PETROGNANO-SEMIFONTE, TUSCANY— My mother used to speak disparagingly of grown men who kept changing careers later in life. Even as a kid, I never agreed with that. It seemed — and still seems — to me that, when it comes to an occupation, one should do whatever makes one feel happy, fulfilled, and successful. I have been blessed to have worked in the same career for over 40 years. I love the restaurant business. I never plan to retire and could never see myself doing anything else for my primary vocation.
Though, I have learned that careers sometimes gain momentum and pick up additional occupations along the way. In addition to the restaurant business, I ended up writing books, producing television programs, founding a non-profit, and most recently have delved into documentary film production, the first of which will be released in a few weeks. I also lead tours in Europe.
None of these secondary careers have been planned. The tour thing happened when my friend, watercolorist Wyatt Waters, and I were on a promotional book tour with a coffee table cookbook we wrote based on our travels in Italy. People who had followed our journey in Italy kept saying, “I wish you’d take me over there to go to those restaurants you wrote about.” Or “I’d love to travel with you to see those places you painted.” At first, we thought it was just people making small talk while we signed their books. Though we kept hearing the same statements. One day I called Waters and said, “I think people want us to take them to Italy.” I made one Facebook post, and — five years, and over 300 travelers later — I have ended up in a career I never planned but love just as much as the restaurant business.
In non-COVID times I spend a little over two months a year working in Europe leading tours. In March of 2020 we were all set to go to Spain. The most amazing part of the Spain trip was that most of the people were going to be traveling with us for the third or fourth time. After Spain I was scheduled to lead four tours in Tuscany, and in the fall another Rome/Amalfi/Naples tour and then more Tuscany tours. COVID had different plans.
I should be writing this column from the Amalfi coast where I would be leading 25 guests around one of the most beautiful places on the planet. But COVID apprehensions and the delta variant gave many of our travelers cause for concern when it comes to overseas travel. I most certainly respect that. So, for safety’s sake and for the peace of mind of our guests, I rescheduled all groups for 2022 and look forward to finally getting to travel with them. I have also added new dates because there is a waiting list of hopeful travelers which has grown very long during COVID.
Waters has retired from overseas touring and is focusing on a new book. I, however, have grown to love turning people onto all the people and places I have discovered over the past decade in Europe, and plan to do this — with my wife Jill by my side — for as long as people want to travel with us.
So, after having to reschedule the 2021 fall tours, and since I had already blacked out the dates on my work schedule back home, I decided to grab Jill and head over to Tuscany to search out new site, places, restaurants, wineries, and experiences for our future groups to enjoy, as now we have begun to create tours for those who have already been with me to Tuscany and want to return. I call it Tuscany 2.0.
Without question, the absolute best — and most unexpected — part about leading tours in Italy has been the friendships I have made. I knew I would like turning people on to the places I had discovered over the years, but I never knew that I would make such meaningful friendships doing it— friends who travel with us from the United States, but also friends here in Italy.
I write this column from the villa I have been frequenting for over a decade. I am currently feeling extremely grateful for the Italian friends I have made over the years. I turned 50 years old in this villa. Last night I celebrated my 60th year in this villa. That was nice, but the icing on the tiramisu was that I spent a wonderful dinner seated at a table with so many of my Italian friends.
It was a collection of the Europeans I love most. Annagloria and Enzo, the owners of the villa, were there, along with Marina and her boyfriend, Marco. Our friends Barbara and Alberto drove down from Milan, and our friend Jesse took the train up from Rome. The dinner table sat 16, and two of the best Italian home cooks I know, Nadia and Rosanna, prepared a six-course meal filled with all my local favorites. Annagloria and Enzo’s daughters, Gemma and Bianca, helped serve.
In the middle of dinner, I pushed away from the table and took in the scene. Marco and his wife Christina, who make the best pecorino I have ever tasted, at their sheep farm down the road, came bearing a five-pound wedge of aged pecorino. Massimo and Cecilia, owners of a fine restaurant in town where our guests learn to make ravioli, brought wine. Paolo, who owns one of our favorite local restaurants, arrived late after working the dinner shift. Toby and Susanna, from the local bakery I visit every morning, brought a beautiful birthday cake made from a Napoleon shaped in the numbers six and zero, and husband and wife tour guides Ricardo and Cindy drove down from Florence. It was one of the most memorable and meaningful dinners I have ever experienced.
After dinner, a band Marina and Annagloria booked performed in the lower room of the tower. It’s a band I first heard over 10 years ago during my first visit, and the one that made me realize that Mississippi truly is the birthplace of America’s music.
Last week, before we left for Italy, my wife arranged an early 60th birthday dinner with some of our closest friends back home. To be lucky enough to also share a birthday meal with our Italian friends feels like an embarrassment of blessings.
It took me a while to learn about the things in life that truly matter. For years I valued the material and monetary things most. Eventually, I learned that the things that truly matter in life are the spiritual and relational things. Faith, family, friends, food, and fun is where I find happiness and joy these days.
After dinner, I told my wife that I believe I am entering what will be my best decade. I plan to spend it with friends I will meet in upcoming tours, and friends I have known since kindergarten, friends who I have made overseas, and friends from all around Mississippi and the United States.
Hattiesburg native Robert St. John is a restaurateur, chef and author. He has written a syndicated weekly newspaper column for more than 20 years.
• 4 large egg yolks
• 6 tablespoons sugar
• 1 cup cold heavy whipping cream
• 1 tablespoon Marsala wine
• 1 pound Mascarpone cheese,
• 2 (8-ounce) boxes highest quality lady
fingers, preferably Pavesini brand
• 2 cups strong brewed coffee, cooled
• 1/4 pound bittersweet chocolate, chopped,
divided into thirds
• Unsweetened cocoa powder as needed
1. Combine the egg yolks and sugar in the chilled bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the whip attachment. Beat on high until pale yellow and doubled in size. Add the whipping cream and continue beating on high until soft peaks begin to form, about 3-4 minutes. Add the softened mascarpone and Marsala and continue whipping on high speed until stiff peaks are formed, about 5-6 minutes.
2. To build the tiramisu, spread a very thin layer of the cream mixture across the bottom of a 9” x 11” clear casserole dish, just to help keep the first layer of lady fingers still. Divide the remaining cream mixture into thirds.
3. Briefly dip each lady finger in the coffee and cover the bottom of the casserole dish. Follow with a layer of the cream mixture and the chopped chocolate. Repeat this process until you finish the cream mixture. Sprinkle the top with the cocoa powder and the remaining chocolate.
4. Refrigerate for a few hours before serving.