visit, rarely about atmosphere.


I received my undergraduate degree in Hospitality Management and one of the main principles my professors drove home when it comes to restaurant success was: Location, location, location. I listened to dozens of lectures from instructors on how a great location will keep a restaurant alive, even a poorly run restaurant. And how a poor location can kill a great restaurant. I took that to heart and opened my first restaurant, and many subsequent restaurants, on the main drag in my hometown with a 40,000-car traffic count.


“Location” in the United States is almost always about visibility and traffic— whether it be foot traffic or automobile traffic. Location in the States also has to do with parking and accessibility. That, too, was drilled into my psyche in college classes, and is probably why most of my restaurants are blessed with tons of parking.


In Italy, especially in Tuscany, “location” means an entirely different thing.


When I first came to this area 10 years ago, I realized that Tuscany is a lot like the American South, and in many ways, Mississippi. It is an agrarian society, but instead of soybeans and cotton they grow grapes and olives. Tuscans, like Mississippians, value family above almost everything else. They, like us, put a high priority on sharing meals with family and friends. And most of all, they are— nearly to a person— kind, generous, and hospitable. 


I was 18 years old before I visited the Mississippi Delta. But one of the first things I noticed when I was there on that inaugural visit was that people didn’t think twice about driving an hour to eat dinner three towns over. I appreciated that, even then. I am the type of guy who thinks mothing about driving 90 minutes to New Orleans to eat a great sandwich, only to drive straight home.


In Tuscany the locals regularly eat meals three towns over. But it’s not just about going to another location. Many times, it’s about the remoteness of the location. Nowhere does that statement hold truer than at Catinetta di Rignatta.


Catinetta di Rignatta is possibly the most remote restaurant I have ever visited. And I have eaten in a ton of out of the way places over the course of my career. From remote mountaintop cabins in the snow-covered peaks of Colorado, to secluded seaside shacks on the beach in Mexico, to hole-in-the-wall dive joints in the Mississippi Delta. But none have been as out of the way as Catinetta di Rignatta. None have been as hard to get to as Catinetta di Rignatta. And no other place even came close to having food as great as Catinetta di Rignatta. 


Catinetta di Rignatta is located in the Tuscan hills behind a remote Abbey accessed by a one-lane road, at the end of a miles-long gravel road filled with holes and dust that is winding and steep and challenging for a non-four-wheel-drive vehicle even on a bone-dry day. It goes against all established American restaurant dogma when it comes to location, location, location. It’s a place you would never find, even if you were lost in the Tuscan hills. And that would be your loss because Catinetta di Rignatta has the absolute best restaurant view of the Tuscan countryside that one can find in the region. The locals know it. They make the drive, and they pack it out on weekends.


Did I mention that there’s no parking? Despite the hundreds of people who come to eat there on weekends, the overflow parking is among the trees in an olive grove.


I use the term “world class view” more than I should, and I regret that now, because if a view from a restaurant table was ever truly world class and unique, this is it.


Over the years I have eaten breakfast on a rooftop with a view of the Temple of Zeus and Parthenon in Athens, picnicked under the redwoods in California. Dined on mountaintops and sea sides, on sidewalk cafes all over Europe and in high-rise skyscrapers across the United States. But of all those places, over all those years, and all those meals, I don’t think any can compare— to quality of view and remoteness of location— to the lunch I had yesterday in the Tuscan countryside at Catinetta di Rignatta.


It was the second time I had eaten there, and I was seated at the exact same table as the first time a few years ago. But there was something about this visit that will stick with me as long as I live. Many of the same players from the first visit were there, but I think having my wife and longtime travel partner there to share this restaurant experience I had been telling her about for several years made the difference.


Catinetta di Rignatta is not only about location and view. The food is spot on. In true Tuscan style everything is simple, basic, fresh, and grown within a few miles of the restaurant. Melon and prosciutto, pears and cheese, pecorino and honey, and beautiful antipasti, and that’s just a start. At most of my favorite restaurants— whether in Europe or the U.S.— I could make an entire multi-course meal out of nothing but starters. Catinetta di Rignatta is no exception. Of course, we didn’t. We ordered pasta, entrees, salad, and desserts. But I COULD have stopped with the antipasti.


I don’t know how many more meals-of-a-lifetime I have in me. I hope hundreds. However, at 60-years-old, I have grown to appreciate these memorable moments more passionately. Days such as this one, with the view of the Tuscan countryside, paired with a bluebird day, perfect food, and especially one shared with people that I love, will be one I will never forget.



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 1/4-inch thick, about 16 discs
1 TB                Extra virgin olive oil
1 lb.                 Ground Italian sausage
1 tsp                Fresh garlic, minced
1/8 tsp             ground allspice
1/8 tsp             ground cloves
pinch               nutmeg
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 well, and set aside to cool at room temperature. 

Divide the partially cooked sausage among the crostinis, about 2-3 TB 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.




Anonymous said...

Sorta Watkins family stew!

Anonymous said...

"I eat for a living. That’s a true statement. It’s on my business card and it’s in every personal bio that has ever been released."

That explains a lot in a "hog at a trough" or "suckling a government teet" kinda way, and I'm not thinking or talking about weight, girth, or BMI. These columns of St. John's haven't had the overall result I suspect he wishes or thinks.

Anonymous said...

"at 60-years-old", is BAD ENGLISH. I know that "at -- years old" is a currently fashionable way of saying it. But it's odious. It's syntax taught by non-native speakers, to other non-native speakers.

"At 60", or "at the age of 60", or "at age 60", or even "at 60 years of age", would all be fine.

Anonymous said...

I am not finding any information about Catinetta di Rignatta.on the internet. If anyone can find a link to this restaurant, please post it. He states hundreds of locals dine there. Maybe they don't post comments on the internet?

Anonymous said...

"I am not finding any information about Catinetta di Rignatta"

I'm going to guess that St. John, in his desire to impress those who wouldn't know the difference and not actually learn anything about anything, actually means Cantinetta di Rignana (the "wine cellar of Rignana"), which is moderately well-known and not just by "locals." "Catinetta di Rignatta," indeed.

Anonymous said...


I copied "Catinetta di Rignatta, and prefaced if with 'ristorante', before entering the search. Results came up as: ristorante Cantinetta di Rignana

Pretty place! One hopes that the extensive gravel areas are maintained without the use of herbicides.

Anonymous said...

"One hopes that the extensive gravel areas are maintained without the use of herbicides."

Those aren't "gravel areas," they are olive groves, but with special very tiny bonsai olive trees. Angelina Jolie developed them when she and Brad Pitt had property in the area. For those that aren't familiar with Ms. Jolie, she is a bigger wannabe nouveau riche boob than, well, certain others, but with smaller tits. Naw, seriously, most of those are just the areas where the locals and sensible tourists park, and since it is pretty well driven over on a regular basis, that keeps the weeds in check.

As an aside, your mention got me curious to see whatever pictures and information might be on the web and one thing that really stood out were all the TA and Yelp reviews from the tourists who somehow managed to find it. While it still gets a LOT of very good reviews from a LOT of tourists, those tourists started mentioning several years ago that it was seeing a noticeable uptick in tourists. Amusing on several fronts but I'm sincerely happy for the owners and their well-deserved successes. Ah, well, I eagerly await Mr. St. John's next "view from a hidden gem" he has discovered. Perhaps it will be about a Times Square halal cart and its white sauce or maybe a traditional old-school Frappuccino at Trevi Fountain.

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Trollfest '07 was such a success that Jackson Jambalaya will once again host Trollfest '09. Catch this great event which will leave NE Jackson & Fondren in flames. Othor Cain and his band, The Black Power Structure headline the night while Sonjay Poontang returns for an encore performance. Former Frank Melton bodyguard Marcus Wright makes his premier appearance at Trollfest singing "I'm a Sweet Transvestite" from "The Rocky Horror Picture Show." Kamikaze will sing his new hit, “How I sold out to da Man.” Robbie Bell again performs: “Mamas, don't let your babies grow up to be Bells” and “Any friend of Ed Peters is a friend of mine”. After the show, Ms. Bell will autograph copies of her mug shot photos. In a salute to “Dancing with the Stars”, Ms. Bell and Hinds County District Attorney Robert Smith will dance the Wango Tango.

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In the spirit of helping those who are less fortunate, Trollfest '09 adopts a cause for which a portion of the proceeds and donations will be donated: Keeping Frank Melton in his home. The “Keep Frank Melton From Being Homeless” booth will sell chances for five dollars to pin the tail on the jackass. John Reeves has graciously volunteered to be the jackass for this honorable excursion into saving Frank's ass. What's an ass between two friends after all? If Mr. Reeves is unable to um, perform, Speaker Billy McCoy has also volunteered as when the word “jackass” was mentioned he immediately ran as fast as he could to sign up.

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If you get tired come relax at the Fox News Tent. To gain admittance to the VIP section, bring either your Republican Party ID card or a Rebel Flag. Bringing both will entitle you to free drinks.Get your tickets now. Since this is an event for trolls, no ID is required, just bring the hate. Bring the family, Trollfest '07 is for EVERYONE!!!

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