Wednesday, November 9, 2022

Robert St. John: RSJ's Tuscan Top Ten

Barberino-Tavarnelle, Tuscany— For the past 11 years I have spent considerable time in this region. Specifically in the two towns of Barberino and Tavarnelle in the Tuscan countryside exactly halfway between Florence and Siena.

Over the past six years I have led over 600 people, in groups of 25 each, through European cites in Spain and Italy. And even though I have hosted tours through Rome, Amalfi, Venice, Bologna, and Milan, much of my tour time has been spent in Tuscany. If one takes out the two Covid years when we couldn’t travel overseas, it’s really been 600 guests in four years. It’s hard work, but if one must work somewhere, this isn’t a bad place.

A large part of what I do on these tours is introduce my guests to the friends I have made over here and turn people on to local behind-the-scenes places— especially restaurants— I have discovered. I am not a group travel-type person. Never have been, never will be. But this isn’t group travel, or it doesn’t feel like it, at least. There’s something in the DNA of these trips that makes everyone feel as if they are traveling with friends. And I guess, when I break it down, that’s what’s happening.

One of the greatest aspects of these tours I lead is— as far as restaurants go— it’s all hits and no misses. That’s huge to most people. When travelling, for work or pleasure, I always plan trips around restaurant reservations. As much as I live, eat, sleep, and breathe restaurants, I still miss my mark occasionally, when I venture into new territory. When that happens, I have wasted one of only a few slots for dining.

These trips have no misses. In the words of John Irving’s character, T. S. Garp, the restaurant choices have been “pre-disastered.” There are no misses. Every meal delivers, and they are all different as I like to cover all the bases over the course of the week. It’s my goal to have my guests sitting in their seat on the flight home knowing that we checked all the boxes. 


Toby Bagnoli and Pappatacio at Bagnoli Pasticceria, Tavarnelle

The following are my top 10 dishes in Tuscany 2022:

Honorable Mention—The fried sage stuffed with anchovies at Ristorante La Fattoria, Tavarnelle.

10.) Porcini and Eggplant Flan, Locanda Pietracupa, San Donato— like most of the restaurants on this list, I have been eating here for over 11 years. Pietracupa is a refined country inn run by two couples. It’s always the first meal, in the first hour, on the first day for my guests, and is the perfect beginning to set the mood and example for what lies ahead.

9.) Spaghetti with Veraci Clams, La Trattoria del Pesce, Bargino— A large section of Tuscany is on the Mediterranean seaside. Seafood is big over here, and it’s very good. When I was travelling here in the early days, I ignored seafood, as I live one hour from the Gulf of Mexico, home to some of the finest seafood in the world, and I own a couple of seafood restaurants and have constant availability. That was my loss.

The more I dig into Tuscan seafood, the more I love what they eat. It’s fresh. It’s simple, and it’s outstanding. This dish, served in a small, very refined restaurant run by four cousins, is like most great Italian dishes, simply prepared with minimal ingredients, and perfect in its execution and taste.

8.) Regina, Picò, Barberino Val d’Elsa— A Regina is a small piece of pizza dough that has been fried in olive oil and topped with a light amount of tomato sauce, a small sprinkling of parmesan cheese, and a basil leaf. It’s been called, “The fried gold of Naples.” My friend Marco says it’s the original pizza. I just say “it’s excellent,” and worthy of a top-10 spot on this list.

Picò is in the historic medieval section of Barberino and is run by Giovanni and David. Their cocktail list is impressive, and they believe— as many Italians do— that pizza and beer are not a good combination as one is eating yeast on yeast.

7.) Calamari, Caffé Degli Amici, Tavarnelle— I should probably pick Giuliana’s peposo here, as I’ve been eating it for 11 years, and it is wonderful. But lately I’ve been ordering the fried calamari here on my days off and have been making a meal out of it. They go straight into seasoned flour (no egg wash or double breading) and fry it in olive oil.

6.) Margherita Pizza, La Vecchia Piazza, Tavarnelle— I love thin, crisp pizza, and the pizza here is the thinnest, ever. If it got any thinner, there would be no crust. The pizza comes out very crisp and the toppings are minimal. I’m not sure what these people would think of deep-dish pizza, but whatever that is, the Margherita at Vecchia Piazza (the old square) is the exact opposite.

5.) Mussels, La Trattoria del Pesce, Bargino— Again, simply prepared, excellent. Nothing more than olive oil, pepper, a small amount of garlic (they use way less garlic than we think), and salt. Perfection. I use the Mengelberg method when eating mussels by using one hinged mussel as a small clamp to remove the next.

4.) Pappatacio, Pasticceria Bagnoli— Martha Foose calls it “Schnecken.” I always referred to it— likely incorrectly— as a custard-raisin croissant. My favorite family-run Italian bakery calls it pappatacio. Whatever the moniker, it’s a perfect pastry and checks all the boxes for what I look for in a pasticceria breakfast item. I eat one (or two) every morning I am here.

3.) Chianti Tuna and Vegetable Crudité, Antica Macelleria Cecchini, Panzano— Dario Cecchini— the man who Anthony Bourdain tagged as “The most famous butcher in the world” is certainly a talented butcher, but he’s also a brilliant restaurateur, and just an all-around great guy with an unmatched zest for living and making people happy.

Chianti tuna has nothing to do with seafood. It’s pulled pork with capers, vinegar, and onions, served alongside his house mustard. It’s singular, and unique, and very tasty.

The raw vegetables that arrive in a bowl at the beginning of the meal— carrots, daikon, celery and red onion— are perfectly paired with a side of extra virgin olive oil spiked with a sprinkling of Cecchini’s seasoned salt.

2.) Lasagna, Trattoria Mario, Florence— I always thought that lasagna was more of an American-Italian dish than a local one. But it is served in a few restaurants over here. Authentic Italian lasagna is nothing like its American-Italian counterpart. I grew up eating lasagna that was covered in copious amounts of cheese and drowned in tomato sauce. The Italian version uses bechamel, Bolognese, and a minimal amount of parmesan cheese.

The two best examples I have ever eaten are at Trattoria Leonida in Bologna, and Trattoria Mario in Florence. It’s not on the menu, but they prepare it especially for our group. It is always one of the highlights of the week.

1.) Penne alla Bettola, Alla Vecchia Bettola, Florence— I am told that this is the birthplace of Penne alla Vodka. It’s my favorite pasta in this region, so who am I to argue? It’s pasta perfection and never disappoints. Unlike the American version of this dish, there is hardly any cream added. The combination of tomatoes, olive oil, and onion— pureed— create more than enough creaminess and silky texture for a sauce that is perfectly paired with penne pasta. I drive 40 minutes into town on my day off to eat this one pasta dish and count the remaining days on my trip by how many opportunities I have left to eat it.


Bucatini al Amatriciana

1 lb.                 Dry bucatini pasta
1 gallon           Water
¼ cup              Kosher salt
2 TB                Extra virgin olive oil
¼ lb.                Guanciale (cured pork cheek) or pancetta, medium diced
2 cups              Marinara
¾ cups             Yellow onion, small diced
1 TB                Garlic, minced
½ tsp               Crushed red pepper
Grated Pecorino Romano as needed

Cook the bucatini following the directions on the package.

Heat the oil in a large skillet over medium heat. Add the pancetta, stirring frequently so as not to burn, until cooked, about 6-8 minutes. Add the onion and garlic and continue until the onions are soft, not browned, about 5 minutes. Add marinara and crushed red pepper and stir until sauce is hot.
Transfer to a large mixing bowl. Add the hot bucatini pasta and combine thoroughly.

Divide among six serving bowls. Finish each with the grated cheese as needed.



Stuff About ZeroBear PolyBear said...

Yum, Robert.

We really need to work in one of your Tuscan tours. I know Wyatt's mom really well and must say I always liked to see Wyatt sitting across from you on Public TV. Still, keep up the good work, with or without your buddy.

I never considered my 10 best dishes. Here is first stab

1 - Chicken Bayou Lafourche
2 - Cannelloni
3 - Beef short rib Bolognese
4 - Creole Okra with tomatoes, chicken and bacon
5 - Creamy Chicken with Vegetables and Gnocchi
6 - Butternut squash and cranberry rum cake
7 - Creole shrimp gumbo
8 - Chicken Tortellini Soup with Kale
9 - Momma Bear Soup (a family favorite of a family that loves soup)
10 - Roasted Pork Tenderloin stuffed with Apricots and Mustard

My list is an absolute failure (sigh). I have so many more equal or better dishes that need to be on this list. Sadly, due to lapses in brain function, I am no longer able to compile meaningful lists. Oh well, I have always understood my life has been one neverending series of failures, that now seem to include fumbling fingers and editing failures.

I will guarantee, the following recipe is not a failure.

Tatties and Neeps

Burns Night, which is celebrated in Scotland and other places, annually on January 25, honors famed Scottish poet Robert Burns. Most often the celebration of Burn’s life and work involves a dinner with the principal ingredients being the meat course of Haggis, the beverage, Scottish Whiskey and the vegetable dish Tatties and Neeps.

You may not have had an opportunity to enjoy Tatties and Neeps (probably not Haggis either). Haggis might be beyond my culinary skills to make for a Scotish supper table, but hopefully you will see that Tatties and Neeps could be a tasty part of your Fall and winter vegetable rotation.

This recipe serves at least 2


1/2 to 1 medium rutabaga
7-8 medium New (red) potatoes
salted water for cooking both components
3-4 slices Bacon (thick sliced is best)
Unsalted butter
Salt to taste
Pepper to taste


Clean and peel the rutabaga. Rutabaga is a dense rooted vegetable and a sharp knife is required both to peel and to cut it. The rutabaga should be cut into 1 – 1 1/2 inch pieces

Boil the rutabaga in salted water, with 2 Tablespoons of butter,
until fork tender

I like the fiber content and taste of new (red) potatoes, so when possible, I leave the peelings intact when I cut the potatoes into 1 1/2 – 2 inch pieces for this dish.

The potatoes are boiled until fork tender in salted water.

While the root vegetables are cooking, 3 slices of thick sliced bacon are cut into pieces and fried until crisp,

Then set aside.

After the red potatoes have drained and dried slightly, they are cooked further in the bacon grease until firm and slightly crisped.

The dish is assembled by mixing the rutabaga and potatoes, this mixture is seasoned to taste with salt and black pepper, then plated. The plated dish is topped with the cooked bacon pieces.

I am uncertain how many times Robert Burns enjoyed Tatties and Neeps, but am certain he believed the dish (seldom cooked in this country) contained some of the best that root vegetables have to offer. Chances are, you will also enjoy this tasty dish.

Anonymous said...

I don't know why he pushes Tuscan this and Tuscan that. That is a very small part of Italy. There is so much more in Italy, but like the Trevi Fountain in Rome (built for a movie - no historical significance at all), Tuscany gets all of the travel agent buzz because of the movie Under the Tuscan Sun.

Anonymous said...

Really? Built for a movie? I did not know they were making movies in 1762. And yes, I have been there.

Anonymous said...

Dang 11:38, if you don't know, then you must not read his column. He explains it most every time why he likes (and as you say - pushes) Tuscan this and that.

But, if you like the other parts of Italy better, fine. To each his own - the difference between the two of you is that he writes about the region, explains why he writes (and travels) this region more often than any of the others.

Anonymous said...

I only click on his article to get polar bear's recipes.

Anonymous said...

@1:41 PM ...11:39 AM here, you are correct, as I meant to pen "popularized" by movies. I lived in Rome and Naples for close to a decade.

Anonymous said...

He uses Tuscan like hipsters used artisanal and other rubes used Provence a generation before. Restaurant corporate speak. He's a Restaurant Welfare Queen now dabbling in Tuscan.

Just makes me ROFL thinking of the Bricktown Brigade gushing over "them fancy new Asian and Eye-Tallian places coming to Renaissance" when those chains opened up with PFC and Biaggi's.

He'll do better, but an Italian moving to the US will NOT eat there. Too painful. They'd get out of their chair and whip him like his nonna and take over the kitchen, or run out crying.

Anonymous said...

@4:33 PM - True. The majority of "Italian" restaurants in the U.S. are like Taco Bell is to Mexican food, or Dominos pizza is to real Italian pizza. The closest offering around here for southern Italian pizza is at You Pie in Gluckstadt.

My first clue when eating at an "Italian" restaurant in the U.S. is when the server pronounces bruschetta -- bru-shetta.

Anonymous said...

Mr. StJohn needs to work on the quality of product at Enzo. Not up to his reputation.

Anonymous said...

@8:40 PM - Worse than Olive Garden?

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