Wednesday, November 16, 2022

Robert. St. John: Restaurantsick!

BARBERINO-TAVARNELLE, TUSCANY— Yesterday I was having a conversation with one of my travel guests who was talking about being homesick when she was sent to camp as an eight-year-old. I tried to remember a time, over the past 61 years, when I might have been homesick. I have a vague memory of visiting some cousins in the Washington D.C. area, when I was six or seven, and not wanting to spend the night there. It had nothing to do with them. They are wonderful people, it's just that I was missing my mom and brother who were staying across town with my aunt and uncle.

I went to summer camp several years and don’t remember ever being homesick. I always looked at it as a new adventure. I’m sure my mother saw it as the chance to get a few weeks of peace and silence at home.

In 2011, when I was on a six-month trek across Europe with my wife and two kids, I was never homesick because the things that mattered to me most were with me. 

These days I get businesssick, more accurately— restaurantsick. When I am gone from my homebase for any length of time I miss our restaurants. A few years ago, I started spending three months a year hosting tours through Europe. I love doing it— and judging by the amount of people who join me to travel repeatedly (I currently have a lady who is with me for her sixth trip)— my guests love it, too. I have no plans to stop doing it any time soon, but after six or seven weeks over here, I grow restaurantsick.

It's not that I’m sick of restaurants, to the contrary. I am in restaurants three times a day while traveling. I love restaurants, whether they belong to me, or someone else. It’s that I begin to miss mine, deeply.

I have a lot of job titles, surely “dad” is the most important. But when we peel back all the layers, I am a restaurateur. I have no hobbies, at least in the typical sense. I don’t hunt, I don’t fish, I don’t play golf. I love movies, music, and football. But I’m not sure those are actual hobbies. I love to travel, but that gets handled by hosting tours a quarter of the year. My hobbies are restaurants, restaurants, and restaurants.

When I’m home I am either in one of my restaurants, in my restaurant office, at home working on restaurant stuff, researching things for the restaurants, or on my laptop developing new concepts for restaurants. My mom often asks, “When are you going to retire?” 

The answer is always the same, “Never.” When she presses, I tell her, “Why would I retire? I love what I do. The restaurant business is my ‘fun.’ I am blessed that my hobby is also my career.” I hope to draw my last breath— in my sleep sleep— somewhere in my late nineties after a busy opening shift at a restaurant we’ve just opened. That would be a perfect world.

I left the United States back in early October. It was only two weeks after we opened our new Italian restaurant in Ridgeland, MS. The typical honeymoon period for a new restaurant is anywhere from two to three months. The way the scheduling worked out I was only able to spend 16 days in the newly opened restaurant before heading overseas for work. I hated to leave, but there were hard scheduling dates in Italy— and commitments— I needed to fulfill. It was my 24th restaurant opening and the first time I've not spent almost every shift in a restaurant for the first three months of its operation. 

I have been handling business over here turning people on to the people, places, and restaurants I've discovered over the years. But the restaurants back home are always on my mind. I am down to the remaining five days and am lucky that this final week is with a Tuscany group I have traveled with before, we’re just doing all new things. 

I look forward to adding new, authentic Italian items I’ve learned over here to the menus of our Italian restaurants. But there are other things I’ve been dreaming about lately.

I want to eat a stack of pancakes— as big as my face— at the Midtowner. I eat there every morning when I’m back in town. At Crescent City Grill it will be hard to decide between a roast beef po-boy or a fried shrimp po-boy and will probably order both. I miss the Tex-Mex Nachos and the Beef Chimichanga at El Rayo. I won’t be in town too long before I eat a cheeseburger, tots, and a chocolate malt at Ed’s Burger Joint.

Taste testing for the new bakery is just around the corner and during that process I am likely to put on the five pounds that I’ve lost over here. 

My first stop on American soil is usually the Popeye’s Fried Chicken in the Atlanta airport— and I will surely do that— but I will eat a country fried steak with mashed potatoes, black-eyed peas, fried corn, green bean casserole, and fried okra at the Midtowner on one of my early lunches back home.

I’ll sit at my desk in my office and work on the next two concepts we have on the drawing board and catch up on where Extra Table is as we reach year’s end. Budgets for the restaurants will be due in a matter of weeks, but I’ll have to catch up on these food cravings before I can focus on any financial matters.

The past six weeks have been a deep dive into Italian history, architecture, and culture, and a very deep dive into the Italian cuisine of Rome, Amalfi, Naples, and Tuscany. That’s over 120 authentic Italian meals since early October. I’m ready to hit the ground running creating new Italian dishes for the restaurants. But I’m also ready for that stack of pancakes as big as my face.



Pasta Roberto

I developed this for a friend’s birthday hosted at my home. It works well with large groups of all ages.

I brought it in as a potential menu item during the initial recipe-testing phase of Tabella. It didn’t have a name, but – as a joke— I listed the temporary, tongue-in-cheek title as “Pasta Roberto,” assuming that we would find a better name before we opened.

As we were getting the restaurant ready to open in the weeks before the launch, I cooked it often for the manager and staff lunches. They called it Pasta Roberto, too. We never came up with an official name and it still on the menu as Pasta Roberto.

1 lb.                 Dry fusilli pasta
1 gallon           Water
¼ cup              Kosher salt
2 TB                Extra virgin olive oil
½ lb.                Italian sausage links, roasted or grilled, quartered, and sliced
¼ cup              Shallot, minced
½ lb.                Porcini mushrooms, sliced (other mushrooms can be substituted)
½ cup              Red bell peppers, cut into matchsticks
2 TB                Dry white wine
¾ cup              Parmigianino Reggiano, grated
¾ cup              Marinara sauce
¾ cup              Alfredo sauce

Cook fusilli according to the directions on the package.

Heat the oil in a large skillet over medium heat. Add the shallots and cook, stirring frequently until softened, about 2 minutes. Add the sausage, mushrooms and red bell peppers and cook, stirring frequently, about 6-8 minutes. Deglaze the pan with the white wine and allow the wine to cook out completely, about 2-3 minutes.

Fold in the marinara and Alfredo and stir until hot. Add the hot fusilli pasta and the cheese and combine thoroughly.

Divide among six serving bowls.


Anonymous said...

When you get back, step it up at "Enzo". No lunch menu, and dinner fare is just "ok". Been twice and meh both times.

Anonymous said...

I agree with 10:19! I know it can be done and hope that you will personally see to it.

Anonymous said...

Robert, have you ever tried Mario's? Great food, you might get some ideas about 6 blocks down the street rather than traveling across the big water.

Anonymous said...

Have been to Enzo for lunch. Beautiful building and very good service. The quality of three different meals left a lot to be desired. Really needs some work. Won’t go back until he can work on it.

Anonymous said...

This dude defines “overrated”

Stuff About ZeroBear PolyBear said...

Robert, I can completely understans being himesick for specific food dishes. Been there, felt that way, too.

Here is one, worth longing to have as dinner. Officially, it is a chicken dish with no name.

Chicken rolls with spinach and mushrooms


2-4 boneless skinless chicken breasts, pounded flat (put fully thawed breasts between pieces on plastic wrap and beat then with the bottom of a flat bottomed pot until they flatten out.

1 cup raw baby spinach leaves, chopped

1 cup whole mushrooms, sliced very thin

1/2 cup shallots, diced

1 cup parmesan cheese

1 cup mozzarella cheese

1/2 cup cooked pork sausage, crumbled and well drained

Splash of white wine

1 Tablespoon minced shallots

a few slithers of fresh mushrooms

1 Tablespoon butter

2 Tablespoons Olive Oil

Some butcher's string

2 or 3 servings pasta I normaly use Angel Hair


Butterfly the chicken breasts with a sharp knife.

Pound the butterflied chicken breasts to 1/8 inch thickness, between layers of plastic wrap.

Season breasts with pepper and a little Lawry’s garlic salt and then layer mozzarella cheese, spinach, shallots, mushrooms, sausage and parmesan cheese on top of the flattened breast.

Season with a light dusting of Creole seasoning, carefully roll the breasts and tie with a piece of string.

Lightly saer the rolled breasts with a little olive oil in a hot sauté pan, rolling them as the sides brown until all sides are cooked. Cook slowly enough that the inside ingredients cook.

This should not be difficult as all of the ingredients cook quickly and the sausage is already cooked.

When the portions are cooked, remove them from the pan and deglaze the pan with a little white wine, add a tablespoon of minced shallot, a few slithers of mushroom and a pat of butter, cook at a low simmer until the shallots and mushrooms are tender.

This makes a good sauce to go over the chicken, which is plated over al dente angel hair pasta tossed in some melter butter and a little lawry's garlic salt if you like. Top with a little chopped parsley or sliced green onion tops.

Serve with crusty bread and a green salad.

Anonymous said...

My only experience at Enzo's so far was average at best. As a matter of fact, every meal that I ate there when it was Biaggi's was better.

mullen said...

2:17. I agree. Damn.

Anonymous said...

It’s the same menu.basically as Biaggis.

Anonymous said...

I've eaten at Enzo's twice and had take out once. The food was excellent! It is so much better than Biaggi's. The staff are doing a great job!

Anonymous said...

Hate to pile on but Enzo’s was a big disappointment. Was really looking forward to it as I have enjoyed all of his Hattiesburg restaurants. Not sure where the disconnect is, but the food is just not good. Thought maybe it was just me but obviously not based on previous comments.

Anonymous said...

Based on these posts, after naming the restaurant after his good friend, hopefully Enzo will not be upset with Mr. St. John.

@11:30 AM, I agree with your recommendation on Mario's.

Anonymous said...

If you could just bring Tabella's to Enzo's, that would be fine. You could add others as you develop clientele. We need you here but Enzo's doesn't feel like a second trip.

Anonymous said...

4:42. Not even close. ENZO doesn't even have a lunch menu. The Shrimp Scampi was just bland. 4:47. Rigggght.

Anonymous said...

where is this mario's?

Anonymous said...

Robert could write a cookbook named "Recipes from Anonymous Internet Commenters" starting with ZeroBear's dubious contributions.

Anonymous said...

Mario's is in Hattiesburg

Anonymous said...

@6:24 setting a pretty low bar for Enzo's

Italian restaurants in Hattiesburg

#1 tie Mario's on Hwy 49 and Mario's on Hwy 98 (new location)

#2 Olive Garden

#3 tie Tabella's and Pizza Hut buffet

As info the owners of Mario's spend a couple of weeks each summer in Italy (not sure which region) in order to attend their family reunion.

Anonymous said...

Went to Enzo last week. Food was good but server promised to bring out bread three times. Guess what…no bread!

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